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Should pro-abortion Catholic politicians be excommunicated?

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Feb 06, 2019

When Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York spearheaded the successful change to the State Constitution in January, guaranteeing abortion up to and even beyond the moment of birth, many wondered why he was not immediately excommunicated. Admittedly, the same question has been raised for years, but this was perhaps the most obvious and egregious case in the United States so far.

Thinking about this, CNN’s Daniel Burke inquired of New York City’s Cardinal Timothy Dolan. Phil Lawler first covered the response in “The real reason why Cuomo won’t be excommunicated”. Technically, that answer came from an aide to the Cardinal, but it was intended as Dolan’s answer. For convenience, here is the full text:

I will not discuss any individual. Anything that follows is a statement of some general principles, and should not be considered to be a comment on any specific person.
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.
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.
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.
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. (See, for example, the case of Bishop Leo Maher and Lucy Killea).

Irrelevant arguments

Unfortunately, the points offered here are mostly irrelevant:

First, the idea that excommunication should not be “used as a weapon” begs the question by turning it against those who are experiencing “anger or frustration”. Obviously, a bishop should not excommunicate someone simply because the bishop is feeling angry or frustrated. Just as obviously, excommunication is not supposed to be some sort of political tool. But it is certainly a spiritual weapon, one of many spiritual techniques and penalties which ought to be used in spiritual warfare for the salvation of souls.

Second, the opinion of “notable canon lawyers” that excommunication is not an appropriate penalty for the case in question is nothing to the purpose; there are also many canon lawyers who think it perfectly appropriate. Moreover, bishops, not canon lawyers, determine when to excommunicate.

Third, the duty of a bishop to address a contentious issue personally and directly with the offending party is a complete red herring. Clearly this very real duty does not preclude a canonical penalty if personal intervention does not produce a satisfactory result.

This leaves only the strategic fourth point, that excommunication may not be effective because “many politicians would welcome it” as “a political advantage.” But surely the reader sees the problem here: This argument falls into the trap of applying spiritual penalties in accordance with predicted political outcomes. If the first point implies the wrongheadedness of socio-political anger as a motive for excommunication, the fourth falls into an even worse political trap.

While prudence should always play a role in choosing spiritual weapons, it is absolutely inadmissible to let political considerations override spiritual concerns. Moreover, even if we suppose in a given case that the one excommunicated would not be led to repentance, that does not end the discussion for two very good reasons: (1) We cannot know the short and long-term impact of a spiritual penalty before it is applied; and (2) The potential recipient of the penalty is not the only person whom excommunication is supposed to serve spiritually.

Why excommunicate?

If memory serves, in addition to Church teaching and the many examples of the use of the penalty over the centuries, we have only two passages in Divine Revelation which bear directly on excommunication. The first comes from the lips of Our Lord Himself, as recorded in the Gospel of St. Matthew:

If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. [Mt 15:18]

We should note in passing that Cardinal Dolan’s emphasis on personal remonstration with the sinner is clearly viewed by Christ as only one stage of a very clear progression. Our Lord here mandated that His followers are to follow this progression to its end.

The second reference is found in the first letter of St. Paul to the Corinthians:

It is actually reported that there is immorality among you, and of a kind that is not found even among pagans; for a man is living with his father’s wife. And you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn? Let him who has done this be removed from among you. For though absent in body I am present in spirit, and as if present, I have already pronounced judgment in the name of the Lord Jesus on the man who has done such a thing. When you are assembled, and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus. [1 Cor 5:1-5]

Both of these passages are strongly rooted in the identity of the body of believers, the Church. Indeed, only the second places a special emphasis on what excommunication is supposed to do for the one penalized: “You are to deliver this man to Satan…that his spirit may be saved”. Even here, however, the context is the arrogance of those in the Church in Corinth who tolerate this immorality in their midst: “Let him who has done this be removed from among you.” Moreover, the pure and humble obedience to the law of God in the community of believers as a whole lies at the heart of Our Lord’s words in the first passage: “If he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”

In other words, there are “communitarian” or “church-related” aspects to the problem of excommunication: Not only does the sinner need the penalty but so does the community of believers, so that they will not be scandalized, or become spiritually lazy, or even (as St. Paul puts it) “arrogant”. Moreover, the whole body of the Church is to keep itself pure, for she is set apart for the service of God—sensitive to human weakness but taking no part with sinners who would obstinately shift the entire body into evil.


I have written several times elsewhere that the effective renewal of the Catholic Church demands that the Church be willing to make herself smaller by enforcing the annual baptismal promises. (As just one example, see my series “Smaller Church, Bigger Faith”.) It should not be possible for those who actually deny what the Church teaches in faith and morals to remain in good standing. It is not reasonable to have a large weight of “Catholics” (perhaps now even a majority) who claim the name while denying the Faith. Unless this changes, the Church will never again be what Our Lord intended her to be. In practice, she will be dominated not by espousal, but by harlotry.

The Church will always be made up of sinners. That is essential to her identity. But excommunication is an important tool in Catholic renewal because it draws a clear institutional line between ordinary sinners and those who formally reject Church teaching—and so formally reject Christ. In particular, ecclesiastical officials and those prominent Catholics who exercise social, political, cultural or economic influence should not be allowed to claim to be Catholic while deliberately refusing the obedience of faith.

When this is allowed, the result is confusion. It is a severe scandal—a millstone scandal—in that lay people find they can, in practice, believe anything, while priests, deacons and religious find they can, in practice, teach anything, or at least ignore their duty to teach clearly. Excommunication, used properly, will help to create the spiritual clarity Catholics so desperately need. We must learn again that this is a spiritual service not only to the one excommunicated but to the whole Body of Christ.

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.

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