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Why Dr. Luckett’s abortion essay is not the same old same-old

March 20, 2018

Over the last few decades a genre of Catholic literature has emerged, namely virtue-signaling, autobiographical essays about ‘Why I, though born and raised Catholic, am leaving the Church, or dissent from her teachings, or participate in, say, women’s ordination events, or (as Catholic obstetrician and gynecologist Rebecca Luckett recently wrote in USA Today) had an abortion’. But this genre is exhausted. These essays are routinely formulaic, tedious, and boring.

To be sure, when I read a professional woman’s explanation about why she killed her pre-born child, I experience something akin to the visceral repugnance that reading, say, a father’s account about why he kidnapped the neighbor’s children and sold them into sexual slavery would engender. When the author of an abortion-defending essay is a physician, no less, the same anger that reading, I dunno, an essay by a high-school drug counselor about why she decided to sell drugs to students arises. But for the most part these ‘Yes-I’m-Catholic-but’ attempts at public conscience massaging warrant little consideration and usually no follow-up.

But Luckett’s essay could be an exception.

Setting aside what emotions might be stirred by Luckett’s ‘confession outside of the confessional’, her essay on feticide, read in the light of the law of the Catholic Church, suggests that Luckett has committed a grave ecclesiastical crime, abortion (c. 1398), despite her having a remarkably high degree of understanding of the horror of the act, and that therefore her Ordinary (usually, a bishop) should ‘carefully inquire personally or through another suitable person about the facts, circumstances, and imputability of the matter’ (c. 1717 § 1). Unprecedented in this case is just how much hard information about these very issues has already been freely provided by Luckett herself.

Now, if one can imagine SVU detectives reading a column by a man who enslaves kidnapped children but not investigating the claim, or a police chief reading a guidance counselor’s defense of her drug-dealing but not making an arrest, then one could, I suppose, imagine a bishop reading Luckett’s essay about killing her pre-born child and not calling her to account. But make no mistake, that would be the depth of official negligence needed to support a failure to act on the facts that Luckett herself has published.

So, I guess we’ll see what happens, won’t we?

Meanwhile, let me briefly address a point guaranteed to distract from the discussion of Luckett’s deed: abortion is a canonical crime punished not simply with excommunication (a suitable penalty for a heinous offense) but with an automatic (technically, a latae sententiae) excommunication—a procedural device that, without fail, complicates the visitation of sanctions on offenders and shifts the discussion away from, here, a baby who was killed by a mother who killed him, and toward the intricacies of ecclesiastical law treading the complex boundaries between public conduct and personal conscience.

You see, penal canon law—which needed considerable reform by the 1960s—was, unfortunately, so badly reformulated in those heady days just after the Second Vatican Council, that today, even I, who think that an unrepentant Luckett should be canonically prosecuted for killing her pre-born baby (and for ‘using published writings and the instruments of social communications to gravely injure good morals’ contrary to c. 1369), even I  would be confident in defending her against excommunication for the deed (see, for starters, c. 1324 § 1 n. 5 and the articles cited below) and certainly against any suggestion that she is currently bound by a latae sententiae excommunication for it (see c. 1324 § 3). In short, automatic penalties not only fail canonically to reach most offenders for whom they are intended but they actually interfere with later attempts to enforce the Church’s more serious penal provisions. Poenae latae sententiae delendae sunt!

But granting all of that, based on her public admissions, as read under penal law as it stands today, I think a promoter of justice (the canonical equivalent of a prosecuting attorney in criminal cases, per c. 1721, etc.) should be able to secure the penalty of interdict (see c. 1332) against someone like Luckett and, for a lay person, an interdict is practically indistinguishable from an excommunication. Moreover if, Deus vetet, Luckett refused to abide by the conditions imposed by such a penalty as could be imposed for abortion and for one’s public defense of the act, the penalty could always be increased later (c. 1393).

But, as I said above, we’ll have to wait to see what happens.

Finally, while these canonical points will, I hope, be considered by those who need to consider them, let me close with some words for any one who has done what Luckett did or who has helped push a woman into such acts: there is no sin, not even forgetting the child of one’s own womb (Isaiah 49:15), or helping a wife, daughter, girlfriend, or acquaintance to forget her child, that Jesus cannot, and does not dearly want to, forgive. The first step to recovery is simple: tell Jesus you are sorry in your heart and, if you are blessed to be Catholic, go to sacramental confession. Millions of people have, themselves or through others, fallen for the massive lie that is abortion; may they not fall for the deeper lie yet that Jesus won’t forgive them.

The whole point of canonical censures such as excommunication and interdict is to move offenders to personal repentance. If that repentance can be accomplished without resort to a formal penal process, wonderful! But if not the law needs to be allowed to take its course. + + +

* See, e.g., my “Exemption from a penalty” and “Excommunication for procured abortion” in 2010 CLSA Advisory Opinions at pp. 169-174 and 178-182.

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