The next meeting of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops will certainly be lively. Last week, Cardinal Timothy Dolan rebuked critics for demanding excommunication for Andrew Cuomo after the New York governor did a touchdown dance for signing a grotesque abortion law without any limit whatsoever. Bishop Thomas Daly sent a very different message to his diocese in Spokane over the weekend, especially to Catholic politicians supporting abortion. If you want to receive the Eucharist, repent:
Bishop Thomas Daly sent a letter to the Diocese of Spokane Friday, in which he reacts to a law recently passed in New York. The Reproductive Health Act, signed by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo on Jan. 22, allows abortions after the 24th week of pregnancy if there is “an absence of fetal viability, or the abortion is necessary to protect the patient’s life or health.”
In the letter, Daly calls the new law ‘evil,’ and condemns Cuomo for supporting it despite his previously publicized Catholic faith. Daly calls Cuomo’s actions ‘unacceptable.’
Daly goes on to say any Catholic politicians who support access to abortion are “scandalous,” and should not be allowed to receive communion unless they are “reconciled to Christ and the Church.”
Technically, as the National Catholic Register points out, this is not the same status as excommunication. Rather than focus on the canon law for abortion, Daly focuses on the need to fully embrace the church’s teachings and to be cleansed of mortal sin before taking communion. It’s not an ejection, but rather a recognition of stubborn rejection of truth, especially on the sacramental nature of human life:
Bishop Daly’s letter cited Canon 915 of the Church’s Code of Canon Law, which says that Catholics “obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin are not to be admitted to Holy Communion.”
Bishop Daly did not mention the penalty of excommunication, a penalty Cardinal Dolan said had been suggested by many Catholics for Cuomo.
At least one U.S. bishop has called for Cuomo’s excommunication. On. Jan. 31, Bishop Eduardo Nevares, auxiliary bishop of Phoenix, tweeted: “I am compelled to raise my voice in calling on Cardinal Dolan, and ALL CATHOLIC BISHOPS to EXCOMMUNICATE the ‘Catholic’ Governors and ALL other ‘Catholic’ Politicians who are promoting the most VILE, HIDEOUS and, YES, DEMONIC practice of MURDERING the NEWBORN BABIES.”
Nevares wasn’t alone in this position. Knoxville Bishop Rick Stika tweeted out that he’d consider excommunication as an option, albeit with somewhat fewer dramatic flourishes:
Enough is enough. Excommunication is to be not a punishment but to bring the person back into the Church. It's like medicine for them. But this vote is so hideous and vile that it warrants the act. But thankfully I am not in that positon. Very sad.
— Bishop Rick Stika (@BishopStika) January 24, 2019
Last week I outlined the problems in using excommunication under these circumstances under present canon law. Respected canon lawyer Edward Peters gave a more detailed explanation as well. Peters recommended the approach taken by Bishop Daly in using Canon 915 and withholding communion as the corrective to Catholic officials who support abortion:
Now, here’s the point: all of the personal, community, and even secular values served by barring an excommunicate from holy Communion as part of the sanction of excommunication are immediately available simply by applying Canon 915, a sacramental disciplinary norm in Book IV of the Code (and not a penal norm from Book VI), which canon requires ministers of holy Communion to withhold the Sacrament, not just from those under formal sanction, of course, but also from those who ‘obstinately persevere in manifest grave sin’. Let that phrasing sink in.
Applying Canon 915, moreover, is not constrained by narrowly-drawn definitions of crimes and/or cooperation therein, it does not rely on loophole-ridden latae sententiae procedures (a canonical relic that today is mostly useful for letting bishops avoid making hard decisions), and it does not continue the rampant disregard for the rule of law in the Church seen over the last 50 years (mostly by figures, I grant, themselves none too concerned about human conduct and the rightful role of the Church in shaping it, and so, in that respect, distinguishable from those lately calling for Cuomo’s excommunication).
Instead, Canon 915 enables, indeed requires, prompt (not precipitous, but prompt) action by ministers to protect the Most August Sacrament from abuse, to alert an individual about his or her morally gravely dangerous public conduct, to protect the faith community from scandal, and to give serious witness to the world about the importance of Church teaching to Church members. Are these not the key goals sought by those calling for Cuomo’s (and some others’) excommunication? If so, why try to purse those goals with a cumbersome penal institute such as excommunication when Canon 915 is sitting right in front of us?
In short, has not Canon 915’s moment, at last, arrived?
Perhaps it has. This approach, though, has its own weakness, which is the lack of form and process necessary for an equal, just, and merciful application in these circumstances. Even among American bishops, we do not see unity on how to deal with the plague of abortion-supporting Catholic public officials, or even unity on whether to act. Bishops have great latitude to act, but unless the Catholic Church can agree on the offense and craft a universal process to deal with it, any application of Canon 915 will look arbitrary and political — even when justified.
The USCCB needs to bring its members into unity on the issue and how to deal with it. Even better, the Vatican should deal with this in its synod, as this problem is hardly limited to the US. If the terms can be defined universally and a process put in place where Catholic officials have the opportunity to repent and atone for their support of abortion, then the Eucharist will look less like a political football and more like the Bread of Life that it is. Action is not enough — we need effective and credible action to rebuke pro-abortion Catholic politicians and ensure that they do not lead the faithful astray.