After New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo signed into law Tuesday one of the most expansive abortion rights bills in U.S. history, some prominent Catholics have urged Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York to declare Cuomo excommunicated.
It is clear that the governor’s work to pass New York’s Reproductive Health Act is at odds with the Catholic Church’s well-known opposition to abortion, rooted in the belief that the unborn child is a person deserving of protection.
Still, despite mounting pressure from Catholics, Dolan probably won’t excommunicate Cuomo (D).
Excommunication is a specific kind of penalty in Catholicism; it can be imposed only under circumstances clearly defined in the church’s Code of Canon Law.
An excommunicated person is forbidden from participation in the church’s sacraments, holding church leadership positions and being appointed a Catholic godparent or confirmation sponsor. To be declared excommunicated, a Catholic must be judged by his bishop or the pope to have committed certain canonical offenses.
It is not clear that Cuomo’s action, offensive as it is to Catholic teaching and sensibilities, fits the bill for excommunication. One excommunicable offense does deal with abortion, but it applies only if a Catholic is directly involved in an abortion. Some experts have argued that a long history of advocacy for abortion rights demonstrates Cuomo’s implicit heresy, another canonical crime for which he might be excommunicated. But the path to formally declaring Cuomo a heretic is complicated, and Dolan probably would not pursue it.
Catholics calling for Cuomo’s excommunication seem mostly to be looking for an affirmation from bishops that a Catholic in good standing cannot support or facilitate legal protections for abortion. Many want to see action, not just rhetoric, in response to New York’s new law, and Cuomo’s excommunication would seem like a step in that direction. And some hope Cuomo will be rebuked for his own sake, as a call to conversion — a reminder that from the Catholic perspective, the governor’s final judge won’t be Dolan or the pope, but God.
To respond to all those concerns, Dolan doesn’t need to use excommunication.
Instead, he can declare that Cuomo’s ongoing and open support for legalized abortion constitutes “obstinate perseverance” in grave sin and that, as a consequence, Cuomo cannot receive Communion in the Archdiocese of New York, where he lives. Bishops have made similar moves before, albeit rarely, and the Vatican has encouraged bishops to make such declarations.
Though Pope Francis is often perceived as a social liberal, he has not altered the church’s course on opposition to abortion. During his 2015 address to Congress, the pope exhorted lawmakers to “protect and defend human life at every stage of its development.” The pope has called abortion “genocide” and compared it to “hiring a hit man to resolve a problem.”
In his landmark environmental encyclical, the pope asked, “How can we genuinely teach the importance of concern for other vulnerable beings, however troublesome or inconvenient they may be, if we fail to protect a human embryo, even when its presence is uncomfortable and creates difficulties?”
For their part, U.S. bishops have responded inconsistently to pro-choice Catholic politicians. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s bishop, San Francisco’s Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone, has suggested publicly that politicians who favor legal abortion should be refused Communion, as have archbishops in Philadelphia and St. Louis. But other church leaders, among them Washington’s recently retired archbishop Donald Wuerl, have vocally disagreed.
Dolan, Cuomo’s bishop, has been circumspect on the issue, saying in the past that he prefers to persuade rather than impose sanctions. But he has not previously faced the kind of pressure he now faces over Cuomo, who has touted his Catholic bona fides while flouting warnings and exhortations from bishops.
Three decades ago, New York’s Cardinal John O’Connor tangled often with then-Gov. Mario Cuomo, the current governor’s father, over the issue of abortion. They seemed often at a stalemate. Now, Cuomo’s son and O’Connor’s spiritual son are having the same fight. But they’re having it in the social media era, when stalemates are rarely accepted and when Catholics have grown increasingly willing to pressure their bishops to act.
Dolan will not excommunicate Andrew Cuomo, but he does face pressure to act with authority, and very soon.
JD Flynn is editor in chief of the Catholic News Agency and a canon lawyer.