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The real reason why Cuomo won’t be excommunicated

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Jan 26, 2019

“The last temptation is the greatest treason: To do the right deed for the wrong reason.”
T.S. Eliot, Murder in the Cathedral

As the Washington Post (!) reported on calls for the excommunication of New York’s Governor Andrew Cuomo, who had strongly backed and applauded the state’s radical new abortion-on-demand legislation, Cardinal Timothy Dolan told CNN’s Daniel Burke why he didn’t think excommunication was a good idea. The cardinal made four points. One of those points made sense.

Let’s review. We’ll take Cardinal Dolan’s points out of order, since it’s his 2nd point that makes sense:

Second, notable canon lawyers have said that, under canon law, excommunication is not an appropriate response to a politician who supports or votes for legislation advancing abortion.

Fair enough. The Code of Canon Law provides for a variety of ecclesiastical sanctions, to be applied under different circumstances. Those of us who are not canon lawyers tend to think first of excommunication, but in fact a bishop has different options at his disposal. Ed Peters, who is a canon lawyer, has explained the details. But if excommunication is not the right option, the fact remains that some form of ecclesiastical discipline is not only appropriate but absolutely necessary. And since the offense has been public, the remedy must also be public, as Msgr. Charles Pope has explained:

It is time to end the charade, even the lie, that Andrew Cuomo and others like him are Catholics in good standing. They are not, and this must be made plain to them and to others.

In his talk with CNN, however, Cardinal Dolan does not suggest alternative forms of Church discipline. He concentrates on excommunication—perhaps unintentionally strengthening the non-specialist’s mistaken tendency to think that this is the only option, that it’s excommunication or nothing.

Back to the cardinal’s talking points:

First, excommunication should not be used as a weapon. Too often, I fear, those who call for someone’s excommunication do so out of anger or frustration.

Right; excommunication is not properly used as a weapon. It is used as a medicinal remedy, in an effort to persuade the offender that he must repent for the good of his own soul. In the case of a public offense—such as the enthusiastic support of the unrestricted legal killing of innocent children—a public announcement of excommunication (or some other canonical discipline that the bishop deems appropriate) also serves the necessary purpose of eliminating a scandal.

That scandal—the behavior of politicians who claim the mantle of Catholicism while flouting the Church’s teaching—is the source of the “anger and frustration” that Cardinal Dolan cites. Well, what’s wrong with acting to address the source of anger and frustration among the faithful? And by the way, Your Eminence, that anger and frustration is aimed at you, and your fellow bishops, who have allowed this scandal to fester for decades.

Moving on:

Third, from a pastoral perspective, if a pastor—and a bishop is certainly a pastor of a diocese—knows of a grave situation involving a parishioner, it is his duty to address that issue personally and directly with the parishioner. That was the approach of Cardinal O’Connor and Cardinal Egan (both of whom I served), and it is Cardinal Dolan’s approach as well.

Good. I trust, then, that Cardinal Dolan has spoken personally with Governor Cuomo, and done his best to change his mind. Obviously that hasn’t worked. Now what?

Fourth, and finally, from a strategic perspective, I do not believe that excommunication would be effective as many politicians would welcome it as a sign of their refusal to be “bullied by the Church,” thinking it would therefore give them a political advantage.

Maybe so. In fact, probably so. Governor Cuomo would no doubt find ways to turn any disciplinary action to his political advantage. Cuomo is a powerful and skillful politician; Cardinal Dolan is neither. If this conflict plays out in the political arena, Cuomo will win. Then again—have you noticed?—he’s winning now.

And what of it? From the cardinal’s perspective this is not—at least it should not be—a political contest. This is a battle for souls. The cardinal’s responsibility is not to devise political strategy, but to protect the integrity of the Catholic faith. If he would do his job, and take some public action to acknowledge that Cuomo has broken his ties with the Church, then professional politicians who are believing Catholics would find it much easier to advance the pro-life cause.

Would the pro-life cause suffer some short-term losses in the wake of disciplinary action? That’s possible—although in New York today, in the wake of this latest legislation, things can’t get much worse. Would the Catholic hierarchy be pilloried in the mainstream media? No doubt. But again, that’s happening already.

As I’ve observed in the past, Cuthbert Tunstall had a great deal to lose if he stood up to Henry VIII: specifically, he would have lost his head. So it’s easy to understand why he didn’t oppose the king. It’s not so easy to see what a Catholic bishop in New York would lose today by invoking the appropriate discipline on Governor Cuomo.

And remember, too, that the story of Cuthbert Tunstall has a happy ending; when the lines were drawn even more clearly, he—and all the other English Catholic bishops of 1559— did uphold the Catholic faith, and willingly paid the price for his fidelity. This, the historian James Hitchcock has observed, is “a fact which demonstrates the possibility of thoroughly reforming a national hierarchy.”

Thorough reform of a national hierarchy: could anything be more beneficial for the Catholic Church in America today? It could begin with clarity: the sort of clarity that would come from clear, public canonical disciplinary action in this case.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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  • Posted by: WNS3234 - Jan. 29, 2019 8:12 PM ET USA

    Cuomo does not see that his soul is in peril; that or he's willing to surrender it for New York. There are limits to how often a bishop must "flip the switch" with no result. Much as in the story of Dives & Lazarus, Cumo has the Church and its Magisterium. Unless Christ Himself knocks Andrew from his horse, I see no use in making another phone call, or visit to the governor. Just boycott New York.

  • Posted by: fenton1015153 - Jan. 29, 2019 11:15 AM ET USA

    Cardinal Dolan makes a good case for why we need to clean house on our leadership. You seriously have to wonder just how many Bishops and Cardinals are trying to be holy leaders of the Church Christ instituted. Or have they forgotten that one day they will have to face Christ and explain what they have done. I pray for their souls each day as we all should.

  • Posted by: steve.grist2587 - Jan. 27, 2019 2:31 PM ET USA

    It seems Cardinal Dolan is indifferent to the soul of Governor Cuomo and to the souls of the lost sheep who Cuomo leads to hell. "He who is a hireling and not a shepherd, whose own the sheep are not, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. He flees [from controversy] because he is a hireling and cares nothing for the sheep." John [10:12]

  • Posted by: Cory - Jan. 26, 2019 10:05 PM ET USA

    I love your writing Phil. Love it. But sadly what you are hoping for will not happen. These bishops will to their graves the way they : more concerned about the opinion of men than of God. I cannot ever see Dolan repenting or becoming a better bishop, priest or Cardinal.