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An appropriate response to Gov. Cuomo’s latest abortion push

January 25, 2013

Two years ago I engaged in an extensive public discussion about whether New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, a Catholic, could, in light of his living arrangements, participate in holy Communion. I argued that he could not. As far as I know, those living arrangements remain unchanged, but, it appears that Cuomo has, since that discussion, respectfully refrained from approaching for holy Communion. In this regard, at least, the governor is not aggravating his conflicts with Catholic belief and discipline. But I also warned then that the ecclesiastical consequences of Cuomo’s pro-abortion activism must eventually be faced. That day seems rapidly to be approaching.

New York is the abortion capital of America. Sadly, that seems not enough for Gov. Cuomo who is now pushing an abortion bill that, according to the New York Catholic Conference, defies not only public opinion but common sense itself. Cuomo’s legislation, it seems, would sweep away virtually every remaining restriction on the slaughter of pre-born babies—as thin as those restrictions are—and further erode the crumbling ability of parents, health care institutions, and taxpayers to curb the killing or at least to avoid complicity in the carnage. I am, frankly, dumbfounded at what seems little less than a lust for babies’ blood here, but, whatever demons drive so many prominent political figures to embrace anything advancing abortion, this post deals with a different issue.

By sacramental initiation and by canon law, Andrew Cuomo is—unquestionably—a Catholic. Precisely as Catholics, then, we need to think about what that means.

Our brother Andrew deserves from us something beyond what we extend to fellow Christians, to believers at large, and to the human family as a whole. As a Catholic subject to the same spiritual authorities who lead us, Cuomo has a right to, and sorely needs, the pastoral care of those placed over him, including that care offered through the application of Catholic canon law, a religious discipline fundamentally oriented to “the salvation of souls which must always be the supreme law of the Church” (c. 1752). We owe Andrew Cuomo every opportunity to turn away from the evil policies he promotes, and if we do not accord him every opportunity, we will be held to account for our failings by Someone considerably more fearsome than some guy sitting in Detroit.

And what canonical discipline might be applied in a case like Cuomo’s?

Well, certainly not, for reasons I have explained many, many times, excommunication—not on these facts, and not on these laws. But the clamor for excommunications, raised mainly (not entirely, but mainly) by people quicker to invoke canons than to read them, while wrongly offered, is not entirely wrongly motivated. Catholics are wrong to pressure bishops for the application of certain canons that, in justice, cannot be applied against Cuomo and his like, but such calls nevertheless spring, I suggest, from a sense of the faithful that something more formal than official expressions of disagreement by ecclesiastical leadership is needed here.

Now, under most circumstances, as I have said many times, the application of Canon 915 is appropriate for egregious cases such as Cuomo’s; but Cuomo has apparently already elected to refrain from Communion as noted above. So, short of a papal reform of Book VI of the 1983 Code or local legislation aimed at politicians (both of which actions could be considered, but could not happen anytime soon, and might not be advisable for other reasons), what’s left?

Canon 1339 § 2 is left, whereby an ordinary “can rebuke (corripere) a person whose behavior causes scandal or a grave disturbance of order, in a manner accommodated to the special conditions of the person and the deed” (emphasis added).

Canonical rebuke is not a sanction, so it awaits the commission of no qualifying crime for imposition. Rebuke is already in the 1983 Code, so it needs no reform of universal law or enablement by particular law for its invocation, and the process to be followed in administering canonical rebuke is largely left to the discretion of the ordinary in question. Rebuke can be tailored to address the “special conditions of the person”—and Cuomo occupies a very special place in political leadership—and it would respond to “the deed”, which as proposed above is horrific. In a case like this, a canonical rebuke could underscore not simply the Church’s condemnation of abortion (c. 1398), of course, but it could recall her teaching on, for example, the grave duties of civil leaders to seek “the common good of the group concerned and employ morally licit means to attain it” (CCC 1903), and could stress the obligation of political authorities “to respect the fundamental rights of the human person” (CCC 2237).

Here is not the place for analysis of other important aspects of a canonical rebuke, and to be sure, they are rarely issued. Indeed, nothing about canonical rebuke mandates their application in a given case, and bishops have many ways to reach out to recalcitrant members of the faithful, ways that the rest of us will know nothing about till Judgment Day. Public agitation for a canonical rebuke is likely to be counter-productive; unless accompanied by serious prayers and penances for its object, I would even call it hypocritical. Canonical rebukes are not to be exercises in triumphalism.

That said, resting as canonical rebuke does on the “legitimate right of the community to protect itself against serious violations of its integrity and mission and damage to its most vulnerable members such as minors” (Green, CLSA New Comm at 1557), a rebuke in this case might well state in unequivocal terms what the Church expects of Catholics entrusted with high civil office in regard to their duty toward the common good, and address as well the concerns of the faithful for a suitable ecclesiastical response to the “scandal and grave disturbance of order” being given by a prominent Catholic politician in regard to the weakest and most persecuted group in our society—unborn babies.

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