ROME – Argentine Cardinal Víctor Manuel Fernández, the Vatican’s doctrine czar, has said that despite the broad use of alleged spiritual or mystical experiences to commit and justify abuse in the church, disputes over terminology can muddle prosecution.

His perspective may have implications for efforts to prosecute some of the most high-profile and contentious abuse cases today, including the case of Slovenian ex-Jesuit Father Marko Rupnik, who stands accused of multiple acts of abuse against dozens of adult women, mostly nuns, stretching over more than 30 years.

Speaking to journalists during a May 17 press conference presenting new norms for evaluating the authenticity of Marian apparitions or other spiritual phenomena, Fernández was asked about what is sometimes described as “false mysticism” in abuse cases.

Prefect of the Vatican’s Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith (DDF), Fernández replied, “When we speak of false mysticism, we must be careful…false mysticism is used a lot and in a lot of different ways.”

The term, he said, can have “one meaning for one theologian and another meaning for another theologian; for some canonists it has one meaning, for others it has a broader meaning.”

“For us [presumably meaning the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith], it is an expression that should not be used. We must explain well what the crime is, but not use the term ‘false mysticism,’” he said.

He was asked about false mysticism in reference to a passage in the new norms urging bishops to be attentive to when alleged spiritual apparitions or visions are used “as a means of or pretext for exerting control over people or carrying out abuses.”

Weaving spiritual symbolism and imagery into alleged abuse has traditionally been called, at least by some, “false mysticism,” and it has been considered a crime against the faith, though without a clearly defined legal standard.

For centuries, the Vatican’s Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith (DDF), historically known as the “Holy Office,” has been tasked with prosecuting these crimes.

Article 10 of the 1995 edition of the DDF’s Regolamento, or rules, which were signed by then-prefect Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict XVI, states that the disciplinary section within the DDF “deals with crimes against the faith, as well as the most serious crimes, in the judgement of the superior authority, committed against morality and in the celebration of the sacraments.”

The dicastery, it says, is responsible for a variety of problems and behaviors related to the discipline of the faith, such as “cases of pseudo-mysticism, of alleged apparitions, of visions and messages attributed to supernatural origins, of spiritism, magic and simony.”

Yet the precise nature of those crimes isn’t delineated in the Regolamento or other documentation, creating what some legal experts regard as an “eye of the beholder” standard that has rendered investigators hesitant to launch cases for fear of ending in a legal morass.

In the past, some experts have warned that a perceived gap in church law on false mysticism is preventing notorious abusers such as Rupnik, whose complex case is still active in the DDF, and others like him, from facing prosecution.

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Some observers were optimistic that a case out of Spain last year, in which a Franciscan priest was sanctioned on charges of false mysticism, could set a precedent needed for these cases to be more swiftly and thoroughly handled in the future, however, it appears debate over precise terminology, at least for the Vatican, might still be a stumbling block.

When asked about the reference to using spiritual phenomenon to commit abuse in the new norms for apparitions and whether the inclusion of it meant canon law would potentially change, as it currently includes no provisions for false mysticism, Fernández indicated that this was likely to happen, but the crime would be classified as something else, rather than false mysticism.

“There are things that are already typified as crimes” in the Code of Canon Law, and “others no,” he said, saying the new norms “don’t typify new crimes, they say, be careful because this has a particular moral severity.”

“If there are crimes that are typified, you must proceed according to the Code,” he said.

Fernández insisted that the term “false mysticism,” which is not typified in Canon Law, is used too broadly, and thus should not be used in legal prosecution.

As an example, he cited Pope Pius XII’s 1956 encyclical Haurietis Aquas on devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, in which the then-pontiff took aim at the Jansenist hesitation to accept the devotion on grounds that it did not allow believers “arrive to God purely, free of human sensitivity.”

In article 28 of the encyclical, Pius XII stated that, “It is wrong, therefore, to assert that the contemplation of the physical Heart of Jesus prevents an approach to a close love of God and holds back the soul on the way to the attainment of the highest virtues.”

“This false mystical doctrine the church emphatically rejects as, speaking through our predecessor of happy memory, Innocent XI, she rejected the errors of those who foolishly declared: ‘(Souls of this interior way) ought not to make acts of love for the Blessed Virgin, the Saints or the humanity of Christ; for love directed towards those is of the senses, since its objects are also of that kind.”

Referring to Pope Pius XII’s use of the term “false mystical doctrine,” Fernández said a magisterial document refers to false mysticism “in a way that’s opposite to how we at times use it,” as Pius XII was referring to theology, and in modern times it’s become associated with the crime of abuse.

At times, false mysticism is used to state “that this mystical phenomenon is false, nothing more,” he said, saying when canonists wish to apply the term to a crime, it is difficult, because the term has been used to refer to both true and false mystical experiences, and it has also been applied to both theological and mystical issues.

“We understand it in such different ways that the expression itself becomes inconvenient,” Fernández said.

Referring again to the new norms and the reference to using alleged spiritual phenomena to commit abuse, he said the reference is to something that happened with a particular “moral severity,” which can be a crime in canon law, but to determine that, “it must be studied.”

The idea, he said, is for bishops to manage crimes where they can, unless they are “reserved crimes,” which require the intervention of the DDF.

If everything were a reserved crime, he said, ultimately it would make it “so that such a serious crime as abusing a minor becomes one among many. So, we must be careful.”

Fernández insisted that he was “speaking freely,” and that his words did not constitute “a decision or a conclusion,” but merely referred to topics “that must continue to be studied, and we’ll see what happens.”

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