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
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.
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
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
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
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.
Please send checks drawn on US funds and payable to Catholics for a
Free Choice to: 1436 U Street NW, Suite 301, Washington, DC 20009, USA.
You may also order
copies using MasterCard or Visa by fax, +1 (202) 332-7995, or by phone +1 (202)
986-6093 or through our website, www.CatholicsForChoice.org.