On Jan. 22, a ghoulish celebration was held in different parts of New York state. Cheers and applause accompanied New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s signing of the so-called Reproductive Health Act that had just been approved by the state Legislature.
“With the signing of this bill,” Cuomo jubilantly declared, “we are sending a clear message that whatever happens in Washington, women in New York will always have the fundamental right to control their own body.”
The governor deliberately timed his signature on the bill to the 46th anniversary of the infamous Supreme Court Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion and then ordered that One World Trade Center and other structures be lit up in pink to “celebrate this achievement and shine a bright light forward for the rest of the nation to follow.”
What the governor and political leaders in New York celebrated was a bill that permits non-doctors to perform abortions and allows abortions literally until birth.
Within a few days of the law’s implementation, in the Commonwealth of Virginia, delegates to the state Legislature introduced a bill — subsequently tabled — that likewise proposed abortion up to the moment of birth.
In a radio interview, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, a physician, tried to defend the bill with what he apparently thought was a compassionate pledge that, should a child survive an abortion, “the infant would be kept comfortable. [And] the infant would be resuscitated if that’s what the mother and the family desired, and then a discussion would ensue.”
The passage of the bill in New York and the proposed legislation in Virginia marked a dark moment in the long, somber history of abortion in America. It was also a new chapter in the abandonment of the Church’s teachings by politicians who still call themselves Catholic.
Cuomo celebrated the passage of a bill that permits what must be called infanticide. He publicly and defiantly rejected the authority of the Church on an intrinsic evil, and then when asked about the dichotomy of contradicting the Church, he said, “I was an altar boy. My religion is my personal business. … I don’t govern as a Catholic. That’s why freedom of religion exists in this country. You can’t ask a legislator to legislate their own religious beliefs.”
Cuomo’s championing of a bill that permits infanticide drew intense reaction from Catholics and the pro-life community, as calls for excommunication mounted, but received a mixed response from some U.S. bishops.
Bishop Edward Scharfenberger of Albany, New York, said on Fox News Jan. 26, “Excommunication is a last resort, and as the governor continues to distance himself from our [Catholic] communion, it may, unfortunately, result in that.”
Other bishops supported that view, including Bishop Richard Stika of Knoxville, Tennessee, who tweeted, “Someone asked me today if I would issue an excommunication of a Catholic governor under my jurisdiction if the governor did the same as in New York. I think I might do it for any Catholic legislator under my jurisdiction who voted for the bill as well as the governor.”
That idea, however, was not supported by Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, who said through his spokesman that excommunication is “not an appropriate response. … Excommunication should not be used as a weapon.”
Authorities in Church law and our shepherds should assess closely and with courage what penalties and sanctions need to be imposed upon Cuomo and similar Catholic politicians who reject so publicly Church teaching, become the source of confusion and scandal, and lead other Catholics into their same obstinate error and sin.
With respect to Cardinal Dolan’s comments, excommunication should, indeed, not be a weapon, but it most certainly is medicinal, a necessary step to call the faithful back from the darkness. Surely a Catholic who embraces infanticide and celebrates it publicly should be subject to the strongest of medicinal penalties from the Church. They might include excommunication, but they might likewise apply Canon 915, which declares that those “obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin are not to be admitted to Holy Communion.” This was an idea advocated by Bishop Thomas Daly of Spokane, Washington.
Likewise, bishops might invoke Canon 916, which affirms that “a person who is conscious of grave sin is not to celebrate Mass or receive the Body of the Lord without previous sacramental confession unless there is a grave reason and there is no opportunity to confess.”
Cuomo already refrains from presenting himself for the Eucharist because he is divorced and has a live-in girlfriend. For political gain, he may portray himself as a martyr in the face of excommunication or as a public reminder that he would cause scandal by presenting himself for the Eucharist.
Is that not the very reason to be clear, public and firm in restating Church teaching? Msgr. Charles Pope recently wrote that “the truth is clear that Gov. Andrew Cuomo is not in communion with the Catholic Church. At this point, canonical penalties forbidding him to receive Holy Communion — or even, if possible, issuing a formal excommunication — are simply affirming what is already true and what he himself has done.”
The imperative of making all of this manifest to confused or poorly formed Catholics was expressed well by Auxiliary Bishop Eduardo Nevares of Phoenix, who tweeted: “I am compelled to raise my voice in calling on Cardinal Dolan, and ALL CATHOLIC BISHOPS to EXCOMMUNICATE the ‘Catholic’ Governors and ALL other ‘Catholic’ Politicians who are promoting the most VILE, HIDEOUS and, YES, DEMONIC practice of MURDERING the NEWBORN BABIES.”
To shrink away at this moment is unthinkable for Catholic institutions already battered by the clergy sexual-abuse crisis.
As Msgr. Pope warned, “To fail to issue all possible canonical penalties at this point would, to my mind, show the Church to be irrelevant and a laughingstock.”