By Bob Marshall
Evangelical Christian Rev. Franklin Graham, son of the famed Rev. Billy Graham, in three “tweets” in two minutes captured the hopes and sentiments of many Catholics by urging N.Y. Cardinal Dolan to excommunicate “Catholic” N.Y. Governor Cuomo for bizarrely celebrating and signing a third trimester abortion law. Since the 1973 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision, Catholic bishops have been in a position to question “Catholic” politicians who openly vote for abortion and who still claim to be Catholics in good standing.
Reverend Graham expressed his concern in his January 29, 2019, tweets, asking the cardinal to take a moral stand that would have an impact on the worldwide church and also cited Albany’s Bishop Scarfengerger who called abortion torture.
The popular understanding of “excommunication” can consist of denial of Communion which is not formal excommunication, “but does amount to virtual excommunication,” according to Rev. Thomas Rausch of Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles.1
Formal excommunication is imposed on “baptized persons which separates those persons from the communion of the Faithful and deprives them of the rights of membership in the Church, such as reception of the sacraments and Christian burial. . . . The ultimate goal of excommunication is to encourage someone to repentance and reconciliation with the community of the faithful.”2
To date, Cardinal Dolan and other New York Catholic bishops have not imposed either denial of Communion or excommunication on the governor or Catholic members of the New York Assembly who voted for the new abortion “law.”
Cardinal Dolan has decided against excommunicating Gov. Cuomo on prudential grounds because of Cuomo’s machinations as a wily politician. But could Reverend Graham be correct in stating that excommunication of the “Catholic” governor would beneficially impact the church in New York and even worldwide? St. John Chrysostom said, “When the bad are punished, others become better.”
Excommunication and Elections
Cardinal Dolan’s spokesman stated, excommunication is not effective because “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.”
The statement pointed to the “political advantage” taken in 1989 by pro-abortion California democrat Lucy Killea, a state assemblywoman then running for state senate, who was barred from receiving Communion by San Diego Bishop Leo Maher. She was on the Phil Donohue Show and said she would neither change her faith nor her abortion votes which were a prominent part of her campaign. She won her election.
But was Killea’s election victory “caused” by the publicity surrounding the excommunication? Killea previously served five years on the San Diego City Council and 14 years in the California Assembly and already had high name ID among voters and access to money when she ran for the state senate.3 She started off with a big advantage. Cardinal Dolan cannot determine why a California state senator won a race 30 years ago.
Candidates depend upon personnel (paid workers and volunteers, including party regulars) and money to succeed. Practicing Catholics would be less likely to volunteer for a candidate or place a campaign sign in their yard or a bumper strip on their car if that candidate’s name were to be included in a letter from the bishop, either read from the pulpit or placed in the parish bulletin, for taking actions hostile to the faith such as promoting torture and the intentional killing of defenseless preborn children. Nor would prominent Catholic businessmen be inclined to donate money to candidates who had been called out by the official Catholic Church. Such an action by a bishop is not a political act, but a moral instruction.
Canon Lawyers Differ on the Use of Excommunication
Cardinal Dolan’s statement said, “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.”
But there are reputable canon lawyers who disagree with the cardinal. For example, canon law expert Fr. John J. Coughlin, OFM, has said that bishops should deny Communion to pro-abortion politicians. Fr. Coughlin taught at Notre Dame Law School and had law degrees from Harvard and the Gregorian University. It should be no surprise that one canon law expert could make a case for excommunicating and another for not excommunicating pro-abortion politicians.
Dolan’s spokesman further said that “excommunication should not be used as a weapon,” and that many times persons calling for someone’s excommunication “do so out of anger or frustration.” Dolan’s spokesman failed to say whether the frustration and anger directed at the governor for abortion or Catholic bishops is justified.
The cardinal is in a fight with the governor for the souls of Catholics, including the governor’s, as well as for the lives of preborn children. If he refuses to use excommunication, what will he use to protect lives and souls?
Excommunication of Politicians
Saint John Chrysostom (c. 337-407) noted, “If, being conscious of grave sin in anyone, you allow that person to partake of this Table, his blood shall be required at your hands. . . . Even if it is a general, or a government official—even the emperor himself!—if he comes unworthily, forbid him from receiving Communion. The authority you have is greater than his.”
