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Show the mothers compassion: Excommunicate the politicians

By Pete Vere
web posted December 22, 2003

Over the past couple months, much has been written about an impending crackdown threatened by Catholic bishops against politicians who support abortion. Of course the usual suspects within the persistently vegetative media are crying "separation of Church and State" and "the Church has no business speaking out on political issues." This seems rather strange given that, as Rod Dreher recently blogged, these media pundits currently voicing their outrage are the same folks who denounce Pope Pius XII for not speaking out strongly enough against Hitler's numerous atrocities during the Second World War.

As a political commentator and a canon lawyer – that is one who practices law within the Catholic Church's internal legal system – I have always had a few reservations about canon 1398. This is the canon that states: "A person who actually procures an abortion incurs a latae sententiae [automatic] excommunication." the canon states. Do not confuse my reservations as support for abortion. I am in complete agreement with the Catechism of the Catholic Church which teaches that abortion "is gravely contrary to the moral law" as well as an "abominable crime" (2271).

Yet my experience in ministry has taught me that most women who abort their child act under some sort of emotional, mental and/or psychological duress. Despite what many feminists claim, I seldom come across an abortion that is freely chosen – that is, chosen without coercion from some outside individual or organization. Sometimes this pressure comes from a boyfriend who refuses any responsibility for the pregnancy. Other times, parents seek a quick fix for their teenaged daughters. "Get rid of it or get out of the house!" is, sadly, the execution decree of all-too-many grandchildren.

But even more reprehensible, in my opinion, is the coercion a distraught pregnant mother finds among the very women's organizations that claim to uphold her freedom of choice. As my friend Mark Shea often reminds me, abortion is the principle sacrament of liberal secularists. Therefore, a woman often discovers when dealing with feminist pregnancy crisis centers that her choices do not include bringing the child within her womb to full term.

Because abortion is a traumatic choice often made under duress, the woman is left in need of the Church's help and compassion. For once her child is dead, the woman will find neither help nor compassion from the abortion industry. Alone and ashamed, the perception of canonical censures only further drives these women away from the Church in their time of need. This obviously compounds the problem.

What these women need is Christ's healing touch in the confessional, as well as sustained pastoral support from organizations like Project Rachel. This is the approach Christ took with Mary Magdalen's adultery: He did not excuse the sin, but He did not turn away the sinner. He invited her to repentance and forgiveness.

Nevertheless, I feel no such compassion toward those who profit – whether financially or politically – from abortion. As a canonist, I firmly believe in the use of canonical censures to combat this intrinsic evil. While the Church cannot impose her religion on the state, she can and should determine who is welcome within her membership. The right to religious freedom and freedom of assembly are intrinsic to every free and democratic society.

If a politician cannot in good conscience support the Church's teaching on human life, then the politician is certainly politically free to renounce God and serve Caesar. Excommunication is simply an ecclesiastical penalty which deprives a Catholic of his or her right to fully participate in the Church's religious practices. Excommunication does not deprive a politician of his or her political rights – the excommunicated Catholic politician is still free to stand for political office in a general election.

Thus canonical censures should be aimed where they are most deserved. In reflecting upon the carnage wrought by the culture of death over the past thirty years, the Church must strengthen and enforce canonical censures against the so-called "Catholic" politicians who continue to support and protect the right to execute children within the womb.

Now some political activists argue that the Church already provides for the excommunication of pro-abortion politicians. They refer to canon 1329, §2, which states: "In the case of a latae sententiae penalty attached to an offence, accomplices, even though not mentioned in the law or precept, incur the same penalty if, without their assistance, the crime would not have been committed, and if the penalty is of such a nature as to be able to affect them..."

Unfortunately, the canonical situation is somewhat more complex than this. For the participation of pro-abort Catholic politicians in the abortion racket is indirect. The politicians and lawyers draft, legislate and uphold laws that permit abortion. Most do not, however, directly participate in the abortion as would a doctor, nurse or abortion referral agency. Therefore the automatic excommunication envisioned by canons 1329 and 1398 does not apply to Catholic lawyers and politicians who support abortion. For in keeping with the principle of canon 18, "Laws which prescribe a penalty [...] are to be interpreted restrictively."

Nevertheless, a competent authority within the Catholic Church may use other means to impose excommunication upon Catholic politicians who support abortion. This is in addition to various lesser ecclesiastical penalties the Church may impose. At the very minimum, the Church can and should prohibit these politicians from receiving Holy Communion – the Church's most sacred act. In fact, any bishop may invoke canon 1399 to do so. "Besides the cases prescribed in this or in other laws," the canon states, "the external violation of divine or canon law can be punished, and with a just penalty, only when the special gravity of the violation requires it and necessity demands that scandals be prevented or repaired."

Now other canon lawyers might object to my interpretation, arguing that reception of Holy Communion is a right of every Catholic. However, the Church in no way views this right as absolute. As canon 223, §2 states: "Ecclesiastical authority is entitled to regulate, in view of the common good, the exercise of rights which are proper to Christ's faithful." One is hard pressed to see how it serves the common good to permit Catholic politicians who support abortion to go unchallenged. If the Church is to remain consistent in her moral teaching, abortion destroys the common good in that it destroys human life. And the right to life is the very right upon which all other rights, as well as the common good, are based.

Moreover, canon 912 states: "Any baptized person who is not forbidden by law may and must be admitted to Holy Communion." In short, canon law provides an exception for to the right to receive Holy Communion, namely, for those who are forbidden by ecclesiastical law. Canon 915 clarifies one such exception as follows: "Those upon whom the penalty of excommunication or interdict has been imposed or declared, and others who obstinately persist in manifest grave sin, are not to be admitted to Holy Communion."

In the end, plenty of canons permit a competent Church authority to deny Catholic politicians who support abortion from receiving Holy Communion. What the bishops in North America need is the public will to stand up to politicians and enforce this proposed course of action. Undoubtedly, some will denounce such refusal of the sacraments as too severe. Yet what is the alternative? For according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, through abortion "irreparable harm [is] done to the innocent who is put to death, as well as to the parents and the whole of society" (2272).

Pete Vere, JCL is a canon lawyer and a Catholic social and religious commentator from Sudbury, Ontario. He now writes from Florida, where he and his family enjoy no state income tax along with life within walking distance of the Gulf of Mexico. His work has been published in numerous Canadian and American Catholic publications.

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