Is it a Sacrilege to Hit a Priest?

Q: When I was a child, I learned that it would be a sacrilege to strike a Catholic priest.  He is a man of God and over the centuries the Church has considered him to be sacrosanct, or so we were told.

Is this true today?  I’m imagining in particular what might happen if a dad discovered that a priest had molested his child.  I know we aren’t supposed to take justice into our own hands, but personally I would be sympathetic if I heard that an enraged parent had attacked a molester-priest…  It sounds like a lopsided and unjust system, whereby a priest could commit a horrible crime and yet Catholics wouldn’t be allowed to touch him… –Bob

A: As we saw in “Refusing First Holy Communion to Children Who are Ill-Prepared,” the term sacrilege is not used (much less defined) in the Code of Canon Law, as it belongs more to the realm of theology.  True, insofar as the term “sacrilege” references an act which misuses or abuses something which is sacred, it is understandable that historically it has been applied—at least sometimes—to attacks on Catholic priests.  But all that the code tells us is that under certain circumstances, assaulting a member of the clergy constitutes a crime.

By sheer coincidence, Pope Francis just recently promulgated a new Book VI of the Code of Canon Law, dealing with sanctions.  This project originally began under Pope Benedict XVI, and a commission of canonical experts has been working on it for many years.  If you’re curious, the new Book VI can be found in its entirety here in English, and you can read more in general about it here and here.

Some of the canons of Book VI have been rewritten significantly, and their numbering is not always the same as before.  But the canon which directly pertains to this specific issue is still canon 1370—and it remains almost entirely unchanged (more on that later).

Canon 1370 addresses the crime (known in canonical parlance as a delict) of using physical force against a Catholic cleric.  Each of its three paragraphs addresses assault on the clergy of a different level of the Catholic hierarchy.  In “Excommunication and Bad-Mouthing the Pope,” we took a look at the first paragraph, which pertains to an attack on the Holy Father himself.  Paragraph 2 refers to assaults on bishops; and the final paragraph pertains to attacks on priests, among others.  We’ll take a look at what the canon says—and just as importantly, what it doesn’t say—about each of these.  But first, it’s worthwhile to point out a couple of basic concepts which will apply throughout our discussion.

The first one is that non-Catholics are not subject to the Church’s canon law on sanctions.  As a general rule, canon law is for Catholics (cf. c. 1)!  Certainly it would be morally wrong for anybody to deliberately harm a member of the Catholic clergy (or any other human being, for that matter) without provocation; but the penalties outlined in canon law can only apply to Catholics.  If a non-Catholic attacks a Catholic cleric, by all means contact the police and make sure that secular law is enforced—but that is an issue separate from the imposition of canonical sanctions.

(By way of example, here’s a heart-breaking case from Nigeria, of a non-Christian man who assaulted a priest during a rosary procession, beating him into a coma.  It goes without saying that the man—described in the article as an “idol worshipper”—committed a horrific act, and was justifiably arrested and held by the police.  But as a non-Catholic, he is not subject to canon law, and thus none of what follows here would apply to him.)

The second basic concept which is critical to keep in mind here is that a Catholic cannot incur a sanction under canon law, if any of the conditions listed in canon 1323 are present.  This canon—which was discussed at greater length in “Am I Excommunicated? Sanctions, Part I” and “Is She Excommunicated? Sanctions, Part II”—tells us that a Catholic cannot be sanctioned if:
—he was under the age of 16 at the time the crime was committed (c. 1323 n.1);
—he acted in ignorance (unaware that the act constituted a canonical delict) or in error (n. 2):
—he was forced to act (n. 3), or did so out of fear (n. 4);
—he was acting in self-defense, or to defend others (n. 5);
—he lacked the use of reason (n. 6); or
—he wrongly thought that the situation described in n. 4 or n. 5 existed (n. 7).

If a Catholic commits a crime which the Code of Canon Law asserts should be punished by a sanction, but even just one of the above conditions is met … then that Catholic cannot be sanctioned.  As has been discussed in this space before, it should be evident that it’s actually quite difficult for a Catholic to incur a sanction under canon law!  Sure, one might commit an act which is morally wrong; but that doesn’t automatically mean a canonical punishment will be incurred.

