Catholic Culture Liturgical Living
Catholic Culture Liturgical Living

The HHS Mandate and Excommunication

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Feb 10, 2012

The US Bishops have been leading a fight against the HHS contraception/sterilization/abortion mandate now for about two weeks. The news of this effort, and of the swelling opposition to the mandate, has been fast and furious and, on the whole, satisfying. To review what’s been going on, scan this list of our Catholic World News stories during this period:

Beyond the convenience of this list for review, one important concern fairly leaps to the eye. Three of the four stories which indicate negative developments (they are highlighted in bold) feature Catholic politicians. This is not new, of course, but it is worth revisiting.

I have already discussed the interaction between spiritual renewal, ecclesiastical discipline and political action (see Priestly Fidelity: The Time to Take Prisoners Has Passed and Salvation vs. Politics). I’ve emphasized the need for the bishops to ensure that priests in every parish begin teaching the immorality of contraception clearly, frequently and forcefully as a key part of a much-needed Catholic spiritual and moral renewal.

But encouraging, fortifying and disciplining priests are not the only weapons in the ecclesiastical arsenal, not even when you add the effective use of assignments to reward and punish, as well as laicization and loss of income where warranted. Another important tool is excommunication, and this can be used not only against priests but against laymen, whenever they publicly and persistently give grave scandal by contradicting and undermining the Church or Catholic teaching through their words and actions.

The debate over whether pro-abortion Catholic political leaders should be refused communion or even formally excommunicated has been going on for years. The bishops have been divided in theory on this question and, in practice, no modern bishop has been willing to excommunicate in the war against Catholic participation in the culture of death. But the HHS mandate changes the debate in at least two ways.

First, the HHS mandate takes its Catholic proponents from encouraging grave moral evil to enforcing participation by other Catholics in that evil. In other words, the offense has shifted from personal involvement in evil to a direct assault on the Church. Moreover, there is more than one point of assault. There is one assault against the moral dignity of Catholics and another assault against the clear directives of the bishops who govern the Church.

Second, the bishops have chosen to make the HHS mandate a sort of tipping point. Why they have been so confused and ineffective in their response to the steady erosion of moral values by the American legal system over the past two generations is a matter for historical study. But for whatever combination of reasons now—one of which is certainly this crossing of the thin line between encouragement to participate in evil and actual force—the bishops have decided that they have been pushed as far as they are willing to be pushed, and they have decided to push back.

It is awkward, of course, for our bishops to excommunicate people for challenging their administrative decision (to fight the mandate), or even for attempting to coerce Catholics into supporting evil, when the same bishops have been unwilling to excommunicate the same persons for contradicting the Church’s moral teachings, giving grave scandal, and wreaking widespread havoc in society as a whole. It almost seems selfish; it is almost like saying we don’t care how much you hurt yourself and others as long as you do not attack your bishops.

At the same time, the direct attack on the bishops through the HHS mandate is marvellously clarifying. If there were any ambiguity before, that ambiguity has been removed by the effort to coerce rather  than simply ignore the Church. Further, just because the bishops should have acted more decisively long ago does not make it wrong for them to act decisively now, especially in response to a further provocation. Sometimes it takes a decisive moment to get people to shift direction, but when they do shift direction, they start doing many things that their timidity has prevented in the past. If the bishops have really reached their decisive moment, they will show it by fighting with more than mere words.

(Also, please note: They must beware of going back to business as usual if, as may happen, they should get a favorable court ruling on this particular issue, or if the Obama administration should back down on this one thing, or, if as has already happened, the Obama administration should offer a morally meaningless compromise.)

Now the truth of the matter is that two of the Catholics identified in the stories with bolded headlines, Kathleen Sebelius and Nancy Pelosi, have both been warned repeatedly by bishops. They have consistently rejected the techings of the Church as well as the moral judgment and pastoral counsel of their bishops. They have in fact led the political assault on Catholic moral values in the past, as they are leading the direct assault on the Church herself now. I am less familiar with efforts to caution the third villain of the bolded headlines, Governor Martin O’Malley of Maryland, but it is intolerable that he should dismiss the bishops’ concerns about the HHS mandate as “hyperventilating”. In at least two of these cases, and possibly all three, immediate and total denial of communion is essentially required by Canon Law, and formal excommunication is more than warranted.

Right now, I think we may say that the bishops have taken the glove off. I use the singular advisedly. But there is another glove to be removed. If we have really reached the tipping point, then many things ought to change. To be sure, Bishops ought to be enlisting the hosts of heaven in this conflict, giving it the spiritual focus it deserves. But as the Incarnation demonstrates, God prefers to work through nature rather than in place of nature. Both politically and spiritually, the most potent natural tool a bishop possesses is his disciplinary authority. Therefore discipline has to reach its tipping point, too. Only then can it slide rapidly into place.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

Sound Off! supporters weigh in.

All comments are moderated. To lighten our editing burden, only current donors are allowed to Sound Off. If you are a current donor, log in to see the comment form; otherwise please support our work, and Sound Off!

Show 8 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: - Feb. 18, 2012 9:46 PM ET USA

    Authority given and not used is no authority at all ....

  • Posted by: AgnesDay - Feb. 17, 2012 2:08 PM ET USA

    The use of excommunication is primarily for the salvation of the soul of the excommunicatus. Now looking well past the brow of the hill myself, I know that life is short, and I am so grateful for the grace of timely repentance. If we were half the Catholics we like to think we are, we would offer the best Lent we could for the salvation of American Catholics and "Catholics".

  • Posted by: davidSanDiego - Feb. 14, 2012 4:36 PM ET USA

    I believe excommunication would be perceived by all but a very few to be an attempt by the bishops to interfere directly with the political process. The backlash would be trememdous and further the aims of the administration to split Catholics. I would be in favor of a more nuanced censure: denial of the eucharist. The public at large would understand this as the person still being in the church but in grave error in regards to its teachings. Enforcement becomes the issue.

  • Posted by: AgnesDay - Feb. 14, 2012 12:57 PM ET USA

    While we are in disciplinary mode, let's talk about "Catholic" media personalities (two Irish surnames on the FOX News Channel come to mind)who give the most skewed interpretation of Catholic doctrine as if they were the Pope. They give terrible example: How do we know who their bishop is?

  • Posted by: impossible - Feb. 11, 2012 2:11 PM ET USA

    Thanks for this excellent summary and commentary. But, Re: "crossing of the thin line between encouragement to participate in evil and actual force," - that line was crossed before this current assault, or do you not regard the Internal Revenue Code as an "actual force" which has required us all to pay for abortions?

  • Posted by: - Feb. 11, 2012 1:03 AM ET USA

    Make room for our misguided governor of Washington State, Christine Gregoire, a "practicing Catholic" who had the gall to "warn" our Archbishop that she was recommending passage of a "gay marriage" bill by the legislature. The bill passed the Senate last week and the House this week, and the governor is set to sign it into law on Monday, Feb. 13. "I look forward to signing this piece of legislation, and putting into law an end to an era of discrimination,” Gregoire said Wednesday.

  • Posted by: mdepietro - Feb. 10, 2012 11:23 PM ET USA

    It is about time someone called for this! If this attempt to coerce not only Church institutions, but what about the private Catholic business owner who wishes to follow the teaching of the Church and not offer contraceptive coverage. Any Catholic business owner is now forced to purchase immoral insurance for their staff. Even the religious exemption is not enough. For those doing this to the faithful, only excommunication is an adequate penalty

  • Posted by: AgnesDay - Feb. 10, 2012 3:48 PM ET USA

    How long, O Lord?