New Orleans archbishop Joseph Rummel was criticized by some Catholic laymen who openly opposed his efforts to racially integrate Catholic schools. The archbishop followed procedure, notifying his critics, then proceeded to excommunicate these individuals for interfering with his authority. Archbishop Rummel also had to stand firm against a number of Louisiana state legislators in 1960, who wrote to the archbishop warning that he risked losing aid to the Catholic schools as well as church tax-exempt status for supporting racial integration. Archbishop Rummel proceeded to integrate the Catholic schools.
St. Louis, Missouri, cardinal Joseph Ritter also threatened to excommunicate those who opposed his efforts to integrate his diocesan schools in the late 1940s. Some Catholics indicated they would sue in court to stop racial integration. The cardinal subsequently sent a letter to be read at all Sunday Masses advising parishioners that Catholics who sought to use the courts to stop integration would face excommunication.4
In 2004, Archbishop Burke of St. Louis declared that Democrat presidential candidate John Kerry would not be welcome to receive Communion when electioneering in Missouri. New Jersey archbishop Myers publicized a pastoral letter advising pro-abortion Catholic elected officials not to seek Communion in his diocese. Two other New Jersey bishops called out Catholic governor James McGreevey to inform him he would be denied Communion for his support of abortion.5
Congressman Patrick Kennedy (D-RI) criticized Catholic bishops for opposing Obamacare on the grounds Obamacare lacked restrictions on abortion. Archbishop Thomas Tobin in turn criticized Congressman Kennedy “because of his obstinate public support of abortion, which is clearly contrary to the essential teaching of the church of a matter of critical morality . . . he is not properly prepared to receive Holy Communion.” Bishop Tobin wrote to Kennedy in February 2007, asking him to not receive Communion due to his support for legal abortion.6
Spokane, Washington, bishop Thomas Daly, noted on February 1, 2019, Gov. Cuomo’s abortion law and Virginia’s attempt to pass a similar law. He wrote, “Politicians who reside in the Catholic Diocese of Spokane, and who obstinately persevere in their public support for abortion, should not receive Communion without first being reconciled to Christ and the Church (cf. Canon 915; ‘Worthiness to Receive Holy Communion. General Principles . . . 2004).’”
The Threat of “Provoking Bigotry”
In 2004, 48 Roman Catholic Democrat Congressmen warned then Washington, D.C. Cardinal Theodore McCarrick (now laicized) that if Catholic legislators or candidates who vote for abortion were to be excommunicated, historic anti-Catholic bigotry would be revived. While most of the letter-writing Democrat congressmen supported abortion at that time, a few had voted against it. Nancy Pelosi, then Democratic minority leader, also signed the letter to Cardinal McCarrick.
Their letter stated, “For many years Catholics were denied public office by voters who feared that they would take direction from the Pope . . . While that type of paranoid anti-Catholicism seems to be a thing of the past, attempts by Church leaders today to influence votes by the threat of withholding a sacrament will revive latent anti-Catholic prejudice, which so many of us have worked so hard to overcome.”
During the 2004 Democratic presidential campaign of John Kerry (MA), several bishops, not only Archbishop Burke, stated that they would not allow John Kerry to receive the Lord in Communion if he came to Mass in their dioceses.
Regarding N.Y. Gov. Cuomo, Pope Francis is not requesting Catholic bishops to excommunicate pro-abortion Catholic politicians. It is Revered Franklin Graham, the non-catholic Christian minister and son of Rev. Billy Graham, the most prominent Evangelical protestant in the 20th Century America who made that request. That is hardly a “papal plot.”
Issues That Excommunicate
The Catholic Democratic congressmen asked in their 2004 letter whether votes on other issues would merit excommunication: “Nor do we see how the bishops could limit this punishment to the pro-choice issue. . . . The Holy Father and members of the U.S. hierarchy have condemned the death penalty, as well as the war in Iraq. Will an individual bishop decide to deny Communion to a legislator . . . who has voted in favor of the death penalty?”
Then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, in another venue, answered this query: “Not all moral issues have the same moral weight as abortion and euthanasia. . . . If a Catholic were to be at odds with the Holy Father on the application of capital punishment or on the decision to wage war, he would not for that reason be considered unworthy to present himself to receive Holy Communion. . . . There may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about waging war and applying the death penalty, but not however with regard to abortion and euthanasia.”7
The Democratic Congressmen noted, “For any of us to be singled out by any bishop by the refusal of Communion or other public criticism because we vote in what we believe are the requirements of the United States Constitution and laws of our county, which we are sworn to uphold, is deeply hurtful.”
