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Ought Biden and Broten Be Excommunicated?

October 18, 2012

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?, 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


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  1. James Zahler permalink

    Would it be possible to approach the allegations of heresy from a different angle? For instance, his belief that his faith is a private affair and does not need to influence his public actions.

  2. Thank you Father for taking on this issue. We’re all pretty alarmed by these crazy quotes from Minister Broten but it’s important to approach it all with clarity.

    I just wanted to mention that I think you’ve misinterpreted the excommunication section of the LifeSite editorial. It was not intended as a call for Broten’s excommunication, or even to suggest it might be in order. We’ve learned that the Code doesn’t allow for excommunications in these cases on its own, unless the Ordinary has made specific provision for it.

    The point of mentioning the latae sententiae excommunication was merely to point out the gravity with which the Church treats the act of abortion – both in terms of canonical penalties and demanding civil penalties.


    • I am glad to know that I have misinterpreted the intent of the article. I have the greatest respect for LifeSiteNews. My apologies for the harsh comment. It was motivated by a concern that it not make mistakes which only give its enemies more fodder for the smear campaign which is often waged against its fine work.
      Fr MacD

  3. Jim permalink

    what about Canon 915 as was mentioned by Archbishop Prendergast at Ottawa Theology on Tap about 5 yrs ago?

  4. I pray, Fr Mac, that the above is only the “first paragraph” of your discussion – an introduction, as it were. In the cases of Biden, Pelosi and Sebelius (to name just a few), I must remind myself of Matthew 13:30 (again, and again 😉

    • Indeed! Sometimes we have to wait for justice. We all recognize the sinfulness of their positions and public records. Not every sin is a crime in the Church. Whether or not these scenarios should be crimes is another issue.
      Fr MacD

  5. Peter Kwasniewski permalink

    Your reasoning here seems entirely sound.
    The real problem, it seems to me, is simply that Ordinaries are so hesitant to enact even the penalty of denying communion to a public official who, having been corrected and warned, continues to distort church teaching or fails to live up to it in office. This is a case of persistence in manifest grave sin, not, it seems to me, a question of heresy, which would have to take the form of actually denying a teaching of the faith.
    One might wonder about politicians like Pelosi, whose comments on abortion could be construed as a denial of Catholic doctrine, but again, that would be something the Ordinary could determine with a conversation.
    One thing is for sure: politicians are not only getting away with murder, they are also boasting of being Catholics who allow murder as a woman’s “choice.” It does seem long past time to take some formal action about this truly scandalous situation.
    Thank you for a thought-provoking post!

    • Yes, that seems to be the real rub. People are offended that prominent Catholics can so freely distort the truth, can so freely separate the obligations of their faith from their work and never have to answer for it. Of course, they will have to answer for it eventually; we just want it to be sooner rather than later. A technical point to keep in mind, denying Communion to a manifestly grave sinner, is not a penalty. Rather, it is the recognition that they do not ‘qualify’, if you will, for reception of the sacrament. But what to do about the clear problem of Catholic politicians shelving their faith? It’s a very complex problem: how do we decide which issues would qualify for a possible penalty? Is it just abortion? gay marriage? Thinking off the top of my head, when we look at penalties, the Church is loathe to mete out penalties for anything other than very specific and identifiable crimes which harm the Church: throwing away the Sacred Species, but not any other sacred thing, heresy but not non-attendance at Sunday Mass, to give some silly examples. Even sexual sins by clergy are treated with moderation. I think what makes this issue so difficult is the fact that good people ARE being led astray by bad politicians, in other words, the faith and unity of the Church are truly being harmed by their blather. But how do we clearly identify it, isolate it, so that it may be punished justly?
      Fr. MacD

      • Peter Kwasniewski permalink

        It seems to me that when we look at what the Magisterium teaches about the obligations of Catholics in political life (e.g., the CDF document on that subject from a few years back), the BARE MINIMUM is to uphold the natural law. Catholics are not being asked to implement a theocracy or even a rule according to divine revelation — at least not directly and immediately — but they must defend, in season and out of season, the fundamental rights of human persons. It seems to me, therefore, that politicians who publicly boast of their Catholicism but do not defend these rights consistently are worse, in regard to their own vocation, than Catholics who commit sins that are in themselves more grave but yet less public, less influential, and less scandalous. That is why, it seems to me, politicians would open themselves to discipline more than individual Christians who may be living in sin but are not notorious or influential in their sin. Does this make sense?

      • Crackback permalink

        Glad to see you are posting again, FS! Some good thoughts on the distinction between what is heresy and what is not. Re: reception of the communion, I would argue (and maybe I am way off base here) that any Catholic supporting what constitutes a grave, intrinsic evil in the public forum would be, in my mind, grounds for denying holy communion:

        As a start, the Catholic non-negotiables: abortion, embryonic stem cell research, euthanisia, same-sex unions/gay marriage, human cloning. It is probably not a stretch to add denial of religious liberty to this list.

        Have I gone too far? Or a pornographer persistent in making exploitive films; those in religous orders who publically refuse correction/compliance with Rome; I would also include Catholic university/educational institution heads who do the same. Would that be too zealous?

        Thanks for the post – enjoyed it!

      • Again, we must be clear. The denial of Holy Communion to someone is not the topic of the post. Penal law and sacramental law are different. While exclusion from the sacraments can be part of a penalty — such as in excommunication and interdict, among others, the denial of Holy Communion, according to c. 915, is a completely separate issue, governed by its own norms.
        Fr. MacD

    • Fr. Craig permalink

      In keeping with canon 915 of CIC, let us not forget that refusal to admit a person to holy communion is left to the discretion of the priest of the community provided that 1. The priest has had the opportunity to dialogue with the person in question so as to work to give said person an opportunity to recant and 2. said person remains obstinate. Therefore, it is not a matter left to local ordinaries or Diocesan Bishops. 915 grants the right to priests of the community.

      • As I said at the beginning of the post, we are not discussing c. 915 because it is a separate issue. The use of c. 915 is NOT a penalty. The post was whether or not a penalty could be applied in the case discussed.
        Fr. MacD

  6. Biden said during the debate, “I do not believe that we have a right to tell other people [what to do] with their own body.” Biden was speaking as a government official relating to rights of government and rights of persons. But does this not go against #56 of Syllabus of Errors of Pius IX? Certainly it seems to violate natural law. If it does constitute heresy, would Biden be guilty of heresy as it relates to Catholic teaching on the nature of the state and of government and thus be eligible for excommunication?

    On a side note, thank you for your blog. It is very interesting and I can’t wait to see more material, now that you’ve settled in to your new location!

  7. David permalink

    As a recent news item about the issue, the Uruguay episcopal conference announced that Catholic politicians there who just voted to legalize abortion have incurred latae sententiae excommunications. Apparently the thinking is direct cooperation in abortion but there is also a hint of the delict of heresy. Here’s one link for it:

    • This is very interesting. I will go to the site and try to get more information.
      Fr. MacD

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