Q: There’s a woman in my parish who does sidewalk counseling outside an abortion clinic. She has a lot of pro-life literature that she keeps in the trunk of her car. I looked at some of it recently and found a flyer that says that women who have abortions are excommunicated from the Church. I had never heard this before. Is this true? If so, why don’t our priests preach this fact from the pulpits? Everyone should be made aware of this! –Joanne
A: Sadly, we see here a good example of the tremendous harm that can potentially be done when persons untrained in the law attempt to cite canons out of context. The Code of Canon Law is not a how-to manual or fix-it guide, that one may simply thumb through to find a quick answer to one’s legal questions. Often a canon may on the surface appear very straightforward, while in actuality it must be viewed in light of other provisions of the code which are less so.
Such is the case here. Canon 1398 seems at first glance to be completely clear-cut: one who actually procures a completed abortion incurs excommunication. If the law were this simple, the obvious conclusion would be that every Catholic woman who has an abortion is excommunicated from the Church.
But it is not this simple, because there are always many other factors that must first be applicable before any sanction, including excommunication, can be incurred. The article “Am I Excommunicated? Sanctions, Part I” already discussed in some detail the fact that before any Catholic can be censured, all of the provisions of canon 1323 must be in place. The person committing an offense must be at least sixteen years old; must have full use of reason; must have full knowledge that there is a sanction attached to commission of that offense; must be acting with full freedom, i.e., without any outside force or compulsion of grave fear; and must not be acting in self-defense. If even one of these conditions is not met, a person does not incur the censure that is attached by law to a particular crime!
There are fundamental theological reasons for this. A person cannot be held morally culpable for an act that he did not freely and knowingly commit. Imagine, for example, that a man steals a car at gunpoint. This is certainly a serious crime, both legally and morally. But now imagine that the man only acts because another person is threatening to harm the man’s wife unless he steals the car. The man is faced with a difficult choice, between stealing and permitting his wife to be hurt. His decision to steal the car is therefore not made with total freedom.
Or picture a different scenario: a person is handed a car-key by a friend, and asked to bring a certain car to another location. The car turns out to be stolen, but this person had no idea, and thought that he was merely doing a friend a favor!
Stealing a car is, of course, always objectively wrong—but the culpability of the car-thief would depend in great part on whether he was acting with full freedom and knowledge of the implications of his action. A thief who is perfectly free to choose between stealing and not stealing, but decides to steal anyway, is clearly more to blame than someone who is pressured by an outside force, like gang-members or hunger, to steal. And in the same vein, a person who steals without realizing it is hardly as culpable as one who does so with full knowledge. (St. Thomas Aquinas, who nearly 800 years ago discussed these concepts at length in his Summa Theologica, explained them better than I.)
Since (as we have seen many times before in these articles) canon law follows theology, the full force of a censure can never be imposed on anyone who was not fully culpable for commission of a criminal act. Canon law and Catholic theological teaching simply cannot conflict with or contradict each other!
Applying these concepts to the Catholic woman who has an abortion, we can see how truly uncommon it is for the censure of excommunication described in canon 1398 to apply. First of all, she must have reached her sixteenth birthday, so any girl who is younger when her abortion is performed is instantly excluded from this penalty. She must have full use of reason, so any woman who is mentally handicapped or has a mental illness cannot be excommunicated either.
The next criterion is almost never met: a woman must know in advance that having an abortion is punishable by excommunication. If she was unaware of that fact at the time of the abortion, she was not excommunicated. It’s as simple as that.
To incur excommunication, she must also not be compelled to have the abortion by grave fear. When a woman secretly has an abortion because she is afraid that her boyfriend will kill her, her husband will leave her, her parents will throw her out of the house, or any other comparably grave situation will result if her pregnancy is discovered or the baby is carried to term, she is not acting with full freedom and her culpability is lessened. Similarly, any woman who is physically forced to have an abortion against her will by a parent, spouse, or boyfriend is not acting freely and cannot be held fully culpable for the act. If she is not fully culpable, the censure is not incurred.
Questions can even be raised as to whether or not many women even fully understand what they are doing when they undergo an abortion. Nowadays, here in the U.S., there are probably few among us who have not heard horror stories about women who are coerced into having abortions by abortionists who deliberately misrepresent the medical facts. Countless women who recount their abortion experiences stress that they were told at the clinic that the unborn child is just a “clump of cells” or a “blob of tissue,” and that they would never have consented to an abortion if they had known the truth! We all know that many abortionists thrive on deception and manipulation of women who generally are in an extremely vulnerable position. Women who are pressured into having abortions without full knowledge of what exactly it involves—especially those who have tried vainly to ask the abortionist for accurate information before agreeing to the procedure—are not making a free and informed decision. Their moral culpability, therefore, is not total.
Given all these caveats, is it ever possible, practically speaking, for a woman to be excommunicated for having an abortion? Of course. A woman who is Catholic, over the age of 16, aware that the penalty of excommunication is attached to this crime, fully aware of what an abortion actually entails, and completely free from outside pressures to make this choice, meets the criteria for excommunication. By having an abortion under these circumstances, it appears clear that she has willingly removed herself from communion with the Church. But one can only wonder what miniscule percentage of aborted women actually fall into this category!
Therefore, the pro-life literature that Joanne saw in the sidewalk counsellor’s car is completely misleading, as it suggests that every aborted woman is by that very fact automatically excommunicated. What might be the reaction to such incorrect information on the part of a woman who is unwillingly being pulled by a family member into an abortion clinic? What of the woman who is already grieving—perhaps even suicidal—after she was pressured or tricked into killing her unborn child? To tell such women that they have been excommunicated is obviously wrong, both canonically and ethically. Far from serving as a disincentive to have an abortion, such misinformation might very well end up pushing suffering women far away from the Church and the compassion of Christ!
It would be best for Joanne to urge her fellow parishioner who has this literature in her car to dispose of it. Better still, if it’s possible to determine who printed it, she might contact them and urge them to withdraw it from circulation. (She might even wish to send them a copy of this article in support of her request.)
Church law, in accord with Catholic theology, asserts clearly that abortion is objectively a grave evil. But both canon law and theology also recognize that people commit gravely evil acts for a variety of reasons and under countless different sets of circumstances, and they cannot be treated in a monolithic manner. The provisions of the Code of Canon Law are absolutely consistent with our belief that God will, in His infinite wisdom and love, judge each of us individually, without ignoring the totality of the circumstances that lie behind our often very evil actions.