Thursday, 19 December 2013

Chapter and Verse (or Canon and Excommunication)

"It must be true, I saw it in the paper." Or, in the idiom of the 21st century:  "it must be true, I saw it on a blog". It is sometimes interesting to go back to the original sources to investigate an assertion that appears to have become common place simply for having been oft repeated unchallenged on blogs, even Catholic blogs.

Let's try looking at the assertion that politicians who vote in favour of legislation allowing procured abortion should be excommunicated or barred from receiving Holy Communion, if Canon Law and the teaching of Evangelium Vitae are implemented properly.

The relevant Canons of the 1983 Code of Canon Law are considered below.

Canons 915 and 916  address the question of those who should not be admitted to Holy Communion (those "excommunicated or interdicted after the imposition or declaration of the penalty and others obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin") and those who, on their own initiative, should not come forward to receive (those who are "conscious of grave sin", and who should seek sacramental absolution before receiving).

Canon 1329 considers the situation of accomplices in an action for which the principle actor has suffered a penalty, and it is n.2 referring to latae sententiae penalties that is most relevant:
Accomplices who are not named in a law or precept incur a latae sententiae penalty attached to a delict if without their assistance the delict would not have been committed, and the penalty is of such a nature that it can affect them; otherwise, they can be punished by ferendae sententiae penalties.
Canon 1398 refers to the procuring of a direct abortion:

A person who procures a completed abortion incurs a latae sententiae excommunication.
Or, as it is translated in my text edition of the Code:
A person who actually procures an abortion incurs a latae sententiae excommunication.
When we turn to Evangelium Vitae, n.62 points out the provisions of both Canon 1329 and 1398, and indicates a reason for the penalty of excommunication:
The excommunication affects all those who commit this crime with knowledge of the penalty attached, and thus includes those accomplices without whose help the crime would not have been committed. By this reiterated sanction, the Church makes clear that abortion is a most serious and dangerous crime, thereby encouraging those who commit it to seek without delay the path of conversion. In the Church the purpose of the penalty of excommunication is to make an individual fully aware of the gravity of a certain sin and then to foster genuine conversion and repentance.
It is n.73 which addresses the situation of politicians who are asked to vote in favour of legislation allowing abortion. The subject is addressed, less in the context of a question of co-operation with any subsequent abortions that might take place, and more in the context of the moral licitness of a law which so fundamentally offends a human right:
Abortion and euthanasia are thus crimes which no human law can claim to legitimize. There is no obligation in conscience to obey such laws; instead there is a grave and clear obligation to oppose them by conscientious objection....
In the case of an intrinsically unjust law, such as a law permitting abortion or euthanasia, it is therefore never licit to obey it, or to "take part in a propaganda campaign in favour of such a law, or vote for it".
Evangelium Vitae n.74 discusses the problem of co-operation that occurs as a result of legalised abortion, and I add emphasis to highlight how Evangelium Vitae understands this co-operation:
Christians, like all people of good will, are called upon under grave obligation of conscience not to cooperate formally in practices which, even if permitted by civil legislation, are contrary to God's law. Indeed, from the moral standpoint, it is never licit to cooperate formally in evil. Such cooperation occurs when an action, either by its very nature or by the form it takes in a concrete situation, can be defined as a direct participation in an act against innocent human life or a sharing in the immoral intention of the person committing it. This cooperation can never be justified either by invoking respect for the freedom of others or by appealing to the fact that civil law permits it or requires it. Each individual in fact has moral responsibility for the acts which he personally performs; no one can be exempted from this responsibility, and on the basis of it everyone will be judged by God himself (cf. Rom 2:6; 14:12). 
This seems to me to represent the juridical situation against which we can evaluate the question of whether or not Catholic politicians who have voted in favour of legislation permitting abortion should be excommunicated or barred from receiving Communion. I would conclude that such a politician has:
cf Evangelium Vitae n.73, has committed a morally illicit act, and that that act goes against a "grave and clear obligation" to do otherwise; that is, provided the act has been undertaken with full knowledge of its gravity and appropriate freedom from coercion, it fulfils the conditions for what is traditionally termed a mortal sin;
In the light of this, he or she is obliged by Canon 916 not to receive Holy Communion without first seeking sacramental absolution
not necessarily met the condition of "obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin" which would justify a sacred minister refusing them Holy Communion; the circumstances might mean they have met this or not and would turn on the judgement of a particular case
not acted such that they might be considered an accomplice in, or a co-operator with, any individual act of procured abortion that might follow upon the enactment of the legislation, and which would attract the latae sententiae excommunication attached to such complicity or co-operation in a directly procured abortion by Canon 1398 cf Canon 1329; their participation in the network of structural complicity described in n.59 of Evangelium Vitae does not constitute that closeness of co-operation with an individual act of abortion that qualifies for the latae sententiae excommunication
Since it does not appear to me to automatically be the case that a politician voting in favour of legislation permitting abortion has fulfilled the conditions that would demand barring from Communion under Canon 915 or excommunication under Canons 1329 and 1398 - they may have done so in some situations or they may not have done so in others - I am unable to share in the opprobrium that some are directing towards bishops in this regard. It seems to me that a first responsibility lies with the Catholic politician under Canon 916 not to approach to receive Communion, and that there might be much better traction to be gained by pointing this out than by attacking bishops. I would also reflect on the purpose of excommunication in favour of repentance and conversion - cf Evangelium Vitae n.62. A pastor could certainly attempt to bring about this conversion in a manner other than by excommunication.

I posted in June on how these kinds of considerations might apply to politicians voting in favour of legislation with regard to same-sex unions: Same-sex marriage: ecclesial aftermath. I concluded that post with two points. The first was to suggest that the fundamental question at stake was less one of a need for an act of authority and more one of acting in a manner that most effectively promoted the witness of the Church to her teaching. I also observed that bishops cannot make up the loss to that witness occurring because the lay faithful do not fulfil their office; and, equally, the lay faithful cannot make up the loss to that witness that occurs when bishops do not fulfil their office. In this sense, I judged that an act of ecclesial authority intended only to reverse the poor witness of Catholic politicians simply is not going to deliver that reversal; of its nature it cannot do so. And, as I am doing here, I suggested that the promoting of obligations under Canon 916 might well represent a more effective path of witness to Catholic teaching.

And as a kind of postscript, I make two further points. Was it really the case that the bishops of Ireland failed to speak out against the legislation that has now been passed by the Irish legislature? I link to the homily of Archbishop Michael Neary at Knock on 1st June 2013. It really cannot be clearer about Catholic teaching, and its appeal to politicians is equally clear in its urging them to put in practice in their voting the beliefs that they might have from their religion. And secondly, the positions expressed by Cardinal Burke might represent an interpretation of the juridical position outlined above - but it does not represent the juridical position itself. One cannot justifiably use Cardinal Burke's essentially personally expressed positions to heap opprobrium on bishops who, quite legitimately, adopt a position just as much in accord with the juridical situation of the question.

To come back to the original question. Is it really true?

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