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Clarity, please, on excommunication May 16, 2007

Could we have some clarity here, please?

A week has passed since Pope Benedict XVI told reporters that the Mexican politicians who voted to legalize abortion had cut themselves off from Communion. During that week, a series of ill-informed stories in the secular media have thoroughly muddled the Pope's message. Unfortunately, a few Catholic prelates have added to the confusion. And as I wrote in this space last week a "clarification" from the Vatican press office did not clarify anything. Now, in a public statement that is both arrogant and obtuse, a group of American lawmakers has scolded the Pope, capitalizing on the general confusion to promote their own political ends.

Intelligent discussion requires a proper grasp of the available facts. So let's start with a clear statement of what the Pope said-- and, just as important, what he did not say.

Pope Benedict did not say that politicians who vote for legal abortion are excommunicated.

Pope Benedict did say that politicians who vote for legal abortion should be barred from receiving Communion.

Yes, the Pope's original statement was imprecise-- perhaps understandably so, since he was speaking without a text, responding to reporters' questions. The Pope was asked whether or not he supported the Mexican bishops who had excommunicated pro-abortion politicians. He said Yes.

It might have been better if Holy Father corrected the reporter immediately, to make a crucial distinction. The Mexican bishops had not excommunicated anyone; they had announced that pro-abortion politicians should not receive Communion. There is an important difference-- as we shall see. But the Pope, ever a gentleman, evidently preferred not to correct his questioner. Instead he indicated his support for what the Mexican bishops had done.

Let's pause to underline the point: What the Pope endorsed-- what the Mexican bishops had actually done-- was to deny Communion to politicians who support abortion.

Explaining his support for the Mexican bishops, the Pontiff said: "They simply announced to the public what is stipulated by the law of the Church." So in spite of any confusion over the difference between excommunication and denial of Communion, we know that in the Pope's mind, the appropriate disciplinary action is clearly spelled out in the Code of Canon Law.

What does the Code say?

In his informative blog, In the Light of the Law, canonist Edward Peters has provided a complete review of the relevant provisions. To mention just the essentials:

• Canon 1398 says that anyone who procures an abortion incurs the penalty of excommunication. The same penalty may be applied to the doctor who performs the abortion and the father who pays for it. But most canon lawyers agree that the automatic excommunication does not apply to politicians who vote to legalize abortion. Maybe politicians should be excommunicated as well; the topic is certainly debatable. But the Code makes no clear provision for such a penalty, and the Pope's statement seems to suggest that the Mexican bishops were doing something clearly covered by the Code.

• Canon 915 reads: "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."

Notice two important aspects of this canon. First, it refers not only to those who have been excommunicated, but also to "others" who are not formally subject to that canonical penalty. Second, the canon does not merely say that these people should refrain from receiving Communion; it says that they "are not to be admitted." As Peters puts it, "It is self-evident from the terms of this canon that some people who are not excommunicated are nevertheless prohibited from receiving the Eucharist and that this prohibition is meant to be enforced."

The Mexican bishops are enforcing the provision, and the Pope applauds them. That's the key lesson to be learned from those mid-flight comments.

For years the Church has been teaching that public advocacy for legal abortion (and other causes associated with the "culture of death") is gravely wrong. Politicians who persist in their defiance of these Church teachings are subject to discipline. And formal excommunication is not the only disciplinary measure available to bishops.

Without rolling out all the canonical machinery that would be required for formal excommunication, a bishop can-- right now-- announce that politicians who support legal abortion are not to receive Communion. The bishop would be well within his rights in doing so; he would have the clear support of canon law; he would have the backing of the Pope.

Unfortunately, even most Catholic prelates seem to be missing the point. In an interview with Time magazine, Cardinal Oscar Andres Rodriguez Maradiaga made the highly questionable assertion that under canon law, "everyone who works for abortion is excommunicated." But when he was asked whether he would deny the Eucharist to these pro-abortion politicians, the Honduran cardinal replied: "This is a different point. For who am I to deny Holy Communion to a person? I cannot."

Exactly wrong. A bishop (or for that matter an ordinary priest) has not the right but the duty to withhold the Eucharist from someone "obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin," in order to avoid public scandal. [UPDATE: Shortly after his Time magazine interview appeared in print, Cardinal Rodriguez issued a quite different statement, indicating that politicians should be denied the Eucharist if they continue to promote legal abortion "with obstinate persistence" after pastors admonish them.]

When matters are so confused that an influential cardinal has things precisely backward, the Church cannot convey a clear message. And when the Church's message is not clear, Catholic politicians can find dozens of convenient ways to shirk their responsibilities. For a prime example, see the statement by American lawmakers who decry the threat of "religious sanction in the political arena."

They, too, are precisely wrong. It is not "in the political arena" that ecclesiastical sanction would be applied, but in Church. Politicians would still be free to advocate their views-- the Church has no temporal power to stop them-- but they would see the consequences of their actions when they visited church on Sunday.

The Democratic legislators go on to say that the Pope's words jeopardize "freedoms guaranteed in our Constitution." Once again, precisely wrong. The Constitution guarantees that religious bodies will be free from political control. Out of respect for that constitutional provision, the lawmakers should not try to use their own public influence to sway Church leaders.

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