Even the pro-abortion U.S. Supreme Court, in upholding the Hyde Amendment prohibiting the use of tax money for Medicaid abortions, pointed out in 1980 that the requirements of the Constitution do not require Catholic or other politicians to vote for abortion, or abortion funding: “We are convinced that the fact that the funding restrictions in the Hyde Amendment may coincide with the religious tenets of the Roman Catholic Church does not, without more, contravene the Establishment Clause.”8
Pluralism and the Constitution
Taking the opportunity to lecture the bishops on moral and sacramental theology, the Democrat House of Representatives members affirmed: “We would remind those who would deny us participation in the sacrament of the Eucharist that we are sworn to represent all Americans, not just Catholics. Church leaders must recognize . . . that in public life distinctions must be made between public and private morality. Because we represent all of our constituents we must, at times, separate our public actions from our personal beliefs.”
Taking a similar tact, “Catholic” Gov. Andrew Cuomo, seeking moral cover and legal justification for his infanticide abortion law, rewrote American history by noting that: “Our country is founded on pluralism. . . . We cannot have true freedom of religion without separation of church and state.”9
The Declaration of Independence is not an apology for religious or moral pluralism. The Founders posited one God, and the Laws of Nature and Nature’s God as measures for human action. They even asserted that natural rights are endowed by our Creator and commence at conception by affirming that, “All men are created equal.” The Founders did not say, “All men are born equal.”
Cardinal Ratzinger anticipated such political dodges, “No Catholic can appeal to the principle of pluralism or to the autonomy of lay involvement in political life to support policies affecting the common good which compromise or undermine fundamental ethical requirements. This is not a question of ‘confessional values’ per se, because such ethical precepts are rooted in human nature itself and belong to the natural moral law. They do not require from those who defend them the profession of the Christian faith.”10
Threats to the Bishop’s Social Justice Agenda
The mostly pro-abortion Catholic Congressmen hinted that the bishops would lose the support and advocacy of these pro-abortion Democrat lawmakers for other public policies of the Catholic bishops: “If Catholic 1egislators are scorned and held out for ridicule by Church leaders on the basis of a single issue, the Church will lose strong advocates on a wide range of issues that relate to the core of important Catholic social teaching.” In other words, do not annoy Democrat politicians about their pro-abortion votes if you desire their cooperation and money for the bishops’ social service programs.
Washington’s Cardinal McCarrick, before the recent publicity over his sex-abuse, stated, “When the bishops ask you to do something,’ he says, ‘to do it with the government, you make sure you’re on good terms with the government–with whoever’s in power.’”11
Cardinal Dolan noted in the context of his opposition to Cuomo’s abortion law that, “I’m a pastor, not a politician, and as a pastor, I am obliged to challenge our political leaders, to urge them to re-examine their priorities, and to respect and protect the unborn baby in the womb as strongly and passionately as we should the undocumented immigrant, the single mom worrying how she will feed her family, our dying grandparents, or the poor struggling to make it.”12
It is my hope that Cardinal Dolan’s unwillingness to excommunicate Governor Cuomo is not due to fear of losing federal and state money to Catholic Charities and other diocesan social service programs including processing immigrants.
But if not excommunication, then what discipline would the Catholic bishops of New York be willing to impose on the “Catholic” governor of New York and Catholic assembly members who voted for this lethal new abortion law?
The late Congressman Henry Hyde, author of the law banning Medicaid funds for abortion wrote: “Thus something is awry when the voice of the church is most often identified with specific policies that are matters of contingent judgment (such as questions of welfare reform or foreign policy), and not with the articulation of principles. When the bishops are widely perceived in Washington and in state capitals as yet another religious lobby, rather than as compelling teachers, something is awry.”13
The Moral Compass of Catholic Congressmen
The following statement by pro-abortion leaders, should not be a surprise: “We respectfully submit that each of us is in the best position to know the state of our soul and our relationship to God and our Church. Therefore, each of God’s children should be the final judge as to whether it is appropriate for them to receive the sacrament of Communion.”
