Catholic Culture Liturgical Living
Catholic Culture Liturgical Living

Reply to a Question on Excommunication of Public Officials Who Openly Support Abortion

by Basil Cole, O.P.

Descriptive Title

John Kerry: A Question of Heresy?


Fr. Basil Cole wrote this letter as an unofficial response to Marc Balestrieri's inquiry to the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith as to whether Catholic politicians who persist in supporting the right to abortion are “automatically excommunicated.” Mr. Balestrieri is a Los Angeles canon lawyer who attempted to 'sue' John Kerry for heresy under church law because of his proabortion rights position.

Publisher & Date

De Fide, October 18, 2004

Vision Book Cover Prints

Catholic World News reported on October 18 that a Vatican "consultant has said Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry has incurred the penalty of excommunication from the Catholic Church."  This statement was alleged to have been made in an "unusual, indirect communication from the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith."

But the man designated as a Vatican "consultant," theologian and Dominican Father Basil Cole, denies being a "consultant" in the matter.  What CWN called an "indirect communication from the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith" was not from that Vatican congregation, he says, but was an unofficial letter he wrote at the request of the congregation's undersecretary, Father Augustine DiNoia. 

Furthermore, Father Cole did not say in his letter that "democratic presidential candidate John Kerry has incurred the penalty of excommunication" as was reported, although such a conclusion can be inferred from what the letter states about Catholic politicians and a proabortion rights stance.

The letter answers a theological inquiry made of the Vatican by Marc Balestrieri, an L.A. canon lawyer who is attempting to "sue" John Kerry for heresy under church law because of his proabortion rights position.   Mr. Balestrieri issued a press release hailing the Cole letter as evidence the Vatican holds Senator Kerry and other Catholic proabortion rights politicians to have excommunicated themselves by virtue of their views on abortion.

Father Cole's letter concludes that Catholics who publicly and obstinately support the civil right to abortion, knowing the Church's teaching against it, commit heresy, and are thereby excommunicated. In a clarification issued the same day as Mr. Balestrieri's press release and the CWN story, the priest insists the letter represents his judgment as a private theologian, not an official statement of the Vatican.  Here is the text of Father's Cole's clarification:

Several weeks ago, Fr. DiNoia, the undersecretary for the Congregation of Doctrine and Faith, asked me to communicate with Marc Balestrieri about a question concerning abortion, excommunication and the like. I was neither delegated by the Congregation to speak for it, nor was I in any sense a "consultor" to the Congregation. I was simply someone trying to help someone understand the gravity of the evil of abortion and the possible penalties associated by formally and publically teaching that abortion was not per se a grave sin. Both Fr. DiNoia and I assumed that the person was a student wanting to understand the Church's teaching. I was told he was seeking to do a JCD degree by the person in question. Neither Fr. DiNoia nor I had any knowledge that he was going to "go after" Kerry or any other Catholic figure for their public stance concerning the evil of abortion. So, in my letter to Marc Balestrieri, I began by mentioning that my letter is a personal and private opinion to him about anyone who would publically and persistently teach that abortion is not morally prohibited. It in no way is authoritative from the Congregation nor was I representing the Congregation. It's only weight is that of a priest and a theologian who appeals to sacred sources. I was helping out Fr. DiNoia who asked me to do this for him. Fraternally in St. Dominic, Fr. Basil Cole, OP.

Canon lawyer Edward Peters has interesting comments on the matter at his canon law website, which is here.  The Washington Times has a piece in which Father Cole denies that his letter is per se authoritative. Here. Then we have The New York Times coverage of the letter, with the usual NYT inaccuracies and confusion. Here. CNS has a story which gives a different version of events than CWN and Balestrieri's press release. Here.

(The above was taken from Third Millennium Perspectives.)

