Dr. Edward Peters 

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10 jan 2013

Just Punishment, by Brian O'Neel



Canon lawyers are dubious about the prospects for excommunication of Catholic politicians who support abortion, but other disciplinary measures are available.

This article originally appeared in Catholic World Report, February 2002, and is posted with permission. Brian O'Neel writes from Sacramento, California.

In northern California, Sacramento-area residents recently opened their newspapers to learn that for the first time since he entered Congress, Rep. John Doolittle, a stalwart abortion opponent, would have a primary challenger in this year's Republican primary election.

While the man who would be challenging the five-term congressman criticized Doolittle on several grounds, he was particularly harsh in his characterization of the conservative legislator's pro-life stance: "His hard anti-abortion stand is unacceptable," said the challenger, Dr. Bill Kirby "I'm a Catholic, but I believe what a woman does with her body should be between her and her God, not the government."

If successful in his bid to oust Doolittle, Kirby would join a host of other Catholic elected officials around the world who profess beliefs directly contrary to those of their Church, particularly on the issue of abortion.

This phenomenon is not confined to the United States. The Canadian prime minister, Jean Chretien, identifies himself as a Catholic and is an outspoken proponent of legal abortion, as is Joe Clark, the former Tory prime minister. Indeed, in the nations of the industrialized West, scores of prominent Catholics who hold elective office are not pro-life. But it is in the US that the role of "pro-choice" Catholic politicians has caused the most heated debate.

A vivid demonstration of the power of pro-abortion Catholic legislators came when the US Congress attempted to override President Bill Clinton's vetoes of bills that would have outlawed partial­birth abortions. Despite the gruesome nature of the procedure, and the unusually vocal admonitions from the US bishops, the effort to override the presidential veto twice fell just short of the necessary two-thirds majority in the Senate. In each case, nominally Catholic senators provided the margin of defeat.

The excommunication option

Both Pope John Paul 11 and various bishops conferences around the world have reiterated, time and again, the re­sponsibility of all Catholics--and especially those in public life--to foster a culture of life. In 1998 the US bishops released a document called Living the Gospel of Life. In that document--released as the debate on partial-birth abortion was at its zenith--the bishops affirmed:

Catholics who... Serve in public leadership positions have an obligation to place their faith at the heart of their public service, particularly on issues regarding the sanctity of human life. We urge those Catholic officials who ... depart from the Church teaching on the inviolability of human life in their public life ... to reflect on the grave contradiction of assuming public office and presenting themselves as credible Catholics when their actions on fundamental issues of human life are not in agreement with Church teaching .... No appeal to policy, procedure, majority will, or pluralism ever excuses a public official from defending life to the greatest extent possible.

The remarkable thing, however, is that as such statements from Catholic bishops have become increasingly clear and emphatic, the voting performance of Catholic politicians has become steadily worse. The resulting frustration has caused some Catholics to look for new ways to bring pressure to bear on pro-abortion Catholic officials. In Sacramento, California, one pastor, Msgr. Edward Kavanagh, went so far as to write that the ostensibly Catholic Governor Gray Davis "has brought on himself automatic excommunication" because of his support for abortion.

While few Church leaders in the US have mentioned the possibility of excommunication for politicians who support abortion, that option has been explored in other countries. In Mexico City last year, Cardinal Norberto Rivera responded to efforts to liberalize abortion laws in his country by saying "anyone who promotes or practices abortion, including legislators and governors, will be excommunicated by the Church." Colombia's bishops also mentioned excommunication during a July debate on that country's abortion laws. And in Peru, Lima's Cardinal Juan Luis Cipriani instructed pastors to deny Communion to public officials who persisted in public support for abortion.

Emboldened by those prelates, thousands of American Catholics have signed a petition asking Pope John Paul II to pronounce excommunication on prominent American pro-abortion politicians such as Senators Ted Kennedy and Tom Daschle. "It is impossible to be Catholic and pro-abortion at the same dine," explains Judie Brown, the president of American Life League, who is among the leaders of the petition drive. "Pro-abortion Catholic lawmakers have become a stumbling block for faithful Catholics." The petition lists as defendants approximately 50 members of Congress, as well as a number of other current or former political officeholders.

Is it realistic?

Do Catholic politicians who publicly reject the teachings of their faith deserve excommunication? At first glance the Catechism of the Catholic Church (2272) seems clear: "Formal cooperation in an abortion constitutes a grave offense. The Church attaches the canonical penalty of excommunication to this crime against human life." As many faithful Catholics see it, a vote for legal abortion, or for the funding of abortions, constitutes formal cooperation in the act. Thus many people believe that a pro-abortion Catholic politician incurs excommunication.

But according to several canon lawyers, the issue is not so clear. Phil Gray, a canonist in Ohio, explains:

Canonically speaking, "formal cooperation" involves the doctor who performs the abortion, the nurse who assists, the woman having the abortion, the man who agrees to take his wife or girlfriend, the person who drives the woman to the clinic--and even that last one is questionable. With legislators, what you have is probably best termed "material cooperation."

Edward Peters, [now, of Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit] agrees. "You can only incur excommunication for a specific offense," he emphasizes. "Although having an abortion can result in an excommunication, governmental support for abortion is not a similar offense."

Some pro-life activists make the argument that a vote for taxpayer funding of abortion is a specific act, enabling poor women to procure abortions. That, they argue, is formal cooperation. But Peters replies:

People who make that argument are possibly using Canon 1329 [which prescribes excommunication for accomplices in such offenses as abortion], and are trying to characterize these people as accomplices. The problem is that in order to be an accomplice to an action, you have to be able to show that, but for this vote that freed up X number of dollars, this abortion would not have taken place. What if the bill passes by two votes? Whose vote do you blame?

Peters also makes a more general point about the interpretation of canon law: "Canon 18 is clear that whenever you're talking about sanctions, you have to read those canons very narrowly, as narrowly as can reasonably be interpreted and still mean something."

Neither Peters nor Gray believes petitioning the Vatican to excommunicate prominent politicians will succeed. "Anybody can request that from Rome," says Gray. "But authorities there will turn to the principle of subsidiarity. Local bishops need to address this first .... They're the ones that need to be doing something about these guys."

The political options

Both canonists agree, however, that politicians who promote the culture of death by their pro-abortion stance are guilty of grave sin. "If someone takes this sort of public stand while also receiving Communion, they put themselves out to be practicing Catholics, even though they're putting themselves at odds with the Church," adds Gray. It is a grave sin "because they are adhering to a belief that is contrary to the magisterium of the Church and contrary to the natural law." He goes on to point out: "Canon 750 says you are not to hold anything contrary to the truth as taught by the Catholic Church."

Germain Grisez, a noted Christian ethicist at Mount St. Mary's College in Emmitsburg, Maryland, believes that anyone who supports legal abortion should reconsider seeking public office. And he rejects the notion that a public official could be personally opposed to abortion, yet support the legality of the procedure:

If they say "I'm personally opposed, but. . . ," it seems to me that maybe they're being insincere and saying this because it's politically advantageous. On the other hand, if they're sincere in this, it seems to me they're confused. Opposition to abortion is not a matter of taste. If one is personally opposed to it, it is because one recognizes that it is the killing of an unborn individual and a grave injustice is involved. If someone thinks otherwise, they're deeply confused. It seems to me that someone that badly confused about something that obvious or who is insincere is not a trustworthy person to hold any public office.

Some Catholic politicians have explained their pro-abortion votes by saying that they do not have the right to impose their own religious beliefs on other citizens. But William May, a professor of moral theology at the John Paul II Institute in Washington, DC, answers that argument:

The point of when human life begins is not a religious belief, so you can't say you're forcing your religious beliefs on someone. Rather, it is a scientific fact on which there is clear agreement even among leading abortion advocates. Second, the sanctity of human life is not merely Catholic doctrine but part of humanity's global ethical heritage and our nation's founding principle. Finally, democracy is not served by silence. Real pluralism depends on people of conviction struggling vigorously to advance their beliefs by every ethical and legal means at their disposal.

Other sanctions

If Catholic politicians who oppose their Church on the issue of abortion are not automatically excommunicated, are there other canonical penalties that could be applied? Edward Peters says that a bishop who wants to censure a pro-abortion Catholic politician has several options:

Canon 1369 says, "A person is to be punished with a just penalty, who, at a public event or assembly or in a published writing ... gravely harms public morals or ... excites contempt for religion or the Church." What if you're speaking on the floor for an abortion bill? You can be punished with anything from a reprimand all the way up to excommunication.

Certainly a bishop could refuse the Eucharist to someone who persists in a grave sin. In fact even a parish priest could make that decision.

"The question is have they been warned?" says Gray. He continues:

Canon 915 says that those who obstinately persevere in manifest grave sin cannot be admitted to Communion. "Obstinate" means you have to be warned; you have to be told it's a grave sin; you have to be told to stop; and you have to be told what the penalty would be. If you ignore that warning and continue to cling to that sinfulness publicly, at that point several punishments are an option.

In America today, Gray concedes, "There's not a Catholic politician who doesn't know what the Church teaches. That means they're conscious of the fact that their support of abortion is a grave evil." Nevertheless, lie argues that they should not be refused the Eucharist until they have received a formal warning.

Other options also exist. Charles Wi1son of the St. Joseph Foundation in San Antonio, Texas, an organization that specializes in the application of canon law-advocates putting some politicians on trial in an ecclesial court, so that a fair public hearing of the evidence could be had. There is also talk of making a public denunciation of a public official before that person's bishop.

Nonetheless, it is with the bishops themselves that the real power resides, and few bishops in recent memory have taken action against public dissenters. One exception was Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz of Lincoln, Nebraska, who in the mid-1990s excommunicated members of Catholics for a Free Choice. Just prior to the 2000 election, the late Bishop James McHugh of the Diocese of Rockville Center, New York, directed his pastors to remove from any parish position those who held pro-abortion views; he explicitly included public figures who claimed to be "personally opposed" but showed themselves--as he put it--"unwilling to integrate their moral principles with civic responsibilities."

Creating a martyr

Of course, if a bishop imposes any form of discipline on a pro-abortion Catholic politician, that individual could quickly attain the status of a martyr­figure among dissenting Catholics and other proponents of abortion. For some Catholic officials, defiance of the Church is a carefully calculated political stance.

David Carlin has an interesting perspective on that issue, as a former majority leader of the Rhode Island state Senate and a member of Democrats for Life. Of one prominent pro-abortion Catholic politician from Rhode Island, he says:

He could get elected here as a pro­lifer, but that would bring him grief from the fanatics on the other side, and it would ruin his chances to climb even further up the national Democratic ladder. Morally and religiously, he has taken the wrong stand, but politically he has taken the smart stand.


Carlin observes that while many Catholic constituents disapprove of the official's stance on abortion, they none­the-less continue to cast ballots for him. In fact, he sees this voting pattern repeated regularly--not only in Rhode Island but all across America. The net result, he says, is: "The more Catholics a state has, the more likely it will send pro-choicers to Washington, and the fewer Catholics it has, the less likely."


"In the end," Carlin says, "the problem isn't Catholic politicians: It's the Catholic voters."