Under this way of thinking, defendants in criminal trials would only be required to consult their personal “inner self” to determine their innocence. James Madison, in Federalist Paper Number 10, disputes the above congressional rationalization: “No man is allowed to be a judge in his own cause; because his interest would certainly bias his judgment, and, not improbably, corrupt his integrity. With . . . greater reason, a body of men are unfit to be both judges and parties, at the same time.”
While self-examination of conscience is a necessary preparation for receipt of Communion, the bishop of a diocese is designated under Canon Law as the primary teacher of the faith to evaluate who may receive or not receive the Holy Eucharist. The final decision is not up to the individual Catholic, including Catholic congressmen who vote for abortion.
Catholic Politicians and Political Baggage
Politicians do not like to carry political baggage in public. Is “Catholicism” important to prominent politicians? Let’s see.
Late term child-homicide abortion facilitator Gov. Andrew Cuomo, during the January 2019 State of the State address, noted:
I happen to be Roman Catholic. I’m a former altar boy and my relationship with the church is important to me and I’ve found the differences painful over the years. The difference on marriage equality, the difference on a woman’s right to choose, and the difference on the Child Victims Act. But a wise man said, “The abuse of minors is an offense so brutal, the church cannot remain indifferent to this. . . . ” That statement was made by Pope Francis and I say we stand with Pope Francis and we pass the Child Victims Act.
Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, told Newsweek’s Eleanor Clift in December 2009:
I have some concerns about the church’s position respecting a woman’s right to choose. I have some concerns about the church’s position on gay rights. I am a practicing Catholic, although they’re probably not too happy about that. But it is my faith. I practically mourn this difference of opinion because I feel what I was raised to believe is consistent with what I profess. . . . When I speak to my archbishop in San Francisco . . . and his role is to try to change my mind on the subject, well then he is exercising his pastoral duty to me as one of his flock. When they call me on the phone . . . about . . . an issue . . . they are advocates, and I am a public official, and I have a different responsibility.14
Pelosi was also interviewed about Catholics who vote for abortion and receive Communion, “Does the church give you any difficulties?” She responded:
“Not really. But I think some of it is regional. It depends on the bishop in a certain region. Fortunately, for me it has not—Communion has not been withheld and I’m a regular Communicant so that would be a severe blow to me if that were the case.”15
And the 48 Democrat congressmen assert that,
“the Supreme Court has declared that our Constitution provides women with a right to an abortion. Members who vote for legislation consistent with that mandate are not acting contrary to our positions as faithful members of the Catholic Church. . . . We value the Church, its teachings and are proud to be Catholics.”
Pro-abortion Catholic politicians obviously see a benefit being viewed as Catholics in good standing for purposes of their re-election. The Catholic bishops allow this fraud to continue.
Yes, some bishops issue multi-issue voting guides and may even publicly disagree with a politician’s pro-abortion vote. But how many bishops pronounce that these politicians are not Catholics in good standing? Like Reverend Franklin Graham, everyone knows the bishops have authority to deny pro-abortion lawmakers their self-proclaimed status as Catholics.
Responding to the overwhelming number of bishops who, like Boston’s Cardinal O’Malley, use kid gloves to deal with pro-abortion Catholic politicians, Raymond Arroyo, News Director at Eternal Word Television Network, commented on the late Senator Ted Kennedy’s funeral:
“The prayer intercessions at the funeral Mass, the endless eulogies, the image of the cardinal archbishop of Boston reading prayers, and finally Cardinal McCarrick interring the remains sent an uncontested message: One may defy church teaching, publicly lead others astray, deprive innocent lives of their rights, and still be seen a good Catholic, even an exemplary one.”16
Who and What Is a “Catholic”?
Neither Governor Cuomo, Speaker Pelosi, nor the 48 Democrat congressmen who wrote to Cardinal McCarrick claimed that the Catholic Church specifically holds that induced abortion is consistent with Catholic moral teaching.
However, these politicians are, in effect, acting as “teachers” of the Catholic faith by claiming in public that they can be both faithful Catholics and vote for abortion and continue to be full members of the Body of Christ on Earth. Further, Speaker Pelosi and the Democrat congressmen also claim they can receive Christ in the Eucharist and remain in good standing as faithful Catholics despite their voting and advocating for abortion.
