Some comments on the new norms concerning Graviora Delicta

The Holy See has revised some norms concerning "exceptionally serious" crimes against faith and morals.

All the delicts will be handled by the tribunal of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.  Besides the Church’s three great tribunals (Segnatura, Rota, Penitentiary), Congregations also have juridical sections.  The CDF has both a doctrinal section and a juridical section.

The revised norms were approved by Pope Benedict XVI on 21 May.  They were distributed to all the bishops.

Among the major changes are an increase in the "statute of limitations" for certain crimes from to 20 years and also the possibility of waiving the limitation completely depending on the case.  Requests can be made to the Pope to dismiss clerics from the clerical state without an canonical trial. Also, the CDF will now be able to try and judge cardinals, patriarchs, and bishops at the Popes behest.

Keep in mind that the new norms deal with crimes against morals, but also of faith.  In addition to the sexual abuse of minors crimes – which will probably be the sole focus of much of the press – the new norms also cover heresy, apostasy, schism, not just direct but also indirect violation of the seal of Confession, recordings of a sacramental confession done with malice, the attempted ordination of a woman to Holy Orders, and the acquisition, possession or distribution of pornographic images of minors under the age of 14, a clerico turpe patrata [shamefully accomplished by a cleric], in any way and by any means.”

The following graviora delicta – more serious crimes – are reserved to the CDF:

  • throwing away, taking or retaining the consecrated species for a sacrilegious purpose, or profaning the consecrated species (Tell that to priests and others who know better when they pout the Precious Blood down sacristy sinks and sacraria!)
  • attempting the liturgical action of the Eucharistic sacrifice or the simulation thereof [citing Canon 1378, this norm applies to persons who have not been ordained priests] (Read: pretending to say Mass)
  • concelebrating the Eucharistic Sacrifice together with ministers of ecclesial communities which do not have Apostolic succession nor recognize the Sacramental dignity of priestly ordination (what has been called communicatio in sacris)
  • The more grave delict of the attempted sacred ordination of a woman is also reserved to the
    Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.  Those who attempt to ordain and be ordained incur automatic excommunication.
  • consecrating one matter without the other in a Eucharistic celebration or both outside of a Eucharistic celebration
  • absolution of an accomplice in the sin against the sixth commandment of the Decalogue
  • solicitation to sin with the confessor against the sixth commandment of the Decalogue, in the act of, context of or pretext of the Sacrament of Penance
  • direct violation of the Sacramental seal
  • the violation of the sixth commandment of the Decalogue, committed by a cleric with a minor under the age of 18.
  • All of these things are sins again faith and/or morals.  Sometimes one, sometimes both.

    One of the reasons why the norms have been so complicated in the past, and words such as "secrecy" have been used – to the delight of Hell’s Bible which distorted the reality behind the objective of secrecy – was to protect the dignity of the sacrament of penance, the internal forum, and the people involved.


    Another thing you will perhaps will see in the press, secular and Catholic, are criticisms of the list of crimes.  They may complain that, for example, trying to ordain a woman is not nearly as horrible as abusing a minor and it shouldn’t simply be lumped in with other sins, as if they all did they same damage.  In a sense, they are right, especially from the perspective of the victim of abuse.  But they are wrong from another perspective.  Critics might assert that pouring the Precious Blood down the sink or selling a Host or pretending to ordain a woman is a "victimless" crime, bad to be sure but really not that bad.  They are wrong. 

    There are still victims: the whole Church suffers because all the crimes involved attack who and what the Church is. 

    The crimes do belong together when seen in the correct perspective.

    All of the crimes here involve sacred things. 

    Even the crime of abusing a minor outside the context of confession involves something sacred because it involves an ordained person, a sacred person. 

    Abuse of the Blessed Sacrament is the worst of all, because it involves God truly sacramentally present.  Simulation of Mass or Ordination or any other sacraments is an abuse of the sacred.  All these crimes tear at the very heart of the Church herself and they therefore merit being called graviora or "more serious". 

    The abuse of the young can leave hideous scars.  These crimes are so serious that they demand the most serious attention and measures.  They also deserve serious attention not just because of the harm done to the individual victims but because, since they involve priests (and sometimes the sacrament of penance when people are at their most vulnerable) and therefore the fabric of the Church herself.

    That said, John Allen, the fair-minded and nearly ubiquitous columnist still sadly writing for the NCFishwrap, covering the presser for the release of the documents, reported that:

    At a Vatican briefing this morning, Maltese Monsignor Charles Scicluna, an official at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, denied that the Vatican equates women’s ordination with the sexual abuse of children. An illicit ordination, Scicluna said, is a “"sacramental" crime, while abuse is a "moral" crime.

    Frankly, I think that attempted ordination of women and abuse of the Blessed Sacrament, violation of the seal are all also moral crimes. But let’s move along.

    Since graviora delicta are so terrible, there is now a more robust way of dealing with them. 

    Also, modern communication methods and travel make it possible to move more swiftly. 

    Furthermore, the lengthy process of dismissal of a priest from the clerical state had to be unsnarled. In justice, the norms had to be revised. 

    Furthermore, measures had to be taken to protect the good name of those who were falsely accused, as has been known to happen.

    In any event, there is also a long history of the development of these new norms available, which you would do well to read in order to gain some perspective about what the Holy See has done in the past and what it is doing now.

    Some links.

    UPDATE 19:56 GMT:

    I mentioned that some would freak out that women’s ordination was included in the list.  Note in Hell’s Bible‘s article by Rachel Donadio:

    But in a move that infuriated victims’ groups and put United States bishops on the defensive, it also codified “the attempted ordination of women” to the priesthood as one of the church’s most grave crimes, along with heresy, schism and pedophilia.

    And as I have said in these electronic pages many times, for Pope Benedict’s detractors and the Church’s habitual critics, nothing the Church does can ever be good enough.  To wit:, which tracks cases of sex abuse by priests cases worldwide, said the changes “amount to administrative tinkering of a secretive internal process.”

    Then there is this from deservedly excommunicated Roy Bourgeois, Maryknoller and perhaps not yet ex-priest:

    “What I did, supporting the ordination of women, they saw as a serious crime,” Father Bourgeois said. “But priests who were abusing children, they did not see as a crime. What does that say?”

    It is patently false that the Church didn’t see the abuse of children as a crime. 

    Roy Bourgeois is a liar and Hell’s Bible doesn’t correct the manifest lie because it the truth in this matter isn’t the news that fits.

    Thus, the journalistic integrity of Rachel Donadio, Laurie Goodstein, and her editorial overlords at Hell’s Bible.

    About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

    Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
    This entry was posted in Brick by Brick, Clerical Sexual Abuse, Our Catholic Identity, The Drill and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.


    1. Mark01 says:

      Who do I turn myself in to? When I was little (1st, 2nd grade?) I would pretend to perform Mass for my parents. [You are, perhaps, making a funny. This is fairly serious stuff, however. I don’t think you have to worry about incurring any penalties.]

    2. Father,

      A question and two comment:

      I have seen this notion of indirect violation of the seal interpreted in greatly divergent ways. Fr. Halligan in “Sacraments and their Celebration” interprets this very broadly while most good commentaries (e.g. Navarra, CLSGB, etc.) interpret this idea very narrowly. Do you know of any specific literature concerning this notion of “indirect” violation of the seal of confession that would help to clarify what this actually is?

      I’m concerned that the accused has no right to confront his accuser directly. Granted, if there is a case where grave harm could be visited upon the accuser then they must be protected. The context of this instruction may imply this narrow situation. However, if it were to be applied to all cases as a procedural norm I can’t see how this could not be an injustice to the accused party.

      I’m also concerned that dismissal from the clerical state can be imposed by decree without a canonical trial. This seems to be a change in the legal tradition of the Church. Traditionally, clerics have been afforded due process in such matters.

    3. ron.d says:

      Fr. Z, I have a question that connects to Mark01’s comment also. We in fact own a “Mass Play Kit”, as a number of our other friends do. It’s child-size replicas of sacred vessels, etc., allowing children to pretend to say mass as children. I think it was St. Therese in Story of a Soul that talked about pretending to say mass as a child, so there’s a long history.

      I have wondered in the past if there was anything inappropriate about that. What do you think? [There is nothing inappropriate about that. Note that the delicts concern sins. Children who in their innocent piety pretend to say Mass are not sinning.]

    4. Mrs. O says:

      I am glad they included pornography, but why doesn’t the language include and reflect up to 18 and vulnerable adults?
      2° the acquisition, possession, or distribution by a cleric of pornographic images of minors under the age of fourteen, for purposes of sexual gratification, by whatever means or using whatever technology;


    5. Prof. Basto says:

      Father, it seems that your list of graviora delicta is incomplete. You didn’t mention the new grave delict (that was made so by today’s norms) of attempted ordination of a woman. [Thanks. An oversight, for sure. I added it.]

    6. Flambeaux says:

      Re: children “playing” Mass, pretending to be clergy, etc.
      No. Such imaginitive play is not within the ambit of the new norms. The kids are fine.

      There is no mens rea, no “criminal mind”. There is no intention to simulate the confection of a Sacrament when a child “Baptizes” a doll or the family pet. There is no concern with children playing Mass, etc.

      The norms are clearly referring to those who do so with intent to deceive the Faithful, mock the Sacraments, and in rejection of legitimate ecclesiastical authority. No sane child does this, and no sane adult would think they are doing this.


    7. Bryan says:

      Re: “playing Mass” as a child versus Ms. Tie-dyed priestess?

      Intent and disposition is the big difference. I and probably 90% of the Catholic boys did this at one point or another. Necco wafers for the host, welch’s grape juice (I know, sounds like a protestant prayer service…) for the wine…we were emulating, with intent to be like, men we looked up to, trusted, and thought we would like to be when ‘we grew up’.

      Ms. Tie-dyed priestess? By her actions, is mocking and denying the reality of the sacramental nature and ontological difference of the ordained priest versus her adult play-acting. Acting in direct disobedience and stubborn denial of that sacred Tradition held to be an article of faith and part of the Church’s divine constitution. Additionally…is leading others into sin and scandal.

      One is an intentional act that causes division and scandal. The other is, perhaps, the action of the Holy Spirit on the soul of a boy leading him to a life of service.

    8. Okay… I think we have adequately covered the “playing Mass” question.

    9. Bryan says:

      Additional comment:

      Our Holy Father’s ‘tip of the spear’ is more and more obvious. As with any medicinal acts…sometimes cutting out the rot or disease has to be radical, clear, and complete.

      These changes seem to be pretty specific to me. Not much room to parse meanings. That won’t stop the New York Slime or NCFishwrap one the one side, or the sede vacantists on the other from their normal whining. But, to this member of the laity, seems pretty cut and dry.

    10. doanli says:

      Thank you for this post, Father.

      Yahoo News has these guidelines as the top headline last time I checked. (I was afraid to read it.)

    11. doanli says:

      It’s actually the Associated Pressers (biased themselves)

      The United Nations condemning ANYONE? What irony!

      Guess the wonderful UN (spit!) forgot about this:

    12. wchoag says:

      Hmmm….does this mean that I could begin delating bishops, priests and deacons to the CDF who I know are heretics without lodging a formal case in a local Tribunal which I know would be rejected (not to mentioned laughed at)?

    13. dans0622 says:

      Mrs. O,

      The “use” of any kind of pornography is certainly immoral and a cleric who partakes in this sort of thing can be punished for it (cc. 1395, 1399). But, it is only those cases involving minors under 14 that is reserved to the CDF. As to why they picked 14: I have a guess or two but I’m not sure. One guess is that this delict is more grave the younger the victim is. Still, I would have expected 16 or 18.


    14. Mrs. O says:

      Thanks Dan.
      If it is established that under 18 is a child and vulnerable adults included in this, it would only seem consistent to include this under pornography also. I do realize they can be punished regardless viewing pornography, but these are serious crimes against children, and a child has been defined (or at least sexual contact) as under 18 and vulnerable adult.

      Could I write the Holy See to find out? Fr. Z do you know? [You can always write, but I expect that an explanation of the age will eventually be given. It is not possible to explain everything in a single press conference.]

    15. Antioch_2013 says:

      I’ve been thinking is that this legislation is essentially the Vatican version of a Omnibus Bill. It covers a number of topics without necessarily conflating them. The simple response to the charge that they’re being equated is that the procedures for dealing with them are different and the punishments are different. Granted, the media and many others just don’t want to look at context because that would be too much work.

      From what I understand the graviora delicta concern the abuse of the powers of ones priesthood, and despite what the media and others say, both the abuse of children and the attempted “ordination” of women are both abuses of ones power as a priest or bishop. Therefore they are both covered in this document as well as a number of other sins.

      To the wymynprysts I say, pull up your big girl, plastic poncho chasubles and deal with it.

    16. ghlad says:

      I heartily applaud these measures, but there is one thing that strikes me as very dubious.

      Extending the Statute of Limitations in the CDF tribunals seem like it could be disastrous for two reasons. First and maybe most importantly, the Statute of Limitations exists solely for the purpose of protecting justice. As decades go by, records are lost or thrown out, memories subtlety change, and members of the defendant or prosecution can die. All of which serves to muddy the water, resulting (often in the secular court cases) in most of the case being based on one account pitted versus another. Secondly, the Statute of Limitations that currently exist in secular court cases here in the USA are under attack by lawyers and potential litigants who wish to cash in on the current environment that is biased against priests. (Not that it is a bad thing if justice is done for victims of unholy priests, but when the system itself is abused, aged or dead priests – and their dioceses – can easily be the victims of bad lawsuits.) So now the secular judicial systems can look at the CDF and say that extending or even abolishing a Statute of Limitation against prosecuting Catholic priests is a good idea… “Hey, they’ve even done so in their own tribunals!”

      I do have enough faith in the CDF to trust their tribunals not to abuse the extension or removal of a Statute of Limitations against a Catholic priest. But my own government doing so, especially in this environment, could be disastrous.

    17. Prof. Basto says:

      Father, your list also didn’t mention something else. Something that I too forgot when writing my previous comment re. the new grave delict of women ordination:
      the canonical crimes against the Faith of schism, heresy and apostasy are now graviora delicta too.

    18. chironomo says:

      So what would the process now be for addressing Heresy and Apostasy as opposed to how they were previously addressed? For instance, would things like Fr. McBrien’s article denouncing the reality of Satan and ridiculing Exorcism be prosecutable now? If not, then there is surely a need for even further revision..

    19. YadaYada says:

      Finally. Thank God. Thank God. Thank God.

      For all the things in this document.

      But I’m thinking of one in particular:

      No more **** for brains priests (kind’a sorry about the vocab!) constantly making such strongly “indirect” violations of the seal of confession.

      I spoke to Archbishop Burke about this for the longest time about a flagrant hotbed of this kind of thing a while back. He was shaken, and really, really upset (God bless him), promising that when he had the chance, he was going to move on this like a ton of bricks falling on these criminals. Talk about brick by brick! Looks like he did his part.

      This really makes my day. Criminals! I love it!

      Twenty years you say? Hah! Time to write a letter!

      Did you notice that I think medicinal penalties are great?

    20. Supertradmum says:

      Will all bishops enforce these? Thank God that Rome is clear, but a priest who taped Confessions years ago is still using those tapes in a class. Several of my friends have had their college age kids in his class and have heard the tapes. The class is supposedly on the Sacraments. The former bishop knew about this and the priest was “reprimanded”, but nothing done to stop this.

    21. Jack Hughes says:

      Just out of curiosity how do seminarians learn to say Mass / Priests learn to say the EF without falling foul of Cannon 1378? [They are not pretending to say Mass. They are practicing. They do not intend to give anyone present the impression that they are actually saying Mass and, in those situations, no one thinks they are ordained.]

    22. Supertradmum says:

      Jack, Some seminaries, such as Mundelein, teach both forms, but not all do.

    23. asperges says:

      BBC on News at Ten (major evening TV bulletin) reviewed the Vatican document. Apart from the usual swipe about sex abuse and ordaining women on the same scale, the clip was informative.

      Then enter Sr Myra Poole (no habit of course) of “We are Church,” on TV, horrified and simply could not understand it (ie not ordaining women). “The Crime is,” she raved, “not having ordained any women yet!”

      This same nun compared Benedict XVI with the far-right BNP party leader recently and even the Tablet found it hard to be sympathetic, except of course when pressure was put on her not to speak at a Conference abroad on women priests: Sources close to Sr Myra say that this put an intolerable burden on her and that the struggle to choose between obedience to her superiors and her own deeply held convictions put her under enormous emotional strain. Poor old soul.

      General comments in the media on the delicta are that the Vatican’s timing of the announcement (as though the Vatican gives the C of E any credence or importance anyway on the world stage) is a slap in the face to the Anglican Church and emphasises the rift between them and the Catholic Church.

      Fine, then the solution has been put forward very clearly by the Pope in his invitation to disaffected Anglicans.

      More on Sr Poole at and Worth a read if only for the breathtaking arrogance.

    24. YadaYada says:


      Get sworn statements from those kids. Get that priest the medicine he needs.

      Time limit: twenty years.

      I wonder how many of those kids would go to confession to him. It’s things like this, when people suffer them, that makes participating in this wonderful sacrament an odious affair.

    25. Jack Hughes says:

      Dear Father

      I thought you once said that even the wackiest priests respected the seal of the confessional ? one thing for sure is that I will now only confess through the screen to the 3 Priests I know whose reputations are impeccable, in every other case I will insist on confession face to face so that I know they are not recording me.

    26. YadaYada says:


      No need to change your confessional practice.

      I’m thinking of a very particular scenario. Those involved will, I hope, be getting the medicine they need like real soon.

      Feel absolutely free to go to confession to any priest.

      Thank God for the sacrament of Confession! I love this sacrament.

      Frequent Confession is the great for the soul, and brings one into real reverence in the Sacrifice of the Mass, in adoration of the Blessed Sacrament.

      Go, by all means!

      I’ve never heard of a priest taping a confession. That’s horrific. And he teaches Sacraments, and uses the tape?!?! That’s an anomaly. Totally. Utterly. It’s for that kind of thing that I recall certain medicinal penalties like burning at the stake… I have the matches.

    27. Re: tapes

      I’m really surprised nobody took a match to the tapes.

      Sickening. When you think of all the priests who’ve died martyr’s deaths to keep confessions secret, and this knucklehead makes a hidden microphone documentary….

    28. Folks: I implore you not to obsess about the “taping” thing. This is so rare as to be nearly non-existent. But, the Church has great experience of human nature and applies penalties to things she foresees can happen.

    29. doanli says:

      I’ll just be happy when I’ll be allowed to go to Confession. :)

    30. sejoga says:

      I know the “pretending to say mass” questions have been asked to the point of annoyance, but is the basic idea that it’s wrong to pretend to say mass with the intention of making others believe you’re actually saying mass?

      I’m just wondering, for example, if something like people making a movie staging a fake mass to film would count as a sin. Or someone going through a whole staged mass for educational purposes (like teaching non-Catholics all the parts of the mass or something). As long as those “pretending” aren’t obscuring the fact that they’re pretending, and it’s clear that they don’t intend what the Church intends, but neither do they intend any disrespect, is it still a sin? [No.]