Fr. Basil Cole, OP, STD
Dominican House of Studies
487 Michigan Ave., NE
Washington DC 20017-1585
September 11, 2004

Dear Mr. Balestrieri ,

I received a request from the Very Reverend Augustine DiNoia, OP, the undersecretary of the Congregation for Doctrine of the Faith to respond unofficially to your dubia submitted in writing to the Congregation on August 30, 2004:

I. Utrum doctrina de peccato gravi cujuslibet aborti recta via procurati sicut dogma fidei divinae et catholicae, errore opposito adjuncto sicut heresia considerato in senso simili Paragraphi Primi Professii Fidei, qualificata esse possit.

II. Utrum doctrina de illiceitate gravi cujuslibet juris ad abortum recta via procuratum sicut implicite saltem, sed etiam directe inter dogma dicta supra fidei divinae et catholicae, errore opposito adjuncto sicut heresia considerato in senso simili Paragraphi Primi Professii Fidei, qualificata esse possit.

My response ad Ium: Affirmative.

In the Encyclical Letter Evangelium Vitae, Pope John Paul II clearly teaches the following:

62c. Given such unanimity in the doctrinal and disciplinary tradition of the Church, Paul VI was able to declare that this tradition is unchanged and unchangeable. [Footnote 72 deleted] Therefore, by the authority which Christ conferred upon Peter and his Successors, in communion with the Bishops—who on various occasions have condemned abortion and who in the aforementioned consultation, albeit dispersed throughout the world, have shown unanimous agreement concerning this doctrine—I declare that direct abortion, that is, abortion willed as an end or as a means, always constitutes a grave moral disorder, since it is the deliberate killing of an innocent human being. This doctrine is based upon the natural law and upon the written Word of God, is transmitted by the Church's Tradition and taught by the ordinary and universal Magisterium. [Footnote 73 deleted]

No one is his right theological mind would claim that this truth concerning the sin of abortion simply defined by the Pope interpreting the papal and episcopal magisterium is a probable opinion, or non-infallible. It is definitive, certain, indubitable and infallible by the ordinary magisterium.

Now to the categorization of the doctrine, I would say the follwoing. Although Pope John Paul II in Evangelium Vitae, 61 states that abortion is not directly and specifically, but only as a logical consequence, condemned by the Sacred Scriptures, the Holy Father does however subsequently teach in the same paragraph that abortion is directly and specifically condemned as a most grave sin by Sacred Tradition:

61c. Christian Tradition-as the Declaration issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith points out so well - is clear and unanimous, from the beginning up to our own day, in describing abortion as a particularly grave moral disorder. [Footnote 61 deleted] From its first contacts with the GrecoRoman world, where abortion and infanticide were widely practiced, the first Christian community, by its teaching and practice, radically opposed the customs rampant in that society, as is clearly shown by the Didache mentioned earlier. [Footnote 62 deleted]

61d. Throughout Christianity's two thousand year history, this same doctrine has been constantly taught by the Fathers of the Church and by her Pastors and Doctors. Even scientific and philosophical discussions about the precise moment of the infusion of the spiritual soul have never given rise to any hesitation about the moral condemnation of abortion.

As the Church has defined, there are two fonts of Revelation in the Christian faith: the Sacred Scriptures and Sacred Tradition. This is why Canon 750, § 1 of the Code of Canon Law of 1983 is so important to remember:

All that is contained in the written Word of God or in Tradition, that is, in the one deposit of faith entrusted to. the Church and also proposed as divinely revealed either by the solemn magisterium of the Church or by its ordinary and universal magisterium, must be believed with divine and catholic faith; it is manifested by the common adherence of the Christian faithful under the leadership of the sacred magisterium; therefore, all are bound to avoid any doctrines whatever which are contrary to these truths.

A doctrine of Divine and Catholic faith may be contained solely in any one of these two fonts. It is not required that it be contained simultaneously in both in order to fall within the First Paragraph of the Profession of Faith of 29 June 1998:

With firm faith, I also believe everything contained in the Word of God, whether written or handed down in Tradition, which the Church, either by solemn judgment or by the ordinary and written magisterium, sets forth to be believed as divinely revealed.

As a theologian, the conclusion of my analysis of your first dubium is that the teaching against abortion is de Fide Divina et Catholica — of Divine and Catholic faith — under the Ordinary and Universal Magisterium.

