Apostolic Constitution Pascite Gregem Dei (Feed the flock of God)

Holy See Press Office [Vatican City]

June 1, 2021

By Pope Francis

[Note from BishopAccountability.org: The Apostolic Constitution is currently available in German, Spanish, and Italian, in addition to Latin. We have posted a Google translation into English of the German text. Pope Francis is announcing the release of a revised text of Book VI of the Code of Canon Law. The revised text is available here. Canons 1395 and 1398 are of particular interest.]

Dated May 23, 2021; released June 1, 2021

With which Book VI of the Code of Canon Law is renewed

“Feed the flock of God entrusted to you, not compulsorily but voluntarily, as God wills” (cf. 1 Pet 5: 2). These inspired words of the Apostle Peter echo in the rite of episcopal ordination: “As the Father sent our Lord Jesus Christ to redeem people, so he sent the apostles. He has charged them, in the power of the Holy Spirit, to preach the gospel and to gather together, sanctify and guide all nations. (…) [Jesus Christ himself] guides you through the Bishop in wisdom on the way through time to eternal joy ”(cf. The Consecration of the Bishop, Priests and Deacons, n. 42). The Shepherd, however, is called to carry out his task “by counsel, encouragement, example, but also in authority and holy power” (Lumen Gentium, n. 27), since love and mercy require that a father also himself trying hard to straighten what is sometimes crooked.

Since the times of the apostles, the church, which is advancing on its earthly pilgrimage, has given itself rules of conduct which over the centuries have formed a coherent corpus of binding social norms which unite the people of God and which the bishops are responsible for observing. These norms reflect the beliefs we all profess. They receive their binding force from him. Based on him, they express the maternal mercy of the Church, aware that her goal is always the salvation of souls. Since they are supposed to organize the life of the community in the passage of time, these norms must constantly be in exchange with the changes in society and the new requirements of the people of God. This sometimes makes it necessary to revise them and adapt them to the changed conditions.

In connection with the rapid social changes that we are experiencing and knowing that “the epoch in which we live is not just an epoch of change, but that of an epoch change” (audience for the Roman Curia at the traditional Christmas reception, 21.12. 2019), there was an obvious need to revise the penal legislation promulgated by St. John Paul II on January 25, 1983 with the Code of Canon Law, in order to be able to respond appropriately to the needs of the Church around the world. It was necessary to change it in a way that would allow pastors to use it as a more flexible therapeutic and corrective tool, used in a timely manner and with pastoral love, to forestall greater evils and heal the wounds inflicted by human weakness .

For this reason, my esteemed predecessor Benedict XVI. Commissioned in 2007 the Pontifical Council for Legal Texts to begin work on a revision of the penal norms contained in the 1983 Codex. By virtue of this mandate, the Dicastery has endeavored to analyze the new requirements concretely, to determine the limits and shortcomings of the current legal system and to find possible, clear and simple solutions to them. This work was carried out in a spirit of collegiality and cooperation. Contributions from experts and pastors were sought, and possible solutions were compared with the needs and cultures of the various local churches.

After a first draft of the new Book VI of the Code of Canon Law was ready, it was sent to all the bishops’ conferences, the dicasteries of the Roman Curia, the superiors general of the religious institutes, the canon law faculties and other ecclesiastical institutions to collect their comments. At the same time, numerous canon lawyers and criminal law experts from all over the world were interviewed. The correspondingly ordered results of this first consultation were then examined by a special group of experts, which revised the draft according to the suggestions received, in order to then submit it again to the judgment of the consultors. Finally, after further changes and exchanges, the final draft was examined by the plenary assembly of members of the Pontifical Council for the legal texts in February 2020. After the corrections requested by the plenary had been incorporated, the draft was submitted to the Pope.

The observance and respect of the punitive discipline of the church is the task of the whole people of God, but the responsibility for its correct application – as stated above – is particularly borne by the pastors and the superiors of the individual communities. It is a task that is inextricably linked with the munus pastorale that is entrusted to them. It should be exercised as a concrete and indispensable requirement of love towards the Church, the Christian community and possible victims, but also towards those who have committed a crime and who, along with mercy, also needs correction on the part of the Church.

The lack of understanding of the close connection that exists in the Church between the exercise of love and the implementation of punitive discipline – whenever circumstances and justice so require – have caused much damage in the past. This kind of thinking – experience teaches us that – is in danger of leading to habits which are contrary to the legal order and which cannot be countered only through admonitions and advice. Such a situation often carries the risk that over time a certain way of life will become entrenched, make correction more difficult and, in many cases, cause annoyance and confusion among believers. It is for this reason that the shepherds and superiors must apply the penalties. A shepherd’s negligence in the application of criminal law makes it clear that he is not doing his job properly and faithfully, as I have clearly indicated in recent documents, for example in the Apostolic Letters in the form of a “Motu Proprio” Come una Madre amorevole (June 4, 2016) and Vos estis lux mundi (May 7, 2019).

Indeed, it is love that requires that shepherds apply the penal system whenever necessary, observing the three purposes that make it necessary, namely restoring the needs of justice, correcting the offender, and the elimination of annoyances.

As I said recently, ecclesiastical punishment also has a function of reparation and wholesome medicine, and is primarily directed towards the good of the believer. “Ultimately, it is a positive means of realizing the kingdom of God, to restore justice in the community of the faithful who are called to personal and community sanctification” (To the participants in the plenary assembly of the Pontifical Council for the Laws, February 21 2020).

Quite in continuity with the general order, which follows a tradition of the Church that has consolidated over time, the new text brings with it changes of various kinds compared to the previously applicable law and also penalizes some new criminal offenses. Many of the novelties introduced in the text respond in a special way to the increasingly widespread need to see justice and order restored within the communities that have been violated by the crime.

The text has also been improved from a technical point of view, particularly with regard to fundamental aspects of criminal law such as the right of defense, the statute of limitations for criminal proceedings and a better definition of penalties. This corresponds to a requirement of criminal law and allows the ordinaries and the judges to be offered objective criteria when it comes to finding the most appropriate punishment in a specific case.

The revision also applied the principle of limiting the cases in which the ability to impose a penalty is left to the discretion of the competent authority. This is intended, servatis de iure servandis, to promote ecclesiastical unity in the imposition of penalties, especially when it comes to crimes that cause greater harm and nuisance in the community.

Given all this, with this Apostolic Constitution we promulgate the renewed text of Book VI of the Code of Canon Law, as it has been arranged and revised, in the hope that it will become an instrument for the salvation of souls and that its prescriptions, when it is required to be put into practice by the shepherds of righteousness and mercy, knowing that it is part of their ministry, as a duty of justice – a pre-eminent cardinal virtue – to impose punishments when the good of the believer so requires .

Furthermore, so that everyone can find out more easily and get to know the ordinances they are dealing with, we stipulate that everything that has been established here will come into force on December 8th and be published in L’Osservatore Romano and later in Acta Apostolicae Sedis is recorded.

In addition, we determine that with the entry into force of the new Book VI, the currently valid Book VI of the Code of Canon Law will be abrogated, regardless of any conflicting matter, no matter how noteworthy.

Given in Rome, at Saint Peter, on the High Pentecost, May 23, 2021, in the ninth year of our pontificate.