The media has been reporting in the last couple of days that pro-abortion Catholic TDs are being threatened with excommunication if they vote for the abortion bill. Now perhaps a bishop has said something and I am not aware of it, but I do not think the issue has been raised by anyone in the hierarchy, not in public anyway. As far as I can see the only thing that was said was that comment by Cardinal Brady in which he said that he did not want to politicise the Eucharist. To be honest, I would be surprised if an Irish bishop mentioned the imposition of canonical penalties at all seeing as they have avoided any such measures for the last fifty years even in cases where they were required.
For one thing, I do not think a politician can be excommunicated for voting for an abortion bill, not at first anyway. The norm, according to canon law, the famous canon 915 (most cited, often ignored), is that they must be refused the Eucharist, but only after certain conditions have been applied. Here is the canon:
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.Now a quick examination of this canon in the present context. If a Catholic TD or Senator votes for this legislation (I believe Catholic members of the cabinet have already voted for this bill, so this canon now applies to them) they have not been excommunicated, nor are they under interdict, as of yet, so the first part of the canon does not apply yet. However, the second part will. To vote for the bill will be a grave sin which will require sacramental confession, personal penance and, I would also say, public repudiation of their vote and public penance of some form.
If a TD or Senator votes for the bill, it will be the duty of his or her bishop to contact the politician and inform them of the serious nature of their act and to tell them that until they have confessed and repudiated their vote, they should not present themselves for Holy Communion. If a politician ignores or dissents from this, the bishop has a duty to contact the politician again to call them back and admonish them. If the politician continues to reject this, then they will be considered to be "persevering in manifest grave sin" - manifest because their vote is well known and their continuing to present themselves for the Eucharist will also be a public act. At this point the bishop must formally inform the politician that if they continue to present themselves for the Eucharist they will be refused.
The bishop must then inform all of his priests of the situation and direct them to refuse the politician communion; all Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion in the diocese are bound by this directive also. (As an aside: this may present difficulties for lay Extraordinary Ministers, but they have no choice but to follow the directive. When training laypeople for this ministry they must be informed that they may be required to refuse the Eucharist at times. Indeed one good way of discerning candidates for this ministry is to see if they would obey such a directive.) Now if a politician continues to ignore the directive, does not repent, then things could develop and he or she may face excommunication.
This may seem like a long process - it can be, but must not be dragged out either. The process must allow for space and time for reflection - a politician must be given time to repent. The Church imposes penalties not for revenge, but to help bring a lost sheep back to their senses - she is concerned with reconciliation. The process also puts the onus on the bishop to fulfil his duty to guide and teach his flock. If a bishop fails to do this, leaves matters as they are in the hope that they will sort themselves out, or for spurious "pastoral reasons", he will be not only be failing in his duty, but also endangering a soul for lack of direction and, yes, admonishment. For this omission the bishop will have to answer to God. Charity and gentleness are required, but these virtues should never be confused with fear or inability to act.
So let us be careful when we hear the media speak of excommunication - remember the media are trying to get this abortion legislation through and so want to destroy those who oppose it. In reporting on excommunication the media wants to show the Church as interfering in the political process. We must not let the media set the agenda. Nor force our shepherds into silence either. Again, the Lord's teaching on doves and serpents applies.
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