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Prochoice Catholic Theology 101

What the teachings of the Catholic church and canon law say about abortion, communion and excommunication have become an unlikely player in the 2004 US presidential election. As reported elsewhere in this issue, Vatican official Cardinal Francis Arinze, prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments, stated that Catholic politicians who support abortion rights should not receive communion. However, prior to the current furor, very little has been said about the issue, apart from periodic campaigns by right-wing Catholic groups. Over the last 15 years there have been a few, isolated, examples of church leaders punishing prochoice Catholics. Bishop Samuel Ruiz Garcia threatened excommunication of prochoice legislators in Chiapas, Mexico; Bishop Rene H. Gracida punished Catholics who worked at clinics where abortions were performed in Corpus Christi, Texas; and Bishop Leo T. Maher denied the sacraments to a politician in San Diego, California, who was running as a prochoice candidate for the California Senate.

While some conservative Catholics claim that prochoice Catholics are “heretics” or have been “automatically excommunicated” because they have had an abortion or support legal abortion, the reality is very different and this finger pointing, while politically useful to conservatives, is not an honest way to deal with differences of belief about abortion. The bottom line is that nobody can make blanket statements about what the consequences are for Catholics who support abortion rights.

Catholic Teachings on Abortion
There are many misconceptions about Catholic teachings on abortion. While it is well understood the Catholic church teaches that direct abortion is an objectively grave moral evil and is always forbidden, Catholic teachings regarding abortion itself and moral decision making in general do not end with this stark ban. There is much room in Catholic theology for the acceptance of policies that favor access to the full range of reproductive health options, including contraception and abortion. Included in a 1998 CFFC paper on some of the most important Catholic principles, teachings and traditions that recognize an individual’s moral freedom to make the abortion decision and support the establishment of non-restrictive abortion laws, are the following:

1. Catholic teaching regards the well-formed conscience, not catechism or statements by bishops, as the final arbiter in moral decision making.

2. Recent teachings of the church acknowledge that it does not know when a fetus becomes a person so it cannot state explicitly that abortion is murder. However, there is no doubt about the personhood of a pregnant woman, and the protections that the hierarchy would grant to fetal life should be extended to include women facing difficult or unsupportable pregnancies. Not only that, but for those who do think that abortion is killing, the church does permit killing in certain instances, some military conflicts being a prime example.

3. The church has not made its teachings on abortion infallible. As recently as 1995, in Evangelium Vitae, Pope John Paul II and his advisers considered and rejected the inclusion of the adjective “infallible” to describe its teaching on abortion.

4. The Catholic system of probabilism supports Catholics’ right to dissent from church teachings if there is a solid probability that the teaching is wrong and that this belief is supported by theologians or that the dissent is informed by prayerful and thoughtful discovery.

5. Canon laws calling for automatic excommunication for abortion make significant exceptions, including for those aged 17 and under, those who are ignorant of church teachings, those who acted under duress, were unaware of the penalty or acted without full imputability. To be excommunicated automatically, a person has to believe that she has sinned. If she has examined her conscience and believes that she has done the right thing in her case, she has not sinned and so is not excommunicated.

6. Catholics share in the development of teaching through the principle of reception: this means that a particular teaching must be accepted by the community it affects. This does not condone frivolous dissent, but a thoughtful and prudent consideration of the issue. Abortion is clearly a contested area of Catholic teaching.

7. Despite its efforts to conform public policies to its teachings, church teaching clearly demands that Catholics respect the views of other faith groups, and the church accepts the principle of church-state separation.

Canon Law
The vast majority of bishops have interpreted canon law to mean that no sanctions should be visited on Catholic policy makers who vote prochoice. And with good reason.

Canon law is the body of laws that governs the Catholic church. The code that we have today was released in 1983, and is a legal expression of the values and faith that were articulated in the Second Vatican Council.

While canon law is closely tied to theology, morals and faith, its purpose is not to tell Catholics how or what to think. It is designed, by and large, to tell people how to act. Canon law urges the authorities not to rush to judgment, and to use every other means of instructing or admonishing a member of the church before resorting to outright punishment— especially when that punishment involves the restriction of a Catholic’s rights, including the right to the sacraments. (Canons 213, 221§3, 912, and 1341.)

The Code of Canon Law and Prochoice Catholics
What does the law have to say specifically about punishments for being a prochoice Catholic?

The law says nothing on this subject. Regardless, some people are afraid that they will be punished if their prochoice beliefs are publicly known. People’s concerns usually fall under four broad topics.

1. Excommunication as an accomplice. One can be punished as an accomplice in canon law, if one participates in a specific and successful abortion in a manner that was direct, deliberate, purposeful and necessary. Canon law’s criminal punishments are restricted so that one cannot be punished for just thinking about committing a crime, or for merely attempting it. The penalty is for participation in a specific abortion, not for what you think, say, or do to protect or promote safe, legal abortion.

2. Excommunication as a heretic. Is a prochoice belief heretical? Heresy is a strictly construed concept in both theology and law, and not a term that should be tossed around indiscriminately. Many theologians and canonists agree that while the issue of abortion is worthy of serious discussion in the church, a person who is “prochoice” is not automatically a heretic.

3. Individual threats of punishment by the bishop. Bishops can and do make laws in their dioceses, but the law limits the power of the diocesan bishop when it comes to criminal law. Punishments can only be meted out as a last resort, and when three conditions have been met, namely, scandal resulting from the criminal act cannot be repaired, justice cannot be restored, and the accused cannot be reformed in any other manner. The bishop cannot punish a person with an excommunication without first issuing at least one formal warning. Penalties should be established, the law says, “only to the extent that they are truly necessary for ecclesiastical discipline.” Even when they are necessary, bishops are generally cautioned against threatening automatic penalties, and are not to establish penalties of excommunication “except with the greatest moderation and only for more serious offenses.”

4. An ad hoc restriction of rights. This category includes questions such as: can the parish priest refuse me communion, or refuse my marriage in the church, or my child’s baptism or enrollment in school, because of where I work or who I support politically, or for what I think or write about abortion? Unfortunately, the answer is discouraging. While a parish priest should not do that, and usually does not have the right to do so, it does happen, and many people feel—and are—powerless to stand up for their rights. Certainly, one who encounters this injustice can appeal to the bishop—there is even a process in canon law for defending one’s rights against those who abuse or deny them— but dioceses rarely make resources available for lay people to do so.

A Teaching Moment
Although getting an abortion is against the church’s law, the law itself is quite different from what many think it is. Abortion is a serious matter—physically, morally, religiously, and politically. Church law deals with abortion seriously, but canon law is not a stand-alone field of study. The church’s other teachings can be found in scripture; the teaching of church councils, such as Vatican II; as well as teachings of the popes throughout history and from our bishops and theologians.

Changes over the years to theology and law underscore the responsibility of Catholics to form their consciences through inquiry and study, not just by simple reliance on one priest or bishop’s teaching or the memorization of a current catechism or through simplistic and generalized interpretations of canon law. The law should be used to teach and inform, not to exclude.


The information on Catholic teachings on abortion for this article is from Catholic Options in the Abortion Debate, (1998). The information on canon law is from Catholics and Abortion: Notes on Canon Law (2003). Copies of both are available from Catholics for a Free Choice for $5.00 each.
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