12 November 2008

Communion and pro-abortion politicians (revised)

Another question I'm getting a lot these days: should pro-abortion Catholic politicians be excommunicated?

Should they be excommunicated? Yes, they should be. Are they excommunicated? No. And not because our bishops are being timid. . .

OK, having learned my lesson and submitted myself to the reality that I will never be a canon lawyer (thank God), I offer a quick revision of this post by quoting Prof. Robert Miller via Prof. Edward Peters (thanks to Zadok):

Canon 1398: A Clarification (First Things)

I wrote in this space yesterday about the controversy surrounding the remarks of Pope Benedict XVI concerning whether Mexican legislators who voted to legalize certain abortions were excommunicated lata sententia under canon 1398. As I stated yesterday, c. 1398 prohibits only “actually procur[ing] an abortion,” and as many of my correspondents have pointed out, it’s far from clear that this prohibition includes voting to legalize abortions.

I tacitly assumed that such was a possible interpretation of the canon, in part because one often hears this interpretation in popular discussions of canon law and in part because the statement of the Mexican bishops and Benedict’s subsequent comments (at least before the Vatican Secretariat of State rewrote them) necessarily presupposed that such an interpretation was possible. Clearly, if the canon does not prohibit certain kinds of actions taken by legislators, it would have been simply wrongheaded for the Mexican bishops to have suggested that the legislators were excommunicated for voting to legalize certain abortions and even more wrongheaded for Benedict to have agreed with them (again, subject to having his remarks corrected by Vatican officials).

It turns out, however, that c. 1398 almost certainly does not include actions taken by legislators. Dr. Edward N. Peters, who teaches canon law at Sacred Heart Seminary in Detroit, explains on his blog that, despite the persistent discussion of c. 1398 in such contexts, virtually no one learned in canon law thinks that it applies to actions taken by politicians in connection with legislation. In fact, according to Dr. Peters, it’s not even a close question. After reading his explanation, I agree, and I’m very grateful to him for calling all this to my attention.

Now that that's all cleared up, I return to the conclusion of my original post with some revisions. . .

Back to the question at hand, or a revised version of it: do Catholic politicians who lend their formal and material cooperation to the mortal sin of abortion incur excommunication? Not automatically and apparently they would not be actively excommunicated by the Church. Should they be refused communion? Generally speaking, yes, they should. Why? Two reasons. First, receiving communion is a public act that indicates that one is "in community" with the larger Body of Christ. I eat the Body of Christ and demonstrate in doing so that I am one with the Body. If I am in moral sin, I am not in the Body though I am still formally a member of the Church. To take communion after publicly formally and materially cooperating in the commission of a mortal sin, I cause scandal. To offer communion to someone you know is in this state causes scandal and might even count as material cooperation with sin. Second, when I take communion in mortal sin I condemn myself to death. None of us is worthy to receive communion; we do so only with God's grace. To receive the Lord in the sacrament requires that we be disposed to the grace that the sacrament offers to us. I am not properly disposed if I am in mortal sin. How can I be receptive to God's love if I have killed that love in my heart?

The sticky situation in individual cases for bishops and priests is that they can almost never know if the pro-abortion Catholic politician has repented of their formal and/or material cooperation with abortion at any particular Mass. It is entirely possible that Senator Bob, having read this [revised] post, has come to realize his error, gone to confession, reconciled with the Body, and come forward to receive communion as a public sign of his renewed love for God. I know, not likely but possible. The bishop or priest risks the presumption of sin in violation of the presumption of grace if he refuses Senator Bob communion. This is why bishops and pastors are obligated to speak directly and privately with those Catholics who publicly cooperate in the sin of abortion. In the absence of that conversation, it is impossible to know the heart of the pro-abortion politician. However, if the politician persists in public sin, the presumption of grace on the part of the pastor is justly weakened and the politician risks taking communion indisposed.

I do not believe that bishops and pastors are hesitating in refusing communion out of fear of bad publicity or out of a sense that Catholics are entitled to communion regardless of their spiritual condition. There is a substantial private component to receiving communion that is known objectively only to the individual. This has to be respected within fairly broad limits. This is why so many bishops have simply said to pro-abortion politicians, "If you have publicly given formal and material cooperation to the sin of abortion you should not receive communion." This is exactly correct. But when said politician comes forward to receive communion, the pastor has to make a different kind of choice for the benefit of the individual and the larger Body. So, the question for the pastor is, "what do you know right this second about this person?" Since it is almost impossible to know the internal disposition of any individual at any given moment, the pastor must presume grace and give the politician communion.

