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Friends don’t let friends publish inaccurate headlines

July 10, 2010

Archbishop Robert Carlson (St. Louis) recently published a good article on the Fifth Commandment wherein he addressed, among other things, the incapability of support for abortion and Catholic identity. My concern is not with the article, but rather, with how LifeSiteNews characterized the article.

LifeSiteNews headlined its report “Archbishop Carlson: Abortion Supporters are Excommunicated, Should not Receive Communion”. The first half of that headline puts obviously controversial words in Abp. Carlson’s mouth, but they are words he never said.

“Abortion supporters” describes a very large group of people. The phrase includes abortionists, of course, and others working in the abortion business, but it also includes judges, legislators, lobbyists, most media personnel, many health care administrators, and even ordinary citizens. Now, there are Catholics who argue sincerely (but in my view quite wrongly) that such “abortion supporters”, especially legislators, are excommunicated for their abortion support, and, naturally, they would like nothing more than to be able to point to a prominent bishop who agrees with their reading of canon law. LifeSiteNews’ headline implies that they have found a champion in Abp. Carlson.

Problem is, Abp. Carlson, a canonist, never said “abortion supporters are excommunicated”.

What he said was “The Church attaches the canonical penalty of excommunication to this crime [procurement of abortion] against human life (see canons 1398,1314, and 1323-1324).” That statement is perfectly accurate, folks, but it covers a much, much narrower group of people than does the phrase “abortion supporters”. Even if one were to include the archbishop’s sentence before, namely, “That’s why formal cooperation in an abortion constitutes a grave offense”, the prelate’s words, precisely chosen, cannot be read so as to embrace all “abortion supporters”. Indeed, Canon 1329 (on formal accomplices in crime) cannot be interpreted even to include pro-abortion Catholic legislators. So, whence comes the claim that Abp. Carlson considers “abortion supporters” excommunicated? Nowhere I can see.

My point boils down to: In matters of controversy, inaccurate re-presentation of others’ positions, even by allies, only hinders the wider discussion. When a man bothers to write out what he means, I think we should read, and report on, what he actually wrote, instead of on what we think he meant.

Two quick points: (1) Abp. Carlson took, in his article, no position on Canon 915 (withholding of holy Communion), instead, he reiterated what Canon 916 states, namely, that those in grave sin should not approach the sacrament; and (2) Abp. Carlson did not say that pro-abortion Catholics are not Catholic, he said they are not Catholics in good standing.

Update, 14 July 2010: A much improved headline now graces the original article.

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