Death penalty as a last resort: The real Catholic teaching regarding ‘Predator Priests’

Maybe not just by pure coincidence, Pope St Pius V issued on this exact date 450 years ago his papal bulla (seal) appropriately entitled Horrendum illud scelus (That horrible crime).

To say that Horrendum illud scelus is not exactly politically correct is putting it mildly.

This particular bulla states clearly and without any ambiguity what a Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report termed present-day “predator priests”.

§ 1. Quite opportunely the Fifth Lateran Council [1512-1517] issued this decree: “Let any member of the clergy caught in that vice against nature, given that the wrath of God falls over the sons of perfidy, be removed from the clerical order or forced to do penance in a monastery” (chap. 4, X, V, 31).

§ 2. So that the contagion of such a grave offense may not advance with greater audacity by taking advantage of impunity, which is the greatest incitement to sin, and so as to more severely punish the clerics who are guilty of this nefarious crime and who are not frightened by the death of their souls, we determine that they should be handed over to the severity of the secular authority, which enforces civil law.

§ 3. Therefore, wishing to pursue with greater rigor than we have exerted since the beginning of our pontificate, we establish that any priest or member of the clergy, either secular or regular, who commits such an execrable crime, by force of the present law be deprived of every clerical privilege, of every post, dignity and ecclesiastical benefit, and having been degraded by an ecclesiastical judge, let him be immediately delivered to the secular authority to be put to death, as mandated by law as the fitting punishment for laymen who have sunk into this abyss.

S. Pius V, const. Horrendum, 30 Aug. 1568.

To boil it all down, here’s the thumbnail version;

    • Catholic prison. Keep in mind that “forced to do penance in a monastery” in the 16th century made today’s maximum security look like an outing at a day spa.
    • Still deviant? No prob… we’ll turn you over to the civil authorities.
    • Just because you were a priest, that doesn’t make you someone special. The truly unrepentant have a date with the gallows.

While some may say that the bulla put forth by the sainted Pope is no longer enforceable, they’re just, well… wrong.

As noted by the Canon Law Library of St. Paul University (of Ottawa, Canada), there is a hierarchy amongst any given Pope’s declarations;

  • Papal Bull
  • Apostolic Constitution (The most solemn form of legal document issued by the pope in his own name. Frequently issued as bulls, they deal primarily with serious doctrinal matters.)
  • Motu Proprio
  • Encyclical Letter
  • Apostolic Epistle
  • Apostolic Exhortation
  • Decretal Letter
  • Allocutiones / Addresses
  • Papal Rescript
  • Apostolic Brief

The only way to negate any given pope’s bulla would be if a subsequent pontiff should declare “Papal Bulla X” null and void.

To date, Horrendum illud scelus has yet to be rescinded by Francis or any other pontiff.



One thought on “Death penalty as a last resort: The real Catholic teaching regarding ‘Predator Priests’

  1. It appears predator Priests rarely if ever go to jail. Other perverts yes but not them.
    The present Pope was selected because he was not a religious Pope but a political Pope. This has been done many times in the past.

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