A Crime Against All We Hold Most Dear

Author: Stefania Falasca


Stefania Falasca

The Eucharist englobes the whole treasure of the Church. How faithful, layman or priest, who profane the Eucharistic species are punished

Black masses, satanic rites, sacrilegious treatment of the Eucharist, cemeteries and sacred objects profaned. Reports on events of this kind are now the order of the day. One merely has to open a newspaper to see how widespread is the phenomenon. It grew particularly in the 1980s and 1990s, and involves not just members proper of secret sects but an increasing number of faithful, both lay and clergy. Civilian authorities are increasingly asked to track down crimes of this sort. But what does Canon Law envisage as punishment for faithful (clergy and laity) who profane the Eucharistic species or desecrate holy places or objects? <30DAYS> asked Father Velasio De Paolis, Professor of Canon Law at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome.

Profanation of the sacrament of the Eucharist is one of the most heinous of crimes for the Catholic Church. How does the new Code of Canon Law, promulgated by Pope John Paul II in 1983, deal with the matter?

VELASIO DE PAOLIS: The Eucharist is the sacrament of the Church's unity. It englobes the entire spiritual good of the Church: Jesus Christ our Easter. Given that, one can see why the legislation of the Church, even from the penal standpoint, is intent on stressing its importance and inculcating a profound respect for the sacrament in the faithful. The crime in question concerns the consecrated species of both bread and wine. There is offence, however, even if only one species is profaned. It must involve the consecrated species because the Catholic faith recognizes the real presence, true and substantial, of the Body and Blood of the Lord only in them. The crime is committed when the species are thrown (<abicere>) on the ground without respect, or if the consecrated hosts are scattered on the altar with contempt, or if the consecrated wine is poured away so as to steal the chalice. It is also a crime when the consecrated species are taken away or kept for a sinful purpose. It does not constitute offence if the species are simply removed or kept something certainly unlawful—but it must be done for a sinful purpose. The old Code of Canon Law said <ad malum finem>, the new wording is <ad finem sacrilegum.> There is no difference, the present Code simply intends to clarify that it is a matter of sacrilege.

What punishment is envisaged for offenders?

DE PAOLIS: The punishment envisaged, as set down in Canon 1367, is excommunication <latae sententiae> reserved to the Apostolic See: Whoever profanes the consecrated Eucharistic species, or removes or keeps them for a sacrilegious purpose, incurs excommunication <latae sententiae. Latae sententiae> means the sentence already given, meaning it is incurred by the very fact of having committed the offence, without the need for any trial (Canon 1314). Reserved to the Apostolic See means that the sentence can only be lifted by the Holy See (Canon 1354-1355).

How is someone who has incurred punishment and then repented absolved?

DE PAOLIS: A person who has incurred punishment can be absolved by a father confessor in the sacrament of Penance only in the urgent case envisaged by Canon 1357 and by any priest if the guilty party is in danger of death, according to Canon 976. In all other cases absolution for the offence is reserved to the competent authority, the Holy See, which can remove the punishment through the Apostolic Penitentiary or the relevant department.

And if the offender should happen to be a cleric (deacon, priest, bishop, cardinal)?

DE PAOLIS: If the offender is a cleric another very grave punishment can be added to that of excommunication <latae sententiae> as set down in Canon 1367. This is removal of the clerical state. It does, however, require a judicial process (<ferendae sententiae>) since the competent authority has to investigate the facts so as to evaluate them fully.

Does someone, for example, who takes part in a black mass commit the same offence and is he therefore punished the same way?

DE PAOLIS: The act of taking part in a black mass, though it is a very grievous sin, does not in itself entail punishment. Whoever takes part in a black mass in which the Eucharist is profaned immediately incurs excommunication <latae sententiae.>

Was punishment for profanation of the Eucharistic species handled in the same way by the earlier Code? What are the differences on the question between the old and the new Code, if any?

