The outcry over Governor Andrew Cuomo’s endorsement of New York’s horrific abortion law is highlighting something many in the media routinely ignore: Abortion is an excommunicable offense in the Catholic Church.
New York’s Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo signed and celebrated the Reproductive Health Act (RHA) on Jan. 22. Among other things, the law permits late-term abortion with vague wording that backs abortion “at any time” to “protect a patient’s life or health.”
The RHA also repealed protections for babies born after failed abortions. Because of the RHA’s extreme measures, Catholic leaders debated Cuomo’s excommunication from the Catholic Church.
Cuomo, who has publicly cited his Catholic faith and status as a former altar boy, defended his signature during a Jan. 28 WAMC interview.
“I’m not here to represent a religion,” he argued. “I’m here to represent all the people and the constitutional rights and limitations for all the people — not as a Catholic.”
But Cuomo references his faith when convenient. The governor has publicized meeting Pope Francis, attending Mass with him, and even advancing legislation “in solidarity with” the pontiff against the death penalty in 2018. He appears to have overlooked the pope’s comments last year when he called abortion the “white glove” equivalent of Nazi crimes.
Catholic leaders did not overlook Cuomo’s comments, however.
Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger of Albany wrote a Jan. 19 open letter to Cuomo declaring the law held provisions “most people of conscience would deem inhumane for even a dog or cat.” He later told Fox News that even though “excommunication is a last resort,” Cuomo’s actions “may unfortunately result in that.”
Bishop Rick Stika of the Diocese of Knoxville suggested he would excommunicate the governor, if it were his decision.
“I think I might do it for any Catholic legislator under my jurisdiction who voted for the bill as well as the Governor,” he tweeted Jan. 24. In another tweet, he argued that “Excommunication is to be not a punishment but to bring the person back into the Church,” but that “this vote is so hideous and vile that it warrants the act.”
He wasn’t alone. Another bishop, located in Texas, proclaimed, “I’m with Bishop Stika.”
“I’m not in a position to take action regarding legislation in New York but I implore bishops who are to speak out forcefully. In any sane society this is called INFANTICIDE!!!!!!!!!!,” tweeted Bishop J. Strickland of the diocese of Tyler on Jan. 25.
Cuomo is likely under the jurisdiction of Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the archbishop of New York. But Cardinal Dolan refuses to excommunicate, according to CNN religion editor Daniel Burke. Burke shared a statement from the cardinal’s spokesperson that he received after inquiring about the “calls for Gov. Cuomo to be excommunicated.”
The statement listed reasons, in general, against excommunication:
First, excommunication should not be used as a weapon. Too often, I fear, those who call for someone’s excommunication do so out of anger or frustration.
Second, notable canon lawyers have said that, under canon law, excommunication is not an appropriate response to a politician who supports or votes for legislation advancing abortion.
Third, from a pastoral perspective, if a pastor – and a bishop is certainly a pastor of a diocese – knows of a grave situation involving a parishioner, it is his duty to address that issue personally and directly with the parishioner …
Fourth, and finally, from a strategic perspective, I do not believe that excommunication would be effective as many politicians would welcome it as a sign of their refusal to be ‘bullied by the Church’, thinking it would therefore give them a political advantage.
But canon lawyers aren’t in agreement, as the spokesperson suggested.
“Not only can Cuomo be excommunicated, he should be,” wrote Ed Condon, a canon lawyer and Catholic News Agency D.C. bureau chief, for First Things Magazine.
“Many people are pointing out that Cuomo has not violated c. 1398, which provides a penalty of excommunication for the procurement of a completed abortion,” he said, citing canon law. “However, c. 1364 provides the same penalty for heresy—’the obstinate denial or doubt after baptism of some truth which is to be believed with divine and Catholic faith.’”
Even if Cuomo’s offense doesn’t fit Canon 1398, as Condon suggested, it’s a Catholic law that many in the media overlook when reporting about Catholics who say they support abortion. EWTN’s Vice President for Theology Colin B. Donovan, STL, describes that particular law as meaning “at the very moment that the abortion is successfully accomplished, the woman and all formal conspirators are excommunicated” under the condition that they are aware it is an “excommunicable offense.”
At the same time, as Pope Francis said during a press conference Jan. 27, “God is all forgiving. Mercy also means helping the woman live through this trauma.”
Donovan added that conspirators are “those who make access to the abortion possible,” including “doctors and nurses who actually do it, husbands, family and others whose counsel and encouragement made it morally possible for the woman, and those whose direct practical support made it possible (financially, driving to the clinic etc.).”
He didn’t mention politicians like Cuomo, who advertise their Catholic faith while praising unrestricted abortion. Their examples mislead Americans into thinking that Catholics can support abortion when, in reality, they’re taught to respect the intrinsic dignity of every unborn person.
One thing is certain here: the bishops need prayers for guidance. May God lead them as they are charged with the noble responsibility of protecting and valuing the unborn.