National Catholic Register



Pope Benedict XVI speaks about the excommunication of Catholic legislators who vote to legalize abortion. The Register takes a close look at what he said.



May 20-26, 2007 Issue | Posted 5/15/07 at 10:00 AM


SÃO PAULO, Brazil — At a press conference in flight to Brazil, Pope Benedict XVI spoke about Catholic politicians who support abortion. Sensationalist headlines obscured his real message.

In fact, the Pope gave measured guidance on the touchy question, which is currently a high-profile issue in both the United States and Mexico. The issue of excommunication and abortion arose during an informal press conference on the plane taking the Holy Father to Brazil May 9.

The question came in two parts, first from the Vatican correspondent of the Mexican television network Televisa, and then from Italian journalist Marco Politi, who requested further precision on the issue.

Both asked Benedict if the Mexican bishops were correct in excommunicating the legislators in Mexico City who last month voted in favor of legalizing abortion in the Mexican capital.

In reality, no such excommunications had occurred.

A few weeks ago, the Archdiocese of Mexico City noted that doctors and nurses who participate in abortions, as well as lawmakers who support the legalization of abortion, may incur a latae sententiae (automatic) excommunication.

On May 5, Cardinal Norberto Rivera of Mexico City made it clear that no bishop had personally excommunicated a politician. Instead, according to the Code of Canon Law, “each Catholic brings on himself or herself the consequences of his or her actions regarding Communion,” the cardinal stated.

Commenting on the Mexican situation, the Pope said that “this [excommunication] was not arbitrary, but rather it is permitted by canon law, which says that putting the innocent to death is not compatible with receiving Communion, which is to receive the body of Christ.”

Assuming from the journalists’ questioning that pro-abortion politicians were already excommunicated, the Holy Father explained that Catholic authorities in Mexico “did not do anything new, surprising or arbitrary. They simply publicly announced what is contained in the law of the Church, which expresses our appreciation of life and that human individuality, human personality, is present from the first moment of life.”

During the same, 25-minute informal conversation with journalists aboard the plane, Benedict indicated that those with a pro-abortion position have “doubts about the value and beauty of life, and even doubt about the future.

“Selfishness and fear are at the root of [pro-abortion] legislation. We, in the Church, have a great struggle to defend life,” he added.

Said the Pope, “The Church says that life is beautiful, it is not something to doubt but is a gift, even when one lives in difficult circumstances. It is always a gift.”

Some news reports claimed that the director of the Vatican Press Office, Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, later “downplayed” Benedict’s words.

What Father Lombardi actually did was to explain what many journalists, both in Mexico and on board the Pope’s plane, did not understand: the distinction between the penalty of excommunication, as it is specified in canon law, and the disciplinary act of denying Communion to those who support abortion.

In the first case, a penalty of excommunication is formally imposed by a bishop; in the second case, the separation from Communion arises automatically as a consequence of committing a grave act in complete contradiction with Catholic doctrine.

In a statement released with the notification that it was “approved by the Pope himself,” Father Lombardi said, “The Pope did not intend to declare the excommunication of the Mexican politicians. Rather, the Holy Father was saying that these politicians had broken from communion with the Church, and should not receive the Eucharist.”

Upon arriving in São Paulo, Mexican journalists pressed Father Lombardi again about whether Mexican politicians who voted in favor of abortion were formally excommunicated.

“No, they have excluded themselves from Communion,” Father Lombardi said.

Televisa, Mexico’s largest broadcaster, immediately reported that “Mexican politicians are not excommunicated,” without explaining the full canonical situation, thus contributing to the continuing confusion.


U.S. Implications

Although the question posed to the Pope during his flight to Brazil involved the Mexican situation, it has significant implications in the current American political landscape since several pro-abortion Catholics are running for the White House in 2008.

The list includes Democratic candidates Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, Connecticut Sen. Chris Dodd and Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich and Republican candidate Rudy Giuliani.

Two other Catholics seeking the Republican nomination, Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback and former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson, are pro-life.

Alejandro Bermúdez filed this report from São Paulo, Brazil.