Abortion has long sat in the middle of a three-street ecclesial intersection, namely, those of Sin, Crime, and Sanction. The meeting of any two of these factors would make for a perilous perch but the confluence of all three is fraught with opportunities for confusion. At the risk of serious over-simplification, let me sketch the basic situation and then address Pope Francis’ comments thereon.
1. Abortion has always been recognized as a sin and a grave sin at that. Like other grave sins the path to reconciliation is basically by sacramental Confession.
2. Like some (but not all) sins, abortion has long been treated as a crime under canon law. As is true of other crimes, however, a host of legal factors must be considered in determining whether one who has become involved in the sin of abortion is also guilty of the crime of abortion. Not all persons sinning in this regard are guilty of the crime.
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3. The canonical sanction levied against those canonically guilty of the crime of abortion has long been excommunication (a surprisingly complex institute), and latae sententiae (or, automatic) excommunication at that (ironically, a complex procedure for incurring and living under certain censures). I have long held that the automatic character of certain sanctions in the Church does more juridic and pastoral harm than good these days, but I won’t debate that matter here.
This already-complex intersection of sin, crime, and sanction has, I am sorry to say (sorry, because I think the canon law on abortion is too complex to meet some urgent pastoral needs facing us), been further complicated by at least two factors: first, an easy-to-overlook procedural change in the abortion crime norm itself, namely from 1917 CIC 2350 to 1983 CIC 1398, whereby the former express limitation that only “ordinaries” could lift the excommunication for the crime of abortion was dropped, introducing confusion as to whether and if so how the sin of abortion (which was too casually identified with the crime) could also be absolved by priests; and second, due to another easy-to-overlook change in the abortion canon (matre non excepta), a powerful argument exists (to which I subscribe) that excommunication for the crime of abortion cannot be automatically incurred by pregnant women (as opposed to abortionists themselves) if the penal law of the Church is applied according to its express terms. Thus, upon noting that there are zero examples of women being formally excommunicated for their abortion, this second factor, if correct (and I think it is) means that no women (again, as distinguished from blood-soaked abortionists) have been excommunicated for abortion at least since the 1983 Code went into effect.
Now, given the inherent complexity of the law itself in this area, the disputes about that law among qualified experts, and the pervasive ignorance of canon law among rank-and-file faithful brought about by 50 years of ecclesiastical antinomianism, no wonder people are confused about what Pope Francis’ recent statement means. I’m confused, if perhaps less so than some others.
Francis writes: “For this reason too, I have decided, notwithstanding anything to the contrary, to concede to all priests for the Jubilee Year the discretion to absolve of the sin of abortion those who have procured it and who, with contrite heart, seek forgiveness for it.” Canon law is not mentioned and we must parse such implications as best we can.
A) I think the pope’s statement reflects a mistaken assumption, common among those who were trained under the 1917 Code, that priests with normal faculties for Confession still cannot absolve from the sin (let alone from the crime) of abortion. I and others, however, hold that all priests with faculties can absolve from this sin. The pope’s comments resolve this debate admirably (at least for the period of the Jubilee Year) as I happen to think it should be resolved.
B) The pope’s statement seems to assume that the sin of abortion and the crime of abortion are concomitant realities. I, however, and I’ll wager nearly all other experts, hold sin to be distinguishable from crime, and that this crime is rarely, if ever, committed by women (again, as opposed to abortionists). Now, nothing in the pope’s comments addresses the crime of abortion though maybe he intended to address the crime as well as the sin (I cannot imagine that Francis meant to leave women in peril of excommunication for their abortions—though I stress again that I do not think women are excommunicated for undergoing abortion). But, plainly, the pope’s text itself does not address the crime of abortion or its canonical consequences and so I see no change in canonical discipline in this regard. If, by the way, the pope’s text does address the crime of abortion, then it seems to allow abortionists to have their excommunications—sanctions much more likely to have been incurred under current canon law—addressed as well. Maybe Francis intends that outcome though he speaks exclusively of women suffering in this regard and not of abortion profiteers. Perhaps Rome will clarify this point.
Et poenae latae sententiae delendae sunt.
Editor’s note: This column first appeared September 1, 2015 on the author’s blog “In the Light of the Law” and is reprinted with permission. (Photo credit: