Speak badly of Pope Francis and incur automatic excommunication… NOT.

During the Year of Mercy – which I guess already began, at least in Africa, but which is going to begin sometime tomorrow in Rome and then some days later elsewhere – certain confessors are to be granted faculties to absolve from censures reserved to the Holy See.  Archbishop Rino Fisichella, President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting the New Evangelization, recently expanded on one of the sins that incurs such a censure: physical violence against the person of the Roman Pontiff (e.g., belting the Pope, assassinating the Pope, throwing something at the Pope, etc.).  Fisichella’s comments have made not a few people scratch their heads.

Archbp. Fisichella said:

I would say that we need to understand well ‘physical violence,’ because sometimes words, too, are rocks and stones, and therefore I believe some of these sins, too, are far more widespread than we might think.

Ummmm…. words?  No.

What is he suggesting?  Speak badly of the Pope and you… what?  You incur a latae sententiae excommunication?  By the very fact of speaking negatively about or to the Pope (HEY! Libs! … any Pope!  Right?) you can incur excommunication?

I don’t think so.  It might be that Pope Francis appreciates his zeal, but, no.

Canonist extraordinaire Ed Peters leaps in at his blog.  HERE  My emphases and comments:

Most words are not crimes

I am not sure what Archbishop Rino Fisichella meant when he said that “we need to understand well ‘physical violence’ [against the pope] because sometimes words, too, are rocks and stones, [ehem… they might be hurtful, but they are not “physical violence”] and therefore I believe some of these sins, too, are far more widespread than we might think.” Yes, we do need to understand the terms of law well but, as the prelate was speaking in the context of faculties to absolve from automatic excommunications, and as there is an automatic excommunication against those who employ physical force against the pope (1983 CIC 1370 § 1), I am guessing that Fisichella might be thinking that ‘harsh language’ against the pope is a canonical crime that makes one liable to excommunication. If so, he is mistaken.

Besides Canon 17 that requires canons to be understood in accord with the proper meaning of their words, and Canon 18 that requires penal canons to be read strictly (i.e., as narrowly as reasonably possible), and Canon 221 § 3 that protects the faithful against canonical penalties not authorized by law, the whole of Book Six of the 1983 Code is redolent with an emphasis (some might say, to an exaggerated degree) on benignity in the application of penalties in the Church.

Now, Canon 1370 criminalizes “vim physicam” against the pope, not “verba aspera” or variants thereon, and I know of no canonical commentary that includes “words” as a species of “physical force” in this context. Indeed, the CLSA New Commentary, the Exegetical Commentary, the Ancora Commentary, and the Urbaniana Commentary—at which point I stopped looking—expressly exclude ‘verbal violence’ from the range of actions penalized under Canon 1370.

To be sure, hateful speech directed against any one is objectively sinful, and if directed against a man of God, let alone a pope, it is especially wrong. [It can be the sin of sacrilege, which is mistreatment of a sacred place, thing, or person.] Occasionally, speech might rise to level of crime (see e.g., Canon 1369 on expressing insults against the Church or Canon 1373 on inciting animosity against the Apostolic See) but the penalties in such cases are not automatic and do not extend to excommunication. Usually, verbal hate is just a sin (if I may put it that way) not a crime.

Priests may be assured, then, that if penitents confess uttering hateful words against the Holy Father, [Surely THAT doesn’t happen!] they may reconcile such sinners in the normal course of the sacrament and need invoke no special faculties or powers to absolve of sin or (non-existent) crime.

Et poenae latae sententiae delendae sunt. [This is Dr. Peters’ cause for jihad.]

Dear readers…


About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
This entry was posted in "How To..." - Practical Notes, Canon Law, GO TO CONFESSION, HONORED GUESTS, The Drill, What are they REALLY saying?, Year of Mercy and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.


  1. CountryCatholic says:

    Better go over to The Remnant and warn everyone who is signing the petition for Pope Francis to recant or resign that they are occurring excommunication!

  2. LarryW2LJ says:

    Archbishop Rino Fisichella specified that this is retroactive over the last 30 years, right?

  3. Geoffrey says:

    Good Lord! Think of all the automatic excommunications incurred during the reign of Saint John Paul the Great and Benedict XVI!

  4. Brian Cannon says:

    “… because sometimes words, too, are rocks and stones.”

  5. CatholicMD says:

    Face palm. How is it that men that are so obviously poorly formed doctrinally and theologically are elevated to such high positions in the Church? Also, these current papolaters sure do make Protestant accusations that Catholics worship the pope hard to refute.

  6. Chris Garton-Zavesky says:

    I’m reminded of A Man for All Seasons. Thomas More demolishes the attack of Master Cromwell by declaring “You threaten like a dockside bully”.

    No one who is authentically Catholic wants to attack the Pope verbally. Given that His Holiness asked everyone to speak freely, surely the Archbishop doesn’t represent the thinking of the Sovereign Pontiff?

    If the canons aver that we may have a duty to speak to our pastors (i.e., the bishops) within our area of expertise, is it fair to say, “Your Holiness, I love God and His Vicar on Earth, but I don’t understand how when you said/wrote [fill in ] I can’t see a way to be both obedient to God and to the Sovereign Pontiff.”

  7. The Cobbler says:

    “Indeed, the CLSA New Commentary, the Exegetical Commentary, the Ancora Commentary, and the Urbaniana Commentary—at which point I stopped looking—…”

    Gotta admire the dedication of Dr. Peters in campaigning against latae sententiae excommunication no matter what anyone else thinks of it or even if they don’t think of it at all (which seems to be the case by and large).

  8. Suburbanbanshee says:

    If you used words to fuel a sonic weapon (a la the science fiction novel Dune), or if you were a superhero with a sonic scream weapon, or an evil soprano using a special glass to do a glass shattering trick that actually release a deadly poison, and you used these verbal weapons against a pope, then sure, the word “La” could constitute vicious physical force.

    Otherwise, not so much.

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  10. ach7990 says:

    The archbishop’s words contradict the Sticks and Stones Theorem. Doesn’t anyone remember the Sticks and Stones Theorem? “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.”

  11. Rushintuit says:

    By their fruits you will know them. And while we’re on the subject, the new method of canonisation has been re-defined and is not necessarily infallible. In fact, the new method of canonisation is so doubtful, its infallibility becomes doubtful also. If you want to make JPII a Doctor of the Church, better make sure he’s not a rotten apple first.

  12. jjoy says:

    “Archbishop Rino Fisichella specified that this is retroactive over the last 30 years, right?”

    Were that to be the case, there would be more excommunicated than those ‘probably’ in invalid unions.

  13. Dr. Edward Peters says:

    Cobbler, I am also against canonical form for marriage. In case, you know, it comes up in conversation.

  14. Elinor Dashwood says:

    Oh, this isn’t even the fishiest thing Abp. Fishy ever opined.

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