Action Alert!

Vatican document suggests excommunication for some Catholic politicians

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Aug 04, 2017

This week the Vatican launched an international campaign against corruption and organized crime. Well, that’s not quite right. This week the Vatican announced the campaign; it will actually be launched in September. So we don’t know exactly what it will be.

If you read the full announcement, released on August 2 by the dicastery for Integral Human Development, you’ll notice that the statement is short on specifics. There will be an “international consultation group,” which will promote education and public awareness of the damage done by corruption. So far, so good. But who will be the members of this group, and what will they actually do?

“The consultation group will not just come up with virtuous exhortations, because concrete gestures are needed,” we are told. Excellent. And what might those “concrete gestures” be? The announcement offers just one suggestion: a discussion of excommunication as a penalty for corruption or for involvement in the Mafia.

Is the excommunication of prominent individuals a realistic possibility in the age of Pope Francis? Could the canonical penalty actually deter corruption?

Let’s stipulate that corruption is a very serious problem. The problem is typically most acute in impoverished societies, for three reasons. First, because kleptocratic rulers steal from their people and even siphon off a portion of the humanitarian aid their countries receive. Second, because endemic corruption impedes economic development; investors shy away from countries where the rules can change abruptly at the whim of a greedy government official. Third, because poor people lack the resources they would need to fight against public corruption. Corruption in government is a form of oppression; it’s no coincidence that corruption is most evident in authoritarian regimes. So it is not illogical to suggest that the Church should treat public corruption as a serious offense: a grave sin and scandal.

However, in order to punish corruption, Church leaders would first need to prove corruption. Therein lies a difficulty. We might all feel sure that a particular government leader is corrupt, and we might all be right. But canon law, like secular law, requires proof before a penalty can be imposed. How would an ecclesiastical court acquire that sort of proof?

It would be simple enough, I suppose, if a venal politician called a press conference to boast about his acceptance of bribes and kickbacks. But that isn’t likely. (The same is true for Mafia dons, who typically identify themselves to the public as legitimate businessmen. Don Corleone wouldn’t be excommunicated for importing olive oil.)

And yet…Wait a minute! Haven’t more than a few prominent Catholic politicians held press conferences to announce their support for unrestricted legal abortion on demand? Haven’t they been amply warned that support for legal abortion is gravely wrong, and separates them from the Church to which they protest their fidelity? If there’s any argument to be made for the excommunication of corrupt politicians, there’s a stronger argument for excommunication of Catholic politicians who support abortion.

Somehow I doubt that the dicastery for Integral Human Development, under its present leadership, will pursue that argument. Just as, frankly, I doubt that the dicastery will produce anything more than a pro forma denunciation of corrupt politicians.

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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