DE PAOLIS: In the earlier Code, promulgated in 1917 by Pope Benedict XV, there was a significant addition lacking in the present one: Whoever profanes the Eucharistic species is suspected of heresy (Canon 2320). Indeed, one may reasonably doubt that anyone who holds Catholic belief in the Eucharist can commit such serious profanation. Consequently, the suspicion of heresy could arise in relation to anyone guilty of the offence. Otherwise the punishment remains the same.

Canon law also treats <profanatio rei sacrae> as an offence. Can you explain what things are considered sacred and how are they profaned?

DE PAOLIS: Canon 1171 tells us what a sacred thing is. Sacred things are all those destined to divine worship through dedication or blessing in a constitutive way. Canon 1269 sets out that a sacred thing may or may not be ecclesiastical property, just as it may be public or private, moveable or real property (Canon 1376). For example, the chalice used in the celebration of the Eucharist is a sacred thing. Canon 1269 thus states that sacred things cannot be freely employed for profane uses unless they have first lost their dedication or blessing. So to profane a sacred thing means making profane use of it, an unfitting use (it is not licit, for example, to take a chalice for the celebration of the Eucharist and make a common drinking vessel of it). Profaning something also means using it for sordid, perverse and sinful purposes. Furthermore Canon 1205 defines a sacred thing those places which are destined to divine worship or to the burial of the faithful through dedication or blessing—a church or a cemetery, for instance. So holy places are also profaned, says Canon 1211, if gravely offensive actions are performed there with scandal.

Is excommunication <latae sententiae> also operative in this case?

DE PAOUS: No. Canon 1376 says: Let whoever profanes a sacred thing, moveable or real, be punished with the fitting penalty. A punishment is thus obligatory but undefined. The sanction depends on the gravity of the offence and the perpetrator. It may be suspension (this only in the case of clerics), excommunication or interdiction, or the loss of some right (Canon 1335) when the guilty party is a simple layperson.

Was the 1917 Code similar?

DE PAOUS: In the old Code the punishment for whomever had committed the offence of <profanatio rei sacrae> was a punishment <latae sententiae,> while under the present Code it is, as I've said, <ferendae sententiae.> Various Canons which appeared in the previous Code have been removed from the present one—for example, Canon 2328 which dealt in particular with the profanation of dead bodies. Generally speaking, the new Code has adopted the principle of diminution and mitigation of the punishment by an act of trust in the responsibility of the faithful.

One final question. If offences of profanation of the Eucharist and of holy things and places should occur on an increasing scale might the punishment be changed?

DE PAOLIS: If the phenomenon were to take place on an increasingly worrying scale, we could not exclude the possibility that the punishment envisaged would become harsher. It is difficult to conceive of any harsher treatment of the offence of profanation of the Eucharistic species since excommunication <latae sententiae> reserved to the Apostolic See already constitutes the maximum penalty. On the other hand there has already been action on related matters—for example, sanctions not envisaged by the Code for breaching the secret of Confession. Indeed in the new Code, Canon 1388 paragraph 1 establishes that the priest who breaks the seal of confession is punished with excommunication <latae sententiae> reserved to the Apostolic See, while whoever breaches the secret of confession (Canon 1388, paragraph 2) commits an offence punishable by an undetermined obligatory penalty. But following on the worrying expansion of this offence by the violation of the secret through instruments such as tape recorders, for example, it became clear that punishment had to be made more severe. So in 1988 the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, acting on particular powers given it by the Holy Father, established that anyone who, through the use of any technical instrument, listens in on or makes public through the instruments of social communication what was said by the confessor or the penitent in a genuine or fake sacramental confession incurs excommunication <latae sententiae>, in this case not reserved to the Apostolic See.

This article was taken from the No. 5, 1996 issue of "30Days". To subscribe contact "30Days" at: Subscriptions Office, 28 Trinity St., Newton, NJ 07860 or call 1-800-321-2255, Fax 201-579-5541. Subscription rate is $35.00 per year.