    31. Supertradmum says:

      Sorry to have caused problems, but outrage is needed. Confession is a great gift. Sadly, not all bishops handle things like the Great Pope Benedict XVI would want. Thankfully, the new bishop made a strong statement as to the new woman “priest” ordained in Iowa City. He was very clear that anyone who attended the ceremony would be excommunicated, as well as the woman in question. The statement was publicized in the diocesan paper, as well as in a diocesan statement. There just seems to be anomalies in how outrageous derelictions are dealt with. The list is desperately needed and the penalties need to be universally applied, and not arbitrarily so.

    32. This is just my opinion.
      But Archbishop Raymond L. Burke is now in charge of the Apostolic Signatura. Although this particular “organ” of the Holy See deals with bishops and difficulties within dioceses, these norms will be definitely a part of their decisions; I realize the CDF and Apostolic Peniteniary probably have more direct jurisdiction, but still, Pope Benedict is carefully making things very “air tight” in regards to these most egregious violations of faith and morals. We just have to be patient and pray. God is in charge of His Church, as frustrating and difficult as these times may seem to us.

    33. Supertradmum says:

      Thank you, nazareth priest, this is hopeful.

    34. Athelstan says:

      The great weakness, or absence, in these new dictums is any lack of clear penalties for bishops who cover up or enable such abuse. The role of bishops remains the other major part of this scandal, and effectively it remains unaddressed.

      I still don’t think that Vatican officials properly appreciate just how much damage has been done to the Church’s credibility by these scandals.

    35. Ingatius says:

      At worst this can be seen as a bit of a PR blunder on the part of the Vatican but one can see why these changes were announced at once – they are simply a package of canonical changes. It makes sense. If there weren’t such an anti-Catholic bias in the media or even if there was simply a better quality of journalism, the Vatican would be able to worry less about ‘PR’ and focus on its job – running the Church!

    36. Onesimus2 says:

      Methinks that the “Yankee” press PRESUMES that the Vatican is OBLIGATED to follow the journalistic manuals of American Press. It might have been helpful if the two areas of concern had been presented in two different documents rather than one juridical “diptych” of sorts. Alas, folks who are “trained” to dine on sound bytes find substantial reading difficult to digest.

    37. asperges says:

      Fr Timothy Radcliffe OP writes in today’s (London) Times:

      Sir, …

      The priest presides at Holy Communion, the sacrament of our unity in the Church, and so an ordination that is productive of division would be a contradiction in terms.

      Many Catholics believe that women should not be excluded from ordination, but this will only be possible with the consensus of the communion of the Church. Excommunication is not a punishment, nor exclusion from the Church, but recognition that communion is seriously damaged and needs to be repaired. One might not think that this is the best way to do so, but it is a position that is perfectly comprehensible.

      FATHER TIMOTHY RADCLIFFE, OP Blackfriars, Oxford

      So women priests is just a matter of consensus: in other words “We’ll get around to it eventually.” He is correct on the nature of excommunication, but obviously feels it is far too heavy-handed for this particular matter. Heaven help us.

    38. Gladiatrix says:

      I don’t know what the law is in New York, city or state, but over here we have laws about inciting religious hatred and a body called the Equalities and Human Rights Commission. Is there an equivalent in New York that could be used to bring a case against the NYT?

    39. Horatius says:

      “Roy Bourgeois is a liar and Hell’s Bible doesn’t correct the manifest lie because it the truth in this matter isn’t the news that fits.”

      We should attend to signs here: King Middle Class Man–to translate the proper name–is worthy of Molière, Le bougeois gentilhomme, or Flaubert, of his own Rodolphe Boulanger, “platement bourgeois.” Nobody in the history of mankind named Roy Bourgeois has ever been taken seriously, surely, and that Hell’s Bible endorses his execrable palaver only lends credence to my modest claim.

    Comments are closed.