Without a doubt, the most evocative moment in Catholic cinema is the excommunication scene from Becket. Richard Burton, playing Thomas Becket, pronounces the delinquent Bishop of London anathema, culminating in these horrible words: “We declare him excommunicate and anathema. We cast him into the outer darkness.” Admittedly, the film omits the full formula of excommunication, which holds out hope for the subject’s repentance. But it remains an unforgettable reminder of the real authority which Holy Mother Church has over her children.
Christ charged His Apostles: “Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven”. Their successor, Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, is now facing calls to “loose” Empire State governor Mario Cuomo. On January 22 (the 46th anniversary of Roe v Wade) Cuomo signed the Reproductive Health Act, which removed virtually all restrictions to abortion in that state. And not only did he offer his consent to the bill: he ordered the World Trade Center be lit up pink in celebration. Unsurprisingly, the hashtag #ExcommunicateCuomo erupted on Catholic Twitter.
Church authorities were quick to join in calling for Cuomo to face the ultimate canonical penalty. Bishop Richard Stika of Knoxville said that Cuomo’s assent to the legislation “is so hideous and vile that it warrants the act” of excommunication. Bishop Joseph Strickland of Tyler likewise wrote: “I’m with Bishop Stika. I’m not in a position to take action regarding legislation in New York but I implore bishops who are to speak out forcefully.” Even the Evangelical preacher Franklin Graham took to Twitter, urging his “friend” Cardinal Dolan to “take a moral stand” for “right over wrong, good over evil” by declaring Cuomo anathema.
Yet the question of whether excommunication is an appropriate penalty – or even a viable one – is by no means settled among canon lawyers. JD Flynn, editor-in-chief of the Catholic News Agency (CNA) and a trained canonist, doesn’t think it is. “One excommunicable offence does deal with abortion, but it applies only if a Catholic is directly involved in an abortion,” Flynn explained in a Washington Post op-ed.
Flynn suggested that instead Cardinal Dolan should “declare that Cuomo’s ongoing and open support for legalised abortion constitutes ‘obstinate perseverance’ in grave sin and that, as a consequence, Cuomo cannot receive Communion in the Archdiocese of New York”.
This less severe punishment has long been the American bishops’ preferred method of dealing with politicians who support abortion. Several bishops (most recently Bishop Thomas Daly of Spokane) have declared that pro-choice legislators should not receive Communion in their dioceses.
On the other hand, CNA’s Washington bureau chief Ed Condon (another canonist) believes that excommunication is an appropriate penalty, but argues that Cuomo ought to be excommunicated as a heretic rather than as a party to abortion. Writing in First Things, Condon argues that “Cuomo’s consistent and vocal support for this particular legislation, his unique role in enacting it, and his flouting of the clear and public admonitions of two bishops who can claim jurisdiction over him make his case unique.”
There is no doubt that Cuomo knows the Church’s teaching on abortion, which is that it is impermissible under any circumstances, and that civil authorities ought to forbid the practice. His repeated refusal to conform to the Church’s teaching may constitute an implicit rejection of Catholic doctrine.
And this is no longer just about Cuomo’s spiritual wellbeing, Condon continued, saying that his “excommunication should be declared for the good of souls: first of all for his own, but also for the good of those who will otherwise follow him into his grave and public error.” There is a risk that lay people will see a Catholic leading the state’s pro-choice movement and assume that they, too, are free to endorse abortion. If excommunication doesn’t rein Cuomo in, it will at least remind ordinary Catholics that abortion is a grave evil that we must oppose whenever and however we can.
Dr Edward Peters, the canon lawyer who literally wrote the book on excommunication, is sympathetic to Condon’s argument but doesn’t quite agree. Proving heresy is no easy task, Peters says. While actions can demonstrate heretical beliefs, there is room for doubt: “making heresy trials turn on matters of immoral conduct (rather than on doctrinal assertions), and having to rely on evidence based significantly on actions rather than words, render heresy cases much more difficult.”
Moreover, trying Cuomo for heresy will “inevitably force the question as to what other seriously evil political activity must needs be heresy”? Should we, for instance, excommunicate every Catholic politician who fails to restrict access to condoms? The question of excommunication needs careful thinking-through.
Meanwhile, Cardinal Dolan has expressed his reluctance to take such measures, saying that Cuomo would wear any punishment as a badge of pride. That may be so, but lay people are clearly hoping for a stronger response than the archdiocese has so far given.