Ought Biden and Broten Be Excommunicated?
Comments on the issue of abortion by American Vice-President Joseph Biden and Ontario Education Minister Laurel Broten, both Catholics (at least reportedly so in the case of Broten), have raised questions about whether or not they are liable to penal sanction according to canon law. Note immediately that we are not speaking of whether or not they should approach, or should be given, Holy Communion. Cardinal Burke and Dr. Edward Peters have already explored those issues with erudition and profound insight. Here the question is whether or not Biden’s or Broten’s public comments, and/or voting records, constitute delicts in the Church.
In a nutshell, the question is does the publicly oft-stated belief by a Catholic that a woman has a right to choose an abortion (i.e., as a Catholic I accept the Church’s teaching on the sanctity of life from the moment of conception, and on the sinfulness of abortion, but I do not think we can force others to accept that position by making abortion illegal) constitute an act of heresy (c. 751)? Notice I did not say the delict of heresy. In order to determine whether or not the delict has occurred, we must determine what constitutes the act of heresy. If it is a heresy to believe that we may not take away a woman’s right to choose, then certainly Biden and Broten have committed the delict. But is it a heresy?
LifeSiteNews.com, in an article on the Education Minister’s outrageous claim that taking away a woman’s right to choose could constitute the worst form of misogyny, asserts that the “Catechism of the Catholic Church is very clear that pro-life teaching necessitates taking away the so-called ‘woman’s right to choose’”. It then goes on to make a connection between respecting human life from the moment of conception to the penalty for procuring an abortion. Not so fast! While LIfeSite is to be commended for making us aware of important issues, they are doing a disservice to the Church by such shoddy theology and canonical thinking. The fact that a Catholic may sin gravely in her pro-choice beliefs, public statements or voting records, does not mean she is liable to excommunication according to c. 1398 (abortion).
Be careful here. We are not talking about the morality of abortion, we are talking about obligations of Catholic in public office. Heresy is the obstinate denial of a divinely revealed truth. Do the moral norms concerning the civic responsibilities of Catholics constitute divinely revealed truths? By voting for an unjust law is divinely revealed truth denied? Perhaps. That is a question for moral theologians, not canonists. Blessed Pope John Paul II taught that it is licit to vote for a law which allows abortion, but limits its previous availability (Evangelium vitae, no. 74). These are difficult issues. The morality of the grave obligation of public officials to bear witness to their Catholic faith is distinct from the morality of abortion. To deny the immorality of abortion is certainly a heresy. To deny the obligation of bearing public witness to the faith is not so clearly an instance of heresy. It’s a clear instance of sin, but it certainly needs to be argued how it constitutes heresy.
The point is that, while people are rightly upset by politicians, objectively not in full communion with the Church, spouting their muddled thinking with no consequence, it is wrong to make the jump that they ought to be excommunicated. That’s not the law of the Church as it exists now.
Are there other penal remedies available? Most certainly. Canon 1399 exists to provide for those cases not specifically envisioned in the law in which divine or canon law is broken and the gravity of the situation demands the repair or prevention of scandal. Certainly it is a cause for concern when the Vice-President of the United States peddles his beliefs that his Catholic faith is merely a private affair. How many Catholics has he led down the same fuzzy-thinking path? That’s scandal in the canonical sense. Is excommunication an answer, even in this case? Well, ultimately that’s up to the Ordinary. But beware that canon law also states that censures, like excommunication, are to be enacted with the greatest moderation and only for the more grave offenses (c. 1318). The Code also states that a penal procedure is to be undertaken only when no other remedy, pastoral, canonical or otherwise, would be effective (c. 1341).
It is important to be clear about the law. Emotions run high when important people say ridiculous things. But we must be careful not to jump to hasty conclusions. Of course, I’m always open to correction