Although the papal magisterium representing the universal Church has not used the exact clause "of Divine and Catholic Faith" in so many words, it easily could have said so. Just because it has not done so recently does not diminish the manifest truth that the doctrine is in fact of Divine and Catholic Faith. All Catholics are bound to believe in it with the firm and irrevocable assent of Faith, admitting of no exceptions whatsoever. In public as in private, they can never deny or doubt this doctrine.

In regard to the level of magisterium, the teaching on abortion is not solemnly defined by the Roman Pontiff as in the case of the declarations of Mary's Immaculate Conception or her Assumption. The General Councils of the Church have not hurled anathemas against those who disbelieve this doctrine. To claim that this truth of our faith is a solemnly defined truth would not be factual, but is close to it and could be one day, if the pope ex cathedra, or a General Council in union with him, solemnly defined it as such.

The Church has prudentially thought that such solemn acts of definition are not needed. Perhaps one reason why the Church has not solemnly defined this and other matters of morals is quite simple: There is no massive theological movement against the teaching even though secular society dissents and an occasional theologian or religious teacher does the same thing. Similarly, the church has said little about the existence of the devil in a solemn way since there has been no major denial of his existence as taught in Sacred Scripture. Usually the Church uses her more solemn authority judiciously and more in dogmatic matters than in moral matters, even though dogma and morals are not totally distinct from each other since theology is one science not two.

To claim that the teaching on abortion is not definitive and can be dissented from would, therefore, be erroneous and heretical theologically. If you or I deny it, it is heresy in the Thomistic sense of the word. The denial or doubt of the teaching on abortion does, furthermore, qualify as the heresy envisioned by Canon 751 of the Code of Canon Law:

Heresy is the obstinate denial or doubt, after received baptism, of a truth to be believed by divine and catholic faith.

The condition of obstinate denial or doubt is met, from the theological point of view, when there is the existence of an objective situation of sin that endures in time and which the will of the individual member of the faithful does not bring to an end, no other requirements (attitude of defiance, prior warning, etc.) being necessary to establish the fundamental gravity of the situation in the Church.

The requirement of knowledge is met if one knows or doubts, even if only in confusa (the solid opposite possibility) that Church teaching officially condemns abortion as a sin. Theologians, therefore commonly teach that the exact level of certainty ("of Divine and Catholic Faith") need not be known.

To commit the sin of heresy, you do not have to deny solemnly defined truths of the faith only. It suffices to deny truths contrary to the manifest understanding of the Sacred Scriptures, such as denying the truth of any of the ten commandments. Thomas himself occasionally calls people heretics who deny the manifest and obvious sense of biblical texts. This isn't to say that moral teachings cannot be defined because some very few have been defined solemnly by the Church especially the Council of Trent on marriage, and against polygamy.

So, if I obstinately deny by teaching and preaching, or doubt that abortion is not intrinsically evil, I commit the mortal sin of heresy. All things being equal, I am automatically excommunicated according to the provisions of Can. 1364, § 1, provided that the presumptions of knowledge of the law and penalty (Can. 15, § 2) and imputability (Can. 1321, § 3) are not rebutted in the external forum:

With due regard for can. 194, § 1, n. 2, an apostate from the faith, a heretic or a schismatic incurs automatic excommunication and if a cleric, he can also be punished by the penalties mentioned in can. 1336, § 1, nn. 1, 2, and 3. §2. If long lasting contumacy or the seriousness of scandal warrants it, other penalties can be added including dismissal from the clerical state.

My response ad IIum: Affirmative.

It should be obvious from all that I've said that for anyone to maintain a right to abortion piggybacks on the heresy and becomes part of its darkness.
Consequently, if a Catholic publicly and obstinately supports the civil right to abortion, knowing that the Church teaches officially against that legislation, he or she commits that heresy envisioned by Can. 751 of the Code. Provided that the presumptions of knowledge of the law and penalty (Can. 15, § 2) and imputability (Can. 1321, § 3) are not rebutted in the external forum, one is automatically excommunicated according to Can. 1364, § 1.

Sincerely in the Lord Jesus,

Fr. Basil Cole, O.P.

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