The pope, in a letter accompanying the revisions, said that the laws are intended to be clearer and simpler, while reducing the number of instances in which penalties are left to the “discretion of authorities.”
“It is necessary that these norms be closely related to social changes and the new needs of the People of God,” the pope wrote.
The changes give church authorities — whether in the Vatican or a far-flung parish — a new template for assessing and addressing possible violations. The changes deal specifically with church penal sanctions; other parts of canon law — the church’s vast set of ecclesiastical rules — remain unchanged. Still, those revisions alone mark the most significant rewrite of canon law in four decades, since the era of Pope John Paul II.
Among the changes, the church also explicitly criminalized the grooming of minors for participation in pornography, as well as the acquisition and distribution of child pornography. The new laws also state that laypeople in positions of power — the head of a Catholic school, for instance — can be punished for abuse.
“Lay people used to be untouchable from a canon law viewpoint,” said Davide Cito, a canon lawyer and deputy rector at Rome’s Pontifical University of the Holy Cross. “Now they won’t be.”
The church is now several decades into its effort to reduce cases of clerical abuse and better hold to account bishops and cardinals who have sometimes protected known abusers.
Church critics say the very effort to handle punishment in-house is misguided: Civil authorities should be immediately notified and given responsibility for such cases. Those critics say that even the church’s canonical system, when used to dole out penalties to abusers, has been too lax, tending to value the word of priests over the accounts of their alleged victims.
Before these changes, Francis — under enormous pressure from a wave of abuse cases — had taken more piecemeal measures. In the aftermath of a global church abuse summit in 2019, Francis enacted legislation requiring priests and nuns to report abuse accusations to church authorities. He also drew up a new system for investigating complaints of abuse or coverup against bishops or other higher-ups, one of the long-standing trouble spots for the church. Application of the new system has been spotty.
Even with the revisions, some of the foundational parts remain unchanged. Like the previous version, this one says that excommunication should be used only for the gravest offenses. One instance, then and now, that can lead to excommunication: procuring an abortion. Heretics and schismatics get the same punishment.
But this version has changes that seem to acknowledge some of the church’s recent scandals, including financial misconduct by church authorities. The new norms expand on the list of money-related crimes, specifically mentioning “financial” offenses, adding that to the existing violation of conducting trade or business “contrary to the prescripts of the canons.”
The Vatican has been facing the fallout of a losing real estate investment in a London luxury property that allegedly landed large profits for the financiers who brokered the deal. Vatican prosecutors are investigating.