Should there be consequences for Catholic politicians who act out of line with Church teaching on abortion?
This past Friday, the Bishop of Springfield, Illinois, the Most Reverend Thomas J. Paprocki, spoke at Notre Dame Law School regarding his recent decision to bar two Catholic politicians from receiving communion for their support of pro-abortion legislation.
The tension between a Catholic’s call to defend the sanctity of human life and the public pro-choice stance of some Catholic politicians is not, as Bishop Paprocki outlined in his talk, anything new. Right now, perhaps the most prominent example is the current Democratic presidential frontrunner, former Vice President Joe Biden, who often repeats the maxim that he is “personally opposed to abortion” but adamantly states that he will “refuse to impose my religious beliefs on other people.”
In 1984, Mario Cuomo, then-governor of New York, gave a speech at Notre Dame entitled, “Religious Belief and Public Morality: A Catholic Governor’s Perspective.” In it, Cuomo set out his opinion that his personal opposition to abortion should not lead to him supporting restrictions on abortion in law, as “we know that the price of seeking to force our beliefs on others is that they could force theirs on us.”
It is at this point, Paprocki argued, “where he starts to go wrong.” After all, Paprocki asked, aren’t all laws prohibiting anything an imposition of someone’s beliefs on someone else? One could argue against any law using this line of reasoning, simply based on one’s personal moral beliefs, which is antithetical to the Catholic position of the existence of absolute moral truths grounded in the natural law. However, as Paprocki mentioned, Cuomo’s speech “set the tone” for many Catholic politicians and their public support of abortion rights.
Following this exposition of the history, Paprocki then expounded the canonical justification for his decision to deny Holy Communion to the abortion-supporter politicians. In particular, he focused on Canons 915 and 916 of Canon Law. The former states: “Those who have been excommunicated or interdicted after the imposition or declaration of the penalty and others obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin are not to be admitted to holy communion.” In this case, Paprocki explained, “the burden is on the priest” to make a determination regarding the public sin. In the latter, however, the burden is on the person to present or not present themselves to receive the Eucharist based upon their conscience: “A person who is conscious of grave sin is not to celebrate Mass or receive the body of the Lord without previous sacramental confession…”
Paprocki took such drastic action in response to the state government’s recent passage of the “Reproductive Health Act,” which would, besides eliminating spousal consent provisions, waiting period requirements, and the state’s ban on partial-birth abortions, also enshrine into Illinois law the notion that a “fertilized egg, embryo or fetus does not have independent rights.” In his June 2, 2019 decree, Bishop Paprocki specifically named two powerful members of the Illinois General Assembly: Senate President John Cullerton and House Speaker Michael Madigan, who had championed the legislation and moved it through the process. The two were thus barred from receiving Holy Communion in the Diocese of Springfield under Canon 915. Additionally, the decree declared that Catholic members of the legislature who had voted in favor of the Reproductive Health Act had “cooperated in evil and committed grave sin by voting for any legislation that promotes abortion,” and therefore should not present themselves for Communion under the terms of Canon 916.
During his address on campus, Paprocki defended his decision, saying that it was “not intended to punish” but rather an attempt to “invoke a change of heart” in those involved. He also addressed the issue of excommunication, as he stated that he often receives the question as to why he did not excommunicate these politicians. In response, he said that a vote to legalize abortion is “a few steps removed” from committing the actual act, which incurs an automatic, or latae sententiae, excommunication. Additionally, the Bishop stated that excommunication is a formal church process, which would involve a canonical trial, and that it would have to be proven that such an offense “would not have been committed without their efforts.” He resorted to Canons 915 and 916 to stand on, as he put it, “more solid canonical ground.”
While it does not seem readily apparent that the decree will succeed in changing the hearts of those involved in the short term, Paprocki stated that he received over 500 letters in response, and that over 450 of them were in support of his action. As for the future, as states adopt more expansive abortion laws, Paprocki predicted that conscience rights and parental notification requirements will be the next to be eliminated, saying in response to a question that without a doubt, “the fight is not over.”
Luke Koenigsknecht is a freshman electrical engineering major from Grand Rapids, Michigan. He was once told to stand guard while his companion attempted to sneak around the White House. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org