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Edward Peters



16 May 2007


Canons commonly cited

All translations from the Canon Law Society of America, 1999.



  1983 CIC 1398. A person who procures a completed abortion incurs a latae sententiae excommunication.




Other items of note


Cdl. Ratzinger's 2002 memorandum on the application of Canon 915


Phil Lawler,

"Clarity, please, on excommunication"

(May 2007)


A primer for those who

prefer knowing to opining

(May 2007)


Legislating in mid-air? Possible, but not likely

(May 2007)


Since when is Rudy

Giuliani excommunicated?

(March 2007)


Excommunication Blotter

(Continuous updates)


Edward Peters, “Denial

of the Eucharist to

pro-abortion politicians”, Homiletic & Pastoral Review (Oct 1990)

pp. 28-32, 48-49.



Canon Law Abortionism, Excommunication, and withholding the Eucharist


Be sure to see the important May 17 update, scroll below.


    16 May 2007: Prescinding for a moment from who said it, and allowing for vexing language or translation issues, a recent interview with a conscientious priest on the subject of abortion, excommunication, and denial of the Eucharist, illustrates well how widespread is confusion in this area. In my opinion, these points must be sorted out, once and for all, so that those who must apply the norms to real cases can do so responsibly. The following two questions were part of a longer interview by posted by Time's Jeff Isrealy on 15 May 2007 with Cardinal Oscar Andres Rodriguez Maradiaga (Honduras).



   Q. Do you agree with the Pope’s statement that pro-choice Catholic politicians merit excommunication?




It is canon law that everyone who works for abortion is excommunicated.


Neither Canon 1398 (abortion) nor Canon 1329 (accomplices) states that position, and Canon 18, among others, forbids reading penal canons so broadly.


It’s not something the Pope invented.



If you favor abortion, you are outside the communion of the Church.

Keeping in mind that “favoring abortion” is a status requiring specification, it is possible that such a person is acting inconsistently with one’s basic obligations as a Catholic (Canon 209), and that one so acting might be in grave sin (which places one deeply at odds with the Church), but neither of those conditions is the same thing as being excommunicated (Canon 1331), which I assume was what was meant in a response to a question about excommunication.


And it was necessary to say that.



There are people in Mexico saying I am Catholic and I support abortion rights.


Yes, there are people who claim that.

This is a contradiction in its very essence.

An ambiguous remark. One might (depending on the facts) be able to say that "being pro-abortion" is contrary to a central tenet of the Church (the Fifth Commandment, for starters), but I would not describe that as being contrary to the “very essence” of Catholicism, if only because the “essence” of Catholicism is not “anti-abortionism” or “pro-lifeism”. The essence of Catholicism is something much deeper than that.


As a teacher of the Church, the Pope has a responsibility of teaching when something happening is wrong.




   Q. Do you agree with bishops who deny giving Holy Communion to these politicians?




This is a different point.

Yes, "excommunication" (Canon 1331) and "denial of the Eucharist" (Canon 915) are notably different kinds of responses to notably different kinds of offensive behavior.


For who am I to deny Holy Communion to a person?


You are, among other things, the minister of the Eucharist as set out in Canon 915.


I cannot [deny Holy Communion to a person].


Under certain circumstances, a minister of the Eucharist is required to do precisely that.


It’s in the tradition of moral theology that even if I know a person is living in grave sin, I cannot take a public action against him.


That is only part of the tradition, the part that applies to ministers who might have private information about occult offenses. But what is at issue here is, among other things, public behavior by prominent pro-abortion Catholic politicians.


It would be giving scandal to the person.

I don’t know what this means here, but I think that quite the opposite of what seems to be implied might be true: Admitting such persons to the Eucharist could be giving them scandal.


Yes, he should not seek [communion], but I cannot deny it from him.


Anyone conscious of being in grave sin should not approach the Eucharist under Canon 916. But some persons in grave sin also fall under the ban set forth in Canon 915 which requires denial of the Eucharist under certain circumstances.



Want to read more on this topic?


News report:


Analysis: A primer for those who prefer knowing to opining, and Legislating in mid-air? Possible, but not likely


UPDATE: May 17. The Catholic News Agency is reporting that Honduran Cdl. Rodriguez Maradiaga has revised his earlier comments on the impact that pro-abortion activity can have on one's right to receive the Eucharist. His second statement seems to be a great improvement over his first.

As I read it, His Eminence leaves no doubt now but that Canon 915 can be invoked, given the requisite circumstances, to prevent reception of the Eucharist by those whose pro-abortion activities warrant that disciplinary response. True, the canonist in me would like to see, consistently, a sharper distinction between "being excommunicated" and "being prevented from communicating" (to adapt a phrase), but the lingering confusion we see on this point might be the result of the etymological similarities between these two notions in Romance languages. We can (and will) deal with that issue in other ways.

For now, let's welcome this solid statement on an important social and moral issue by one of Latin America's leading prelates.


Additional notes: The Cardinal made express reference to (then) Cdl Ratzinger's CDF 2002 letter (linked at left) in formulating his revised response. His revised remarks also underscore well the ecclesiological damage that abortion advocacy causes within the Church; this is helpful to recall in an area that can too narrowly focus on legal issues to the exclusion of the moral and theological values that underlie law.



With a Foreword by

Bp. Thomas Paprocki, JD, JCD

 Some good references: