In the 1980s, Catherine McKinnon declared that women would not be equal until they had “the right to kill.” Gov. Andrew Cuomo boasted that New York’s Reproductive Health Act, which was signed into law just days ago, was a milestone in “women’s equality.”
This mystic marriage between the feminist and the governor strips the mask from pro-choice language. Abortion is now what radical feminists wanted all along: unapologetic contract killing.
From Feticide To Infanticide
The state has progressed from reluctant feticide to infanticide as a fundamental human right. If an infant survives the grim procedure, it can now legally be left to die. The state guarantees a dead baby to any woman who asks. She need not ask a physician. She can contract with any “health practitioner”—a dentist? chiropractor? acupuncturist? Kermit Gosnell was ahead of his time.
That a Catholic governor would so disdain his church’s moral defense of the unborn, and exult in defying it, has raised a crescendo of demands among the faithful for Cuomo’s excommunication on grounds of heresy.
Cuomo is an egregious politician. His victory dance—pink lights on Freedom Tower—was a finger in the eye to pro-lifers. But is he a heretic? Can he be proven one under the intricacies of canon law? What other ecclesiastical penalties can be applied to a public figure who gives grievous public scandal?
Canon law (Can. 751) defines heresy as “the obstinate denial [by a baptized person] of some truth which is to be believed by divine and Catholic faith.” Add the warning of Canon 1398: anyone who procures “a completed abortion” incurs automatic excommunication. The catechism quotes the ancient Didache: “You shall not kill the embryo by abortion and shall not cause the newborn to perish.”
To laymen’s ears, that sounds straightforward. Yet opposition to abortion is not an article of faith, not dogma. Here the Catholic Church appeals to natural law, to a moral reasoning that does not claim divine revelation. Consequently, canon lawyers are not of one mind about unchurching Cuomo for heresy.
The Cuomo Heresy Debate
Edward Condon, canonist and DC bureau chief for Catholic News Agency, endorses a heresy prosecution: “Not only can Cuomo be excommunicated, he should be…Cuomo, through his murderous support for abortion legislation, coupled with his consistent invocation of his own Catholic identity, has crossed over from private failing to public witness against the faith.”
In an extensive and illuminating essay, canon lawyer Edward Peters argues differently. For heresy prosecution, it is not enough to claim that a certain behavior is immoral; the charge requires a claim about belief.
People say and do all sorts of despicable things without necessarily doubting or denying the principles against which they act…The rule of law, so battered in the Church in my lifetime, will not be served by trying to frame as heresy all sorts of evil conduct that ecclesiastical negligence has allowed to take root in the ranks of Catholic public figures.
Debate signals disagreement about the role of church law in contemporary pastoral practice. At stake is the church’s ability to administer its own discipline. Something must be done. But what?
Instead of prosecution for heresy, Peters recommends canonical penal sanctions that could, if needed, rise to excommunication. Still, once the reins have gone slack, few bishops are willing to risk tightening them. They prefer to misclassify excommunication as a last resort rather than an intervention that can be lifted.
Implicit in New York’s abortion act is a jubilant nihilism that suggests civic culture has reached a point where censure has lost its sting. To gauge by the response of the state’s ranking clerics with authority in the matter, ecclesiastical culture has lost its will.
New York’s Cardinal Timothy Dolan and Albany’s Bishop Edward Scharfenberger shelter behind the question: What weight would canonical censure carry with a politico who is indifferent to canonical consequences? A divorced public figure living with a divorced woman, Cuomo is already excluded from the Eucharist. If penal precepts are irrelevant in an increasingly secularized culture, thinking goes, the best we can do is get along.
Is Excommunication ‘A Weapon’ In the Cuomo Debacle?
Albany’s Bishop Edward Scharfenberger had initially warned Cuomo against passing the bill. In an open letter on the website of Albany’s diocesan newspaper, he wrote: “Your advocacy of extreme abortion legislation is completely contrary to the teachings of our pope and our church.” He also raised the specter of ecclesiastic reprisal: “As the governor continues to distance himself from our communion, it [excommunication] may eventually result in that.”
Dolan disagreed. He insisted excommunication was “not an appropriate response” and “should not be used as a weapon.” The cardinal pulled rank; the bishop retreated. On January 25, Scharfenberger issued a formal announcement aligned with Dolan:
The whole purpose of excommunication is…to bring the person back to the full practice of the faith. It is not meant to satisfy a desire to see some punishment. Excommunication is…not intended to be punitive or vindictive, but rather reparative and constructive…I encourage all members of the Catholic community to pray for our sisters and brothers.
An evasive statement, it abandons disciplinary responsibility to a formulaic appeal to prayer. In truth, the “reparative and constructive” function of excommunication lies precisely in its disciplinary severity. St. Paul himself set the tone when he excommunicated Hymenaeus and Alexander (“whom I have turned over to Satan, so that they may learn not to blaspheme,” 1 Timothy).
Dolan’s white flag was waved in archdiocesan parishes on Sunday, February 3. Despite an accurate description of the act’s provisions, his pastoral letter abandons any hint of censure. Abortion is just one more thing in the basket of social concerns:
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.
Contrary to his self-description, Dolan is every inch a politician. The phrase undocumented immigrant reminds us that anxiety over the pipeline of public monies for the church’s extensive network of social services, particularly to illegal migrants, is a possible factor in Dolan’s refusal to sanction Cuomo. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the wide circuitry of Catholic Charities operate as state contractors, a dependent position that saps episcopal gumption in the public square.
Dolan concludes by soaring above all unpleasantness. He employs St. Paul as a barricade (“Love…is not quick-tempered, it does not brood over injury”) against demands that he exert his authority to counter the nihilism of established power. Let’s be nice:
No matter the hurt, frustration, the disappointment, and yes, even the anger we may feel now at the passage of this horrific and grisly bill, we should not respond with more bitterness and divisiveness, but continue to put our trust in the Lord and ask for his guidance and inspiration. Thank God we have the promise of Jesus that ‘not even the gates of hell will prevail.’
Soothing allusion to the gates of hell distorts the ancient metaphor. Christ’s words are a promise of redemption from the captivity of death, not a magic feather against man’s God-given freedom to destroy the institution that conveys the promise.
It has been said that every society denies its own values when it is at its end and about to vanish. Hierarchical disinclination to enforce rightful functioning of canon law—for good order in the institution and in the lives of the faithful—exposes fading Church influence as a stay against barbarism.