(We can see how canon 1323 works in the case of assaulting a cleric, by looking at a dramatic example of this scenario which occurred in 1970, when then-Pope Paul VI was visiting the Philippines.  He was attacked by a knife-wielding “priest” who was actually a mentally ill artist from Bolivia, wearing a black cassock.  Like most Bolivians, the man was presumably a Catholic—or at least, there’s no indication that he wasn’t.  While official reports claimed that Pope Paul had not been touched, after his death in 1978 the Vatican admitted that he had in fact been injured.  But since it was quite clear that the artist was mentally unstable, canon 1370 n.6 applied and there was no question of the man incurring a canonical sanction.  He was, of course, taken into custody by the police and sent for psychiatric evaluation.)

As was already mentioned above, the first paragraph of canon 1370 was discussed at length in “Excommunication and Bad-Mouthing the Pope.”  Canon 1370.1 tells us that a person who uses physical force against the Pope incurs a latae sententiae excommunication.  (We took a look at the widely misunderstood concept of latae sententiae penalties in “Have Pro-Abortion Politicians Excommunicated Themselves?”)  If the attacker is a cleric, the canon notes that he might be punished in some other way, maybe even being dismissed from the clerical state—see “What Does it Mean to ‘Defrock’ a Priest?” for more on this penalty.

Using physical force against a bishop is the subject of canon 1370.2.  This paragraph states that the attacker incurs a latae sententiae interdict (a punishment addressed in “Are We Under Interdict? Sanctions, Part V”) and, if a cleric, he incurs also a latae sententiae suspension (see “Father Pavone’s ‘Suspension’: Priests for Life, Part II” for a discussion of this penalty, which only applies to clergy).

The first two paragraphs of this canon share something in common: technically, it doesn’t matter why you deliberately use physical force against the Pope or a bishop.  As an attacker, you can incur a sanction regardless of your actual motivation for the attack.  Maybe you commit assault because you’ve known the bishop personally for years—you were schoolmates, perhaps—and you two get into a fistfight which has absolutely nothing to do specifically with the fact that he is a Catholic bishop.  Or on the other hand, maybe you become violent because you’re angry about the Church’s teaching on homosexuality; or because you feel that bishops live lavishly while the faithful are financially struggling; or because the bishop refused to grant you a dispensation enabling you to get married in the Church (to cite only a few examples).  According to canon 1370.1 and .2, your particular reason for using physical force is not relevant: the fact that you deliberately, knowingly, freely attacked the Pope or another bishop is enough to incur a penalty under canon law.

Physically attacking a priest is addressed in the third and final paragraph, and here there’s a twist which is directly related to Bob’s question: canon 1370.3 states that a Catholic who uses physical force against a cleric or religious or another of Christ’s faithful out of contempt for the faith, or the Church, or ecclesiastical authority or the ministry, is to be punished with a just penalty.  Let’s take this apart, since there are several issues going on here simultaneously.

First of all, canon 1370.3 doesn’t speak simply of a physical attack on a priest for any old reason; it specifies that the attacker must be acting with a particular motive.  The canon tells us that a sanction would only apply if a Catholic used physical force against a priest out of hatred for some aspect of the Catholic faith.  In other words, if you got into a brawl with a priest because you thought—rightly or wrongly!—that he was behaving inappropriately toward your wife, canon 1370.3 would not apply.  That’s because in this scenario, you wouldn’t be assaulting him specifically because he is a Catholic priest.  (This incidentally answers a portion of Bob’s question: an ordained priest cannot behave in some totally outrageous way towards the Catholic faithful, and then expect that those victimized faithful won’t respond with physical violence out of fear of committing a delict.  Bob is right that in a very real sense, this would create a “lopsided and unjust situation.”)

