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The Church’s Jurisdiction Today: Action Trumps Inaction

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | May 05, 2014

Two stories in the news today demonstrate problems with the jurisdiction of the Catholic Church as it is currently understood and implemented. The first concerns attacks on the Vatican by a UN Panel charged with implementing the UN Convention against Torture. The second concerns the rebellion against renewal by the Leadership Conference of Women Religious.

It seems that many at the United Nations would like to punish the Vatican for sexual abuse of children by clergy, and the Vatican’s representative for the Holy See at the UN would like to argue that Church personnel are subject to the laws of the nations in which they work. One must ask whether there is any desirable position in this debate.

Even supposing that sexual abuse can legitimately be construed as “torture”, which is at least a strange conflation of language to serve an ideological purpose, it is not clear why a UN Committee is seeking to hold the Vatican responsible. Is the UN going to hold each government responsible for any sexual abuse perpetrated by anyone who holds a government job (which would include, for example, roughly twenty percent of the American public)? Does the UN wish to board the Catholic gravy train by seeking some sort of monetary penalties? Will it seek the same damages from other member states? Considering that most sexual abuse is perpetrated by relatives or other friends and lovers admitted to positions of trust within the family circle, and that abuse rates are higher in public schools than in the Catholic Church, just what exactly is the point?

So much for one side, but things do not look much better on the other. Granted, the Vatican has argued that as conceived in the UN Convention on Torture, jurisdiction in these cases applies to the territorial power that is sovereign where the abuse has taken place. But the Church must be very careful about denying her own jurisdictional responsibilities. Perhaps it does seem that she has tried very hard over the past fifty years to pretend that she has no jurisdiction over her own staff, or even that she desires none. But everyone recognizes the Church's authority when it suits their purpose, such as when extracting large settlements. More important, both basic morality and the nature of the Church teach that she should never desire to evade her jurisdictional responsibilities.

The Church, in other words, should be very reluctant to suggest that any civil government has legitimate authority over her own affairs. In the old days, the Church used to “relax” heretical clergy to the “secular arm”. Having rendered a judgment that only she can make (a judgment of heresy), she withdrew benefit of clergy from those who were convicted, leaving them to punishment by civil government. Today, there would be no punishment for heresy, but there would be for sexual abuse. (In the late Middle Ages, the secular punishment for heresy would have been confiscation of property and sometimes execution.)

The two swords of spiritual and temporal authority never function perfectly, but a renewed emphasis on both ought to be carefully considered by the Church. Even without an enforcement agency or a military, the Catholic Church possesses authentic jurisdiction in spiritual and moral matters.


In the other case, the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has spoken rather harshly to the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, and no wonder. In the midst of a process of supervised reform arising from profound doctrinal irregularities, the LCWR has deliberately circumvented Vatican requirements in order to give its highest award to a theologian whose work has been judged heretical by the American bishops. So Cardinal Müller has reminded the LCWR that it is “a canonical entity dependent on the Holy See.”

In other words, here the Vatican is claiming jurisdiction, and rightly so. The Church may not be able to put LCWR officers in jail. But it can excommunicate them individually or disband the organization altogether as a Catholic entity. Things being as they are with women religious in the United States, it is possible that life would go on as usual, as it apparently did with the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru. But life might get a bit bumpy if every bishop in the United States were ordered to explain the judgment in no uncertain terms. There would be some blowback, of course, but blowback provides useful information. 

Perhaps it goes without saying that the Church must be mindful of what can be lost through decisive action as well as of what might be gained through, say, a another generation of attempted renewal through supervision. But there is another and better leadership organization for women religious in the United States, the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious. If marginal communities had only one choice—and if the CMSWR could be selective in which groups it would admit—then the result might well separate the potential wheat from the irretrievable chaff far more quickly.

In any case, it does little good to claim jurisdiction if one intends to exercise it only in ways acceptable to those under it. In the final installment of my Smaller Church, Bigger Faith series, I insisted that the effective exercise of ecclesiastical discipline is very difficult today, and I do not mean to minimize those difficulties. But one of the benefits of the proper use of jurisdictional authority is clarity. And clarity is not only a worthy goal; it is an achievable goal. Moreover, difficult is not the same as impossible. With God, all things are possible.

Here, then, we have two very different matters of ecclesiastical jurisdiction. But they have two important things in common. The first is that the Church does indeed have the jurisdiction necessary to act appropriately. The second is that today the gravest dangers lie on the side not of acting rashly, but of not acting at all.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: John J Plick - May. 06, 2014 12:39 AM ET USA

    Remember the parable of the talents, Jeff. The one who didn't try at all was condemned. I am convinced even further that the Trinity would even honor a poor man who at least tried and failed, but I don't believe that would be the ultimate result as God honors effort in good faith and would patiently correct His child.

  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - May. 05, 2014 9:16 PM ET USA

    To paraphrase Moses, "I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse," the suffering and the heresy. St. Paul teaches the way of the cross: "Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his body, which is the Church." Benedict XVI understands the two-pronged attack on the Church in the modern age. Even now he is serving the suffering body of Christ from behind the scenes.