Two quick points. First, the pastor's concern must be spiritual and not political; that is, the pastor's proper worry needs to be for the spiritual health of his Church and the individual involved. Refusing communion as a political act, some kind of protest against the person is reprehensible. Second, NO ONE other than the bishop or pastor should make the decision to refuse communion (and even the pastor will need to consult with the bishop). To be very specific: if you are a lay minister of communion and you know with the certainty of the angels that Senator Bob is in mortal sin, you cannot, in the absence of an order from the pastor, refuse him communion. This is not your job as an extraordinary minister. If you have concerns, talk to your pastor, but do not take it upon yourself to decide who is properly disposed to receive and who isn't. You are endangering your own soul by presuming to know what you cannot know.

Again, my thanks to Zadok the Roman for his charitable correction of this post and for the links to the always reliable Dr. Ed Peters, Canon Lawyer, Extraordinaire! Here Dr. Peter's lays out some options for addressing Catholic pro-abortion politicians.


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  3. Aspiring, it's entirely possible that I meant to use one and wrote the other. Examples?

  4. Yup...I'll fix it...thanks for pointing it out...

  5. oy, how about this.

    mind your own hive and keep your nose out of someone else's beeswax.


  6. Fr Philip,

    I think you're confusing two things - being in a state of mortal sin and being excommunicated. The former is a question of moral theology, and I agree with your assessment that the politicians you're talking about are in a state of mortal sin and should not be receiving Holy Communion.

    However, the question of whether they've incurred the canonical penalty of excommunication is different. Dr Ed Peters deals with this here. It does not seem as though the politicians in question are automatically excommunicated.

    Note that even though these politicians might not be excommunicated, refusing them Holy Communion is still an option for bishops and pastors.

  7. BTW, I blogged about this question previously and it occurs to me that local legislation could be put in place making political promotion of abortion an excommunicable offense.

  8. Zadok, I'm arguing that strictly speaking pro-abortion politicians who both formally and materially cooperate in the mortal sin of abortion are not properly disposed to received communion. In that sense, they are excommunicated. Excommunication does not require a decree from the bishop, though the bishop choose to announce that such a politician has excommunicated himself. If I'm not mistaken automatic excommunication is the consequence for procuring an abortion or for someone else procure one.

    Fr. Philip, OP

  9. Anonymous7:05 AM

    If excommunication can be seen as a very strong medicine given to bring repentance, than I think they should be excommunicated.

    Sen, now vice prez elect, Joe Biden is willing to accept what the church teaches, that life begins at conception, BUT he doesn't THINK he has to apply it to his political life/he can vote all day long for pro abortion laws and still be cool with God and the church. He has been corrected. NOW if he continues, I think for the sake of his soul and others, he should be excommunicated.

    And, unless I am missing something, formal excommunication is only lifted by Bishop or higher, isn't it? I realize they relaxed the law regarding abortion but say the Austrailian priest that is begging to be excommunicated because he has denied Christ as being divine. IF he is excommunicated, that will be lifted only by his Bishop or Rome, right? and some can only be lifted by Rome.

  10. Zadok, I'm arguing that strictly speaking pro-abortion politicians who both formally and materially cooperate in the mortal sin of abortion are not properly disposed to received communion.


    In that sense, they are excommunicated.

    I have trouble with your use of the word excommunicated here. Excommunication is a canonical penalty which can only be incurred in specific canonical situations.
    Equating being in a state of mortal sin with being excommunicated is confusing, and I would argue, incorrect.
    As a confessor, a priest should be very aware of this distinction, as the lifting of an excommunication is not the same as absolving someone from a sin.
    If someone comes to you and confesses the sin of adultery, he has certainly excluded himself from the Eucharist by his actions, and if he is properly disposed, you re-instate his proper relationship with God and the Church through giving him absolution. However, you do NOT need to ensure that an excommunication is lifted, as no excommunication was incurred by his adultery.

    On the other hand, if someone comes to you in confession having profaned the Eucharist in the knowledge of it being an excommunicable offence, he is both in a state of mortal sin and has incurred an automatic excommunication. If this person is contrite, you need to both give absolution and arrange for the canonical penalty of excommunication to be lifted. (I suspect that many priests are quite fuzzy on when this should be done, and how it is done.)

    Excommunication is not the same as being in a state of mortal sin. Equating the two terms does not clarify the situation of pro-abortion politicians. Using 'excommunication' as a synonym for being in a state of mortal sin empties the word 'excommunication' of its proper meaning.

    If I'm not mistaken automatic excommunication is the consequence for procuring an abortion or for someone else procure one.

    It's certainly the consequence of procuring an abortion. However, it does not seem as though canonists think that political promotion of abortion makes politicians accomplices in the sense intended by Canon 1329. Canonical jurisprudence insists that this canon be interpreted very strictly. Consequently, accomplices in an act of abortion are excommunicated, but this heading of 'accomplice' does not seem to canonically apply to politicians.

