Bp. Kicanas on Catholic pro-abortion politicians
Bp. Gerald Kicanas of Tucson, now vice-president of the USCCB, gave an interview to the National Catholic Reporter’s John Allen on, among other things, the situation of pro-abortion Catholic politicians. While I hesitate to read too much into Kicanas’ answers (they seemed off-the-cuff, understandably so), and while I recognize that some of Allen’s questions were oddly phrased, what the future USCCB president says about this issue is important, and I think a few remarks are in order.
Allen: At the fall meeting . . . the U.S. bishops plan to discuss abortion and politics. What’s that discussion about?
Kicanas: I think there are several issues. One is, what is the level of cooperation involved in a legislator voting for legislation that encourages, or allows, intrinsically evil acts? Is that formal cooperation, or isn’t it? That’s a critical question, because if it is formal cooperation, then serious consequences flow from it.
Allen: You mean automatic excommunication?
Kicanas: Right. That’s one question that has not been answered.
Peters: I don’t know of any canonist who thinks that a Catholic voting for pro-abortion legislation has committed an act of formal cooperation with abortion and is liable to excommunication for it. Indeed, the authors who take a position on the question seem unanimously opposed to that interpretation. So, short of an authentic interpretation from Rome asserting an actionable relationship between 1983 CIC 1329 and 1398 on these facts, I think that question has been answered, and the answer is No.
Allen: Do you think there’s a consensus in the conference on whether a pro-choice vote, in itself, amounts to formal cooperation?
Kicanas: No, I’m sure there isn’t.
Peters: That’s my point. Legislative support for abortion is gravely wrong for several reasons, but not because it amounts to formal cooperation with abortion under Canon 1398, because it doesn’t.
Kicanas: . . . Another question is, what should be the response of a bishop who has dialogued with a politician who holds intrinsically evil positions in terms of voting?
Peters: Yes, that is a different and more pressing question. It is possible to sin gravely by supporting evil “enabling” legislation even if concrete evil acts are never actually committed in virtue of the law. Some Catholic legislators are casting votes that endorse the evil of abortion, and on those grounds make themselves liable to sacramental discipline under Canon 915, that is, even if their votes were not necessary to specific acts of abortion being committed.
Kicanas: . . . What should be the response? As you know, some bishops are saying that communion should be withheld from those politicians.
Peters: The bishops I’ve read parse their position carefully, namely, that anyone who obstinately persists in manifest grave sin should be denied access to Holy Communion per Canon 915. Granted, the cases now in the limelight happen to involve certain pro-abortion Catholic politicians, but that’s not what’s required for invoking the canon, rather, obstinate perseverance in [any] manifest grave sin is what’s required. Another c. 915 example would be, I suggest, the prohibition against Catholics divorced and remarried outside the Church approaching Holy Communion.
Kicanas: . . . The bishops as whole left that question open, and it’s still a question that is left to the prudential judgment of the bishop in the local area.
Peters: That is as it should be; an episcopal conference is not authorized to tell bishops how to apply Canon 915 in the local churches entrusted to their care. Bp. Kicanas himself makes this very same point later.
Kicanas: . . . I think what gets confusing for people is that the bishops aren’t of one mind on these questions. . .
Peters: Agreed, that is confusing.
Allen: On this second point, about the denial of communion, do you see a growing consensus?
Kicanas: What’s still the normative document of the conference is that it’s a matter for the judgment of each local bishop. . .
Peters: Again, okay, but I would not put it that way; the USCCB document is not “normative” at all, for it merely restates the obvious, namely, that bishops, not episcopal conferences, are charged with protection of the Eucharist in their dioceses.
Allen: So you’re having this discussion to see where things stand now among the bishops?
Kicanas: Yes, and I think it’s important that the discussion is taking place after the elections. If we did it beforehand, it could only be misused. That’s one of the difficulties, which is trying to state our teaching in a way that is not misused, or used in a partisan way, in a way that’s not intended by the teaching . . .
Peters: Well, okay, but that’s true of virtually any statement the bishops might put out. At a certain point, one makes a statement as accurately as possible, and then lets the chips fall where they may. But again, Canon 915 is not about Catholic pro-abortion legislators, it’s about one who is obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin being offered the Eucharist; that has nothing to do with politics, and it’s an important question regardless of where in the election cycle we find ourselves.
Allen: It does seem there is one relevant difference between ’08 and ’04 on this question. . . . This time around, it seems the question is more: Does following Catholic teaching automatically mean overturning Roe v. Wade . . . . ?
Kicanas: . . .We may find ourselves hamstrung in terms of our capacity to change legislation, or the thinking of legislators. . .
Peters: Both the question and the answer show, I think, a misunderstanding of the fact that abortion was imposed on states by federal judicial fiat, not by state or federal legislative action. Short of a constitutional amendment, there is no way for federal or state legislators to “overturn” Roe and Doe.
Ironically, though, precisely when some Catholic thinkers like Doug Kmiec and Nick Cafardi are throwing in the towel on getting Roe and Doe reversed, we actually see more justices on the Supreme Court with deep misgivings about the legalization of abortion than ever before! Chances are increasingly good that abortion will be returned to the states, whereupon state-based legislative activity would erupt on this topic.
Allen: Some argue that you can be genuinely opposed to abortion, yet as a matter of prudential judgment believe that it would be counter-productive to try to make abortion illegal. Do you think it’s possible to reconcile that with the teaching of the church?
Kicanas: It depends on how the person is thinking through that as a legislator. It’s complicated . . .
Peters: Yes. Not every immoral action should be, or can be, rendered civilly illegal. Moreover, legislation being what it is, it’s not always clear what a given vote for or against a specific bill means. These are areas where ecclesiastical consultation with lay legal experts is essential. But one would think, though, that in deciding which evils to punish under civil law, we’d consider beginning by punishing the most heinous acts against the most innocent victims first. [A friend reminds me that John Paul II, in Evangelium vitae, no. 71, nails this exact point. Thx!]