To put it bluntly, I have a few reservations about canon 1398. “A person who actually procures an abortion incurs a latae sententiae (automatic) excommunication,” the canon states. Please do not mistake my reservations as support for abortion. In no way do I condone this intrinsically evil act.
A Traumatic Choice Made Under Duress
The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that abortion “is gravely contrary to the moral law” as well as an “abominable crime” (2271). Yet my experience in ministry has taught me that most women who abort a child act under some sort of emotional, mental and/or psychological duress.
Despite what many feminists claim, I seldom come across an abortion that is freely chosen that is, chosen without coercion from some outside individual or organization. Sometimes this pressure comes from a boyfriend who refuses any responsibility for the pregnancy. Other times, parents seek a quick fix for their teenaged daughters. “Get rid of it or get out of the house!” is, sadly, the execution decree of all-too-many grandchildren. But even more reprehensible, in my opinion, is the coercion a distraught pregnant mother finds among the very women’s organizations that claim to uphold her freedom of choice. As my friend Mark Shea often reminds me, abortion is the principle sacrament of initiation into the culture of death. Therefore, a woman often discovers when dealing with feminist pregnancy crisis centers that her “choices” do not include bringing the child within her womb to full term.
Thus abortion is a traumatic choice often made under duress. As the reality of the choice to end the life of one’s child sets in, the woman is left in need of the Church’s help and compassion. For once her child is dead, the woman will find neither help nor compassion from the abortion industry. Yet, alone and ashamed, her perception of canonical censures only further drives her away from the Church in many instances. This compounds the problem.
These women know abortion is wrong. They feel it in their soul every time they see a mother with a stroller pass by on the sidewalk. Their heart cries out with every advertisement for diapers that flashes across the television screen. What these women need is Christ’s healing touch in the confessional, as well as sustained pastoral support from pro-life organizations like Project Rachel. This is the approach Christ took with the woman caught in adultery: He did not excuse the sin, but He did not turn away the sinner. He invited her to repentance and forgiveness.
Well-Aimed Canonical Censures
Nevertheless, I feel no such compassion toward those who profit whether financially or politically from abortion. As a canonist, I firmly believe in the use of canonical censures to combat this intrinsic evil. Yet these canonical censures should be aimed where they are most deserved. Thus in reflecting upon the carnage wrought by the culture of death over the past thirty years, the Church must strengthen and enforce canonical censures against the so-called “Catholic” politicians, doctors, pregnancy counselors, nurses and lawyers who continue to support and protect an industry dedicated to the willful butchering of children in the womb.
Of course, there is no need to excommunicate the doctors, nurses and other medical staff directly involved in the abortion industry the Code of Canon Law already provides for their automatic excommunication. As canon 1329 §2 states: “In the case of a latae sententiae penalty attached to an offence, accomplices, even though not mentioned in the law or precept, incur the same penalty if, without their assistance, the crime would not have been committed, and if the penalty is of such a nature as to be able to affect them.…” Since the abortion would be impossible without the direct assistance of the medical staff, this makes them direct accomplices to the abortion. So they are automatically excommunicated if they happen to be Catholic. No canonical trial is necessary. The competent ecclesiastical authority need only declare the penalty.
Unfortunately, the canonical situation is a little more complex when it comes to Catholic politicians who support abortion. For their participation in the scandal of abortion is more indirect. The politicians and lawyers draft, legislate and protect laws that permit this evil. Most do not, however, directly participate from the abortion chamber. Therefore the automatic excommunication envisioned by canons 1329 and 1398 would not apply to these lawyers and politicians since, in keeping with the principle of canon 18, “Laws which prescribe a penalty… are to be interpreted restrictively.”
Nevertheless, a competent Church authority may use other means to impose excommunication upon pro-abortion Catholic politicians. Moreover, there are other penalties the Church may impose. At the very minimum, the Church can and should prohibit pro-abortion lawyers and politicians from receiving Holy Communion. In fact, any bishop may invoke canon 1399 to do so. “Besides the cases prescribed in this or in other laws,” the canon states, “the external violation of divine or canon law can be punished, and with a just penalty, only when the special gravity of the violation requires it and necessity demands that scandals be prevented or repaired.”
Rights are not Absolute
Now some canonists will object to my interpretation of this canon, arguing that reception of Holy Communion is a right of Christ’s faithful. However, this right is in no way absolute. As canon 223 §2 states: “Ecclesiastical authority is entitled to regulate, in view of the common good, the exercise of rights which are proper to Christ’s faithful.” One is hard pressed to see how permitting pro-abortion Catholic politicians to go unchallenged contributes to the common good either of the Church or of society as a whole. Rather, abortion destroys the common good in that it destroys the right to life. This is the right upon which all other rights, as well as the common good, are based.
Moreover, canon 912 states: “Any baptized person who is not forbidden by law may and must be admitted to Holy Communion.” In short, canon law provides an exception for to the right to receive Holy Communion, namely, for those who are forbidden by law. Canon 915 clarifies one such exception as follows: “Those upon whom the penalty of excommunication or interdict has been imposed or declared, and others who obstinately persist in manifest grave sin, are not to be admitted to Holy Communion.”
In the end, there is no absence of canons that permit a competent ecclesiastical authority to deny Holy Communion to obstinate pro-abortion Catholic politicians. What the Church needs is the will to enforce this proposed course of action. Undoubtedly, some will denounce such refusal of the sacraments as too severe. Yet what is the alternative? For according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, through abortion “irreparable harm [is] done to the innocent who is put to death, as well as to the parents and the whole of society” (2272).
© Copyright 2003 Catholic Exchange
Pete Vere, JCL, earned his ecclesiastical licentiate in canon law from Saint Paul University in Ottawa, Canada. In his spare time, he volunteers as a Deputy Regional Director for the International Order of Alhambra a Catholic family organization dedicated to serving the needs of the mentally and developmentally challenged.