    I'm not defending these politicians. I agree that they should not receive communion, and that publically refusing them communion is a valid option. However, I don't think that what you have written about excommunication is canonically correct.
    I'll repeat what I said already - it is possible for Canonical Legislation to be brought to bear at a local or a universal level which would make the political promotion of abortion subject to the canonical censure of automatic excommunication. Bishops do have options whereby specific politicans can be declared excommunicate. However, as things stand at the moment, the opinion of canonists is that at the moment is that automatic excommunication is not incurred by pro-abortion politicians.

  11. Zadok, I'll do a little more reading and see where I need to revise. I was trying to simplify things, but it is entirely possible that I simply confused them!

    Thanks, Fr. Philip, OP

  12. Excellent post. Thanks!

  13. Anonymous12:03 PM

    IIRC, there was a formal ritual for excommunication upon which the scene in Becket is based.

    It was eliminated in the post-Conciliar reforms, just as the formal designation of anathema was removed from Canon Law.

  14. Anonymous2:56 PM

    I draw the comparison to if you were a public serial adulterer, it would be quite appropriate for your wife to deny you "communion" with her until you confessed, repented and dedicated yourself wholly to her.

  15. Anonymous4:47 PM

    I have a soloution for this, before you go to communion you meet with the priest in advance telling him you will present yourself for communion. The priest will tell you the conditions for recieving communion. And he will ask if you agree with those, your answer will determine if you are excommunicated. ( if he is your regular priest you should only have to do this once and then meet with him for regular confession so you can commune with the church). If you go out of town you get a letter from your priest that you can show to the church your are visiting so you can commune with that church.
    The eucharist is not a right, it is a privilege. If the Coptics and the Eastern can protect their holy sacrament why can't we.

  16. Fr. Philip,

    You state that

    "Since it is almost impossible to know the internal disposition of any individual at any given moment, the pastor must presume grace and give the politician communion."

    But Canon Law does not require priest to know the state of their soul or their internal disposition. In fact they are prohibited, as we all are, from judging the state of another's soul as that is reserved to God alone.

    From the Catechism: Mortal sin is sin whose object is grave matter and which is also committed with full knowledge and deliberate consent.

    Because of the internal nature of 2/3 of these requirements, it is impossible for a priest to know whether a person in question has committed a mortal sin (i.e. has truly been cut off from the grace of God). Luckily, it is not the requirement of the bishop or priest to know this in order to refuse communion.

    From the Code of Canon Law:

    Can. 915 Those who have been excommunicated or interdicted after the imposition or declaration of the penalty and others obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin are not to be admitted to holy communion.

    Public officials voting for abortion or other intrinsic evils fulfill the criteria of "manifest grave sin". I would argue that obstinate perseverance would be the continued public support of such evil. Failing a public recanting of their position, a bishop or priest would in fact have a duty to refuse communion.

  17. Matt,

    I understand and greatly sympathize with your objection!

    Overriding even canon law is the most fundamental command to show charity...justice, mercy, courage, etc. make no sense without charity.

    Now, that's not a wimpy Pastoral Solution. The hard case is this: if Joe Biden showed up here in Rome tomorrow and just happened to drop in unexpectedly at a Mass where I'm the celebrant, I would give him communion. If I am warned that he's coming, he and I would have a chat beforehand and if he is persisting in his pro-abortion stance, no communion. My point above is that what must override everything other consideration is the presumption of grace on the part of the pastor in the absence of any hard evidence to the contrary. Biden might be in Rome taking to the Pope; come to his senses, reconciled with the Church, and decided to stop by for Mass. And here I am assuming he's still supporting abortion and refusing our brother his Lord.

    Fr. Philip, OP

  18. Fr. Philip,

    I don't consider your stance a "wimpy pastoral solution". I understand the demand of charity when applying Canon Law. Even so, there are two purposes to Canon 915. The first is to help souls recognize the danger they are in, the second is to protect the flock from scandal.

    There are many times when charity insists those who "persist in manifest grave sin" deserve the benefit of the doubt. An unmarried, cohabitating couple...someone who has been divorced/remarried out side the Church...someone who procured an abortion and has not (to your knowledge) received reconciliation. But these are not public sins.

    You said, "To take communion after publicly formally and materially cooperating in the commission of a mortal sin, I cause scandal." Due to the public nature of pro-abortion politicians, my point is that if they receive communion without a public statement renouncing their position, they cause scandal with or without an interior conversion and private confession.

  19. And I should add that I know I'm being an armchair bishop here. I find Canon Law fascinating, but it's easy to opine about its fine points without having to put it into practice. I have the greatest respect for you and every priest and bishop who care so deeply for the salvation of souls.