Earlier this month an Irish priest, Fr. John Hogan, parish priest of Multyfarnham in County Westmeath, refused to give communion to Fianna Fáil TD Robert Troy, a member of the lower house of the Irish parliament. Mr. Troy was attending a requiem Mass celebrated by Fr. Hogan at St Nicholas’s parish church. The reason for the refusal of communion was due to the fact that TD Troy had supported the introduction of legalized abortion services in Ireland. Mr. Troy had previously identified himself as pro-life, but revealed that he had voted in favor of the referendum to repeal the eighth amendment that protected unborn babies. TD Robert Troy is a Catholic.
Across the pond just last week, Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York, signed a bill that he had lobbied for that would make it state law to permit abortion up until the minute before a baby would be born, that would allow other health practitioners beside doctors to perform abortions, and would remove all criminality for taking the life of an unborn child in any case. Governor Cuomo ordered that the lights of the tower on the World Trade Center be lit in pink to celebrate the victory. Andrew Cuomo is a Catholic.
What is the difference in these two scenarios? Two politicians, two actions in favor of abortion. One is refused communion; the other has not. That isn’t to say that Governor Cuomo may still be refused communion, but Cardinal Timothy Dolan has stated that “excommunication” is not “an appropriate response.” But is that the best response? What is the purpose of refusing communion or imposing canonical excommunication?
For the purpose of reference it should be noted that senior Illinois senator Dick Durbin has been excommunicated for his pro-abortion stance and voting record. In a recent letter Bishop Thomas Paprocki of Springfield stated: “Senator Durbin was informed several years ago by his Pastor at Blessed Sacrament Parish here in Springfield that he was not permitted to receive Holy Communion per canon 915 of the Code of Canon Law. My predecessor upheld that decision and it remains in effect. It is my understanding that the Senator is complying with that decision here in the Diocese of Springfield in Illinois.”
Canon Law 915 reads as follows: “Those upon whom the penalty of excommunication or interdict has been imposed or declared, and others who obstinately persist in manifest grave sin, are not to be admitted to holy communion.
On September 22 of last year I wrote a blog entitled “In Silence No More” that dealt with St. Ambrose, then bishop of Milan, and his action of excommunication against emperor Theodosius after a massacre he had ordered upon the citizens of Thessalonica. The emperor complied with the order and fulfilled his penance before being restored to communion.
Denying communion is not an expulsion from a political party or a social club. It is actually a mercy given to the baptized to help him or her recognize grave sin and the accompanying discipline that has the purpose of bringing him or her to spiritual restoration and communion with God and man. The biblical basis for this is found in Matthew 18:15–20.
“If your brother sins [against you], go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have won over your brother. If he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, so that ‘every fact may be established on the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If he refuses to listen to them, tell the church. If he refuses to listen even to the church, then treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector. Amen, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Again, [amen,] I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything for which they are to pray, it shall be granted to them by my heavenly Father. For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them” (NABRE).
St. Paul, in his first letter to the Corinthians, writes that excommunication serves “to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of his flesh, so that his spirit may be saved on the day of the Lord” (1 Corinthians 5:5 NABRE). It is noteworthy that Paul did not leave the man dangling, forever separated from the life and sacraments of the Church as in 2 Corinthians 2:5–11 he instructs on how to bring about the reconciliation of this same sinner.
So excommunication is a mercy to show us the grave error of our unconfessed sin and to hopefully drive us back into the loving arms of the Father. Hebrews 12:11 tells us: “At the time, all discipline seems a cause not for joy but for gain, yet later it brings the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who are trained by it.”
The bottom line is that if our priests and bishops truly care for the souls of their sheep, they will not seek to embarrass them in a public or recriminatory way, or even worse, cower in the face of public opinion and do nothing. The issue is the spiritual health and destiny of each sheep. Is it worth currying political favor or protecting one’s own hind parts, and thus put in peril the eternal soul of the parishioner, no matter how exalted or esteemed he or she is? St. Ambrose didn’t think so. Emperor Theodosius was glad in the long run that he didn’t.