Canon Law and the Pope’s Butler

Q: I understand that the Pope’s butler was arrested and convicted under Vatican civil law, and not under canon law. But didn’t he violate canon law too? I thought it was a crime under canon law to cause harm to the Pope, isn’t it?  –Daniel

A: Most readers are probably as familiar as Daniel is with the recent trial of Paolo Gabriele, the Pope’s valet, who was charged with and subsequently convicted of passing many of the Pope’s confidential personal papers to an Italian journalist. Gabriele has just begun serving an 18-month jail sentence inside the Vatican City State.

Daniel is absolutely correct that Gabriele was tried not under canon law, but under the civil law of the Vatican. As was discussed in “Will the Woman Who Attacked the Pope be Punished?” the Vatican is an independent country, with its own post office, its own police force and fire brigade, and its own civil laws. Gabriele was arrested and tried in the Vatican’s civil court system for theft, which is a crime under the Vatican City’s penal code.

The crime, the arrest, and the trial have no connection whatsoever to canon law, which is the law governing the Catholic Church throughout the world. What happened in Gabriele’s case is procedurally comparable to what generally takes place in most other countries, whenever someone is charged with stealing the property of another. What can cause some confusion between the two is the fact that the Holy Father is not only the Supreme Legislator and Supreme Judge of the Catholic Church, thus having ultimate authority in canonical matters; but he is also the ruling sovereign of the Vatican City State, and as such has the highest level of authority over its civil courts as well. In this latter capacity, Pope Benedict XVI can issue a pardon to Gabriele if he so chooses—an action which (at least so far) he has declined to take.

But Daniel raises an interesting point. Isn’t it a violation of canon law to hurt the Holy Father, the Vicar of Christ? Can’t Gabriele’s theft of the Pope’s private documents be construed as a sort of attack on the Pope himself? Let’s look at what the code says on the subject.

Canon 1370.1 states that a person who uses physical force against the Roman Pontiff incurs a latae sententiae excommunication. (The concept of a latae sententiae penalty was discussed in detail in “Have Pro-Abortion Politicians Excommunicated Themselves?”) The wording of the law is quite specific: while deliberately slapping the Pope, or kidnapping/imprisoning him, would constitute a delict under this canon, stealing his private documents—which may be interpreted as “harming” the Holy Father only in an extended sense—does not.

Nor is there any canonical justification for any attempt at a broader, more “creative” interpretation of this canon. Canon 18 provides us with a norm governing the proper interpretation of canons in general: if a law prescribes a penalty (as canon 1370.1 certainly does), the law is to be interpreted strictly.  Consequently, there is no creative license that can permit canon 1370.1 to be applied in a wider, metaphorical sense. The crime mentioned in the canon involves physical force against the Pope, and that’s that. The canon thus cannot be used in Gabriele’s case.

But could canon law be changed, so as to penalize the sort of actions committed by the papal valet? There’s absolutely no evidence that the Pope is considering such a thing, but technically, the answer is yes—as Supreme Legislator, the Pope certainly has the power to add a new canon to the code, creating an entirely new category of delict if he wishes. (See “Are There Any Limitations on the Power of the Pope?” for a more in-depth discussion of the Holy Father’s supreme authority.) Nevertheless, any new penalty the Pope might create after Gabriele’s commission of the crime could not be applied to Gabriele retroactively.  Canon 1313.1 protects all Catholics against this very situation, stating that if a law is changed after an offense is committed, the law that is more favorable to the offender must be applied. Gabriele would, in this theoretical scenario, be subject to the law that was in place before the Pope’s new action, and therefore could not be sanctioned. This is, after all, simply a matter of justice: it is hardly equitable to punish a person for an action that was not illegal at the time he did it!

Note that under canon law, theft is not a crime punishable by a sanction. But that does not mean it is not sinful to steal! There are many objectively evil actions, like lying or committing adultery, which are never mentioned in the book of the code which deals with penal law. That’s because committing a sin is an action that is specifically governed by moral theology; while committing a delict, or a crime under canon law, is a juridical concept. There is some overlap, of course—kidnapping the Holy Father, for example, would be both a morally reprehensible action and a crime too—but not all sins are delicts in the code. Canon law is concerned not so much with the interior life of the soul, as with the exterior functioning of the Church. As has been noted many times before in these posts, theology and canon law can never contradict each other; but they nevertheless remain two distinct fields of study, each with a different focus.

To answer Daniel’s question, then, there is no canon in the code under which the Pope’s valet could be sanctioned for stealing private documents from the Vatican. Gabriele’s actions are instead a matter both for the civil courts (which have already rendered their decision) and for discussion with his confessor/spiritual director. Let’s keep everyone involved in this sad case, including of course the Holy Father himself, in our prayers.

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