Catholic Culture News
Catholic Culture News

Vatican Reform: Time for a New Inquisition

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Feb 25, 2014

Do you remember the Roman Inquisition? Unfortunately, when people today think of “the Inquisition”, they think of the Spanish Inquisition, which was unduly influenced by the Spanish crown. Even so, its weaknesses were horrendously exaggerated by hostile English historians in what has come to be known as the Black Legend. It is this which gives the term “inquisition” such a bad sound.

But do you remember the Roman Inquisition? Back in the late Middle Ages and Renaissance, the Roman Inquisition operated throughout significant portions of Europe, firmly under the control of the Papacy, with the purpose of protecting the faithful against priests, religious and bishops who did not fulfill their obligations under Church law. It was an ecclesiastical judicial system and, as such, it was primarily used for cases involving ecclesiastical persons, who in those days were universally accorded the right to be tried by the Church instead of by the Crown. This was called “benefit of clergy.” Indeed, it was a significant benefit, because the ecclesiastical justice system protected the rights of the accused substantially better than the secular systems of the day.

Along the path to modernity, however, the Church’s judicial system withered. Canon Law is still in place, and some cases are still brought before diocesan courts and then appealed to Rome (especially marriage cases). But the prosecutorial role in the ecclesiastical justice system has largely disappeared. All you need to do is consider the widespread abuse of the rights of the faithful in the areas of the liturgy and Catholic education over the past fifty years to realize that internal prosecution of ecclesiastical persons has been virtually non-existent in modern times. This lack has been apparent in all kinds of abuse including, as all the world now knows, sexual abuse. Ecclesiastical trials seem to have become a thing of the past.

Time for Change

This has to change, and there are cases on the horizon that could mark the beginning of such a change. By now everyone is familiar with the abuse case involving the apostolic nuncio to the Dominican Republic (see Phil Lawler’s recent update in On transparency in handling abuse charges, Vatican is facing a big test). Transparency, of course, is a key issue, but effective ecclesiastical justice is even more important—and it would raise transparency to a new level.

It is an extremely serious matter for priests, deacons, religious and bishops to violate the rights of the faithful to authentic Catholic teaching, liturgy, pastoral stewardship and pastoral care. When false doctrine, liturgical aberrations, greed, and personal abuse go unpunished, it is a failure of both justice and effective governance. This is true even when something is done behind the scenes, such as causing an ecclesiastical person to disappear quietly, perhaps through timely retirement. I’ve said for years that as a matter of both justice and effective management, serious guilt demands that heads roll, and that the rest of us see them rolling.

And now we are facing a new problem caused by the failure of the Church’s judicial system. In those matters which interest the secular world, a reluctant Church is beginning to have its heads rolled by the State. This obscures the nature of the Church as a public authority in her own right. Back when the Church’s judicial system was effective, if the Church found an ecclesiastical person guilty of a serious crime which ordinarily fell to secular authority to punish, the Church could strip those she convicted of the benefit of clergy, “relaxing” them to the secular arm. All the options were open, and the Church led the way.

But the key point is this: The Church absolutely must bear the responsibility of keeping her own house clean. We ought to reflect, in this light, on the recent comments by Roger Cardinal Mahony on his mishandling of the notorious sexual abuse committed by Fr. Nicolas Aquiler-Rivera: “This case highlighted errors made by us in the Archdiocese in those early years….” Excuse me? Errors? We are talking about giving a wayward priest a heads-up so he could escape secular punishment instead of already having tried and convicted him in a Church court for his crimes against the faithful—before these crimes even came to the attention of secular authorities.

Triggering True Reform

Given the lack of an effective prosecutorial wing in the ecclesiastical judiciary, such problems were endemic throughout the 20th century. But now Pope Francis has the former nuncio to the Dominican Republic in the Vatican, and perhaps this affair will lead to an ecclesiastical trial rather than an extradition. [Note: The nuncio was laicized in June of 2014 and now faces a criminal trial] . The nuncio was found guilty and laicized, and will be sent  Similarly, Scottish priests have brought charges of sexual predation to the Vatican’s attention against Cardinal Keith O’Brien, who was recently forced to resign and leave Scotland because of what the Cardinal has called “indiscretions”. This too could lead to a canonical trial.

My point is that these cases should lead to Church trials, and that such trials ought to mark the beginning of a major shift in the Church’s judiciary system. The Church should revive her prosecutorial arm so that she can be proactive in bringing charges against ecclesiastics who appear to be guilty of significant crimes as defined in Canon Law. Those who abuse their positions of ecclesiastical authority should be prosecuted and tried by ecclesiastical authority. The wounds should not be allowed to fester unless and until some secular authority decides enough is enough. Nor, as I indicated above, are we talking only about sexual crimes. After all, these have been substantially less frequent than some other kinds of abuse.

Since the Pope is in the midst of reviewing proposals for Vatican reform, I would like to suggest a modest proposal of my own. Let us have a reform with teeth. It would be wise to avoid the old name, of course. “Inquisition” can no longer be the term of choice. But I propose a Church which takes responsibility for its personnel by prosecuting, trying, and convicting those who seriously and systematically violate the rights of those they have been charged to serve.

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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Show 7 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: loumiamo - Jul. 12, 2016 6:44 PM ET USA

    And Jesus Himself brought together the Biblical message with Greek thought when, in Matthew 22:37, He expanded the commandment from Deuteronomy 6:5: "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God...With Thy Whole Mind."

  • Posted by: Defender - Feb. 26, 2014 3:03 PM ET USA

    And while they're at it, load it and shoot Canon 915 at a bunch of CINO politicians.

  • Posted by: jg23753479 - Feb. 26, 2014 10:08 AM ET USA

    Martin's comment here is apropos. Let the excommunications START with wayward clerics like Mahoney or the now-deceased Maciel. Once these heads roll, it will be far easier to focus the judicial process on high profile Catholic pols who mock the faith daily with their hypocrisy. And we can't say loudly enough what Martin suggests: these excommunications MUST be public and must be given lots of publicity!

  • Posted by: koinonia - Feb. 26, 2014 8:37 AM ET USA

    Bravo. Comments animated with true Christian charity for souls, firm yet appropriately subordinate to justice and to reality. May Holy Mother Church be ever solicitous for souls; ever forever faithful to her mission of love.

  • Posted by: lak321 - Feb. 25, 2014 10:14 PM ET USA


  • Posted by: spledant7672 - Feb. 25, 2014 9:38 PM ET USA

    How do we send this to Pope Francis?

  • Posted by: martin.kurlich4399 - Feb. 25, 2014 8:53 PM ET USA

    Time for a LOT of excommunications. And I don't mean this secret,'self-excommunication'. I mean PUBLIC EXCOMMUNICATIONS.