In practical terms, these “Catholic” politicians are usurping the role of the Catholic bishops in their dioceses by defining what it means to be “Catholic.” The first mission Christ gave to the Apostles was “to teach all nations.” (Matt 28:19). This directive applies to their successors, our current bishops. “The principle functions of the bishop are to teach, and to maintain authentic Christian doctrine. . . . The three traditional functions have persisted over the ages . . . to teach, to govern, and to sanctify.”17
If the present bishops fail to call out Catholic politicians who “teach” by their example that a Catholic politician can vote for and advocate for abortion and remain a Catholic in good standing, they should step aside and allow other bishops to lead who would be willing to correct such “Catholic” politicians and deny them Holy Communion.
Now a very prominent pro-life Evangelical Protestant has charitably urged the Catholic bishops to excommunicate Governor Cuomo to uphold the teachings of the Catholic faith as an example to faithful Catholics.
In my view, the Catholic bishops do not appreciate their own clout. In 1973, I reviewed federal grants in the executive office of the president at the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO). The director of OEO asked me to represent the agency at a meeting involving the transfer of government birth control programs to the Department of Health, Education and Welfare (now HHS). Regional representatives of each federal administrative area of the United States attended.
Dr. Louis Hellman chaired the meeting and also oversaw the USPHS Title X birth control program. He grilled regional birth control program administrators asking if the Catholic bishops presented an obstacle to the establishment of birth control clinics in their dioceses. I initially thought these questions were curious. However, in every instance where a Catholic bishop had publicly criticized the placing or expansion of birth control clinics or diocese, government administrators found it too difficult to proceed and were advised to scale back or terminate such projects. Where the Catholic bishops offered no opposition, the birth control clinics were set up or expanded. Dr. Hellman viewed opposition from the bishops as a veto over Planned Parenthood-type clinics.
Today, many if not most Catholic bishops seem hesitant to confront politicians. Amazingly, 95 million Americans live in states where Catholic Charities have been forbidden from providing adoption or foster care because they would not place children with homosexual couples. Catholics and other Christians are being pushed out of the public square due to weakness in the face of a rapacious secular state that invites and sustains religious persecution.
Bishops can no longer remain silent while “Catholic” pro-abortion politicians demand that their version of “Catholicism,” which sanctions the death of even third trimester unborn children, be followed in direct contradiction to our faith.
1 Tim Townsend, “Bishops have Denied Communion Before,” Catholic Education Resource Center, 2004, catholiceducation.org/en/faith-and-character/faith-and-character/bishops-have-denied-communion-before.html.
2 William C. McFadden, “Excommunication,” Modern Catholic Encyclopedia, The Liturgical Press, p. 304.
3 Los Angeles Times, 1/19/17.
4 Tim Townsend, Bishops Have Denied Communion Before.
5 New York Times, 5/28/04.
6 Associated Press, 11/22/09.
7 Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, “Worthiness to Receive Holy Communion,” 2004.
8 Harris vs. McRea, 448 US 297 (1980).
9 New York Times, 2/6/19
10 Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, “Participation of Catholics in Political Life,” 2002.
11 Cardinal McCarrick, Interview, Washingtonian, 10/1/04.
12 “Why Cardinal Dolan Won’t Excommunicate Gov. Cuomo,” Catholic Virginian, 2/3/19, catholicvirginian.org/?p=9229.
13 Henry Hyde 2/17/03, “Catholics in Political Life,” America, The Jesuit Review, americamagazine.org/issue/422/article/catholics-political-life.
14 Eleanor Clift, “Nancy Pelosi Doesn’t Care About Popularity,” Newsweek, 12/20/09, newsweek.com/nancy-pelosi-doesnt-care-about-popularity-75529.
15 C-SPAN July 8, 2008.
16 Boston Globe 9/3/09.
17 Anthony Tambasco, “Bishop,” The Modern Catholic Encyclopedia, The Liturgical Press, p 96.
Bob Marshall served 26 years in the Virginia House of Delegates and was the chief House sponsor of the 2006 voter-approved Virginia Marriage Amendment and a ban on late-term abortion. He recently wrote Reclaiming the Republic: How Christians and Other Conservatives Can Win Back America (TAN Books). Previously, he co-authored Blessed Are the Barren, a social history of Planned Parenthood (Ignatius Press).
This article has been reprinted with permission and can be found at catholicculture.org/commentary/articles.cfm?id=769.