But if, in contrast, you harbor a grudge against the Catholic Church—perhaps, say, because you had a horrible experience as a student in a Catholic school—and in your rage you decide to pummel the next priest you happen to see, that’s canonically something else altogether, and you could very well be sanctioned for your crime.  See the difference?

Secondly, the wording of canon 1370.3 reflects a change by the commission which rewrote Book VI of the Code.  This paragraph now pertains not only to priests, and to religious who are not priests (sisters or brothers, e.g.), but even to other members of the faithful.  The previous wording referred only to priests and religious (for the moment, at least, you can still see the English text of the old canon 1370.3 here).  Imagine, for example, that a Catholic is enraged at some aspect of church teaching, and takes it out on a lay catechist, who teaches the children of his parish; or he is furious with the Pope, and decides as a result to punch some random Vatican lay employee crossing St. Peter’s Square in Rome.  The previous wording of canon 1370.3 would not permit the attacker to be sanctioned under canon 1370.3—although of course he might certainly be arrested and charged under secular law.  Now, the new wording of this paragraph would permit the perpetrator to be penalized under canon law as well.

We can see a concrete example of how canon 1370.3 would (or wouldn’t) apply in this sad case from the U.S.  A parishioner—who as such must be a Catholic, and is thus subject to canon law—met pastor of his parish for “a counselling session,” and somehow ended up “punching and kicking the pastor in the stomach and head,” and eventually hitting the priest with a wine bottle.  There’s no question that the man used physical force against a priest; but did he incur a sanction under canon 1370.3?  The answer would depend firstly on whether or not he met any of the conditions of canon 1323, discussed above; and then on his motivation for the attack.  Since we don’t know what transpired during their counselling session, it is impossible for us to determine whether the man was guilty of a delict under canon law.  For example, if he was emotionally or mentally disturbed in some way, the attacker would not be subject to any sanction, as per canon 1323 n. 6—much like the artist mentioned above, who assaulted Pope Paul VI.  Or if he attacked the priest because (let’s say) he asked for money and the priest refused to give him any, that wouldn’t constitute an attack committed out of hatred for some aspect of the Catholic faith, and thus canon 1370.3 would not apply.  In short, we’d need a lot more information about this situation in order to draw any canonical conclusions.

A more complex situation can be seen in this case from southern Italy, which is much like the imaginary scenario Bob described in his question.  A priest was arrested and convicted of sexually molesting two teenagers, one of whom later committed suicide.  When the priest finished serving his prison sentence and was released, he was gunned down, apparently by professional hitmen hired for the job.  At least at the time of this report, it appeared that the police were working on the assumption that the father of the teenagers had arranged for the murder of the priest—but bear in mind that this had not been established for certain.

Let’s say, just for the sake of argument, that it was proven that the dad was indeed guilty of planning the priest’s assassination.  Did he have the priest killed out of hatred for the Catholic faith, as outlined in canon 1370.3?  Or did he murder the priest solely because he had molested the man’s children—regardless of his clerical status?  The application (or not) of canon 1370.3 to this situation would largely depend on the father’s motivation.  Regardless, of course, there are plenty of other objections to his action, however understandable it might arguably be: theologically, this action is obviously a grave moral evil, and it is also illegal under secular law.  So the perpetrator might be out of the woods canonically, but he still would have to face both the criminal courts, as well as God Himself.

We could continue looking at examples like this for hours.  But at the end of the day, what should we take away from this discussion?  For one thing, it is indeed a crime to assault a Catholic cleric, at least under certain circumstances—although the Code of Canon Law doesn’t use the term “sacrilege” to describe it.  For another, if a Catholic attacks a priest, the motivation for the attack matters, insofar as the imposition of any canonical sanctions is concerned.  Yet another takeaway should be that even when the perpetrator of an assault on a cleric can’t be sanctioned under canon law, the odds are good that he can at least be arrested under secular law.  It should by this point be clear that canon law on this topic involves a balancing act: Catholics are supposed to treat the ordained clergy with respect because of what they are, but at the same time, no cleric should ever presume that he can mistreat the faithful with complete impunity, “because it would be sacrilegious to strike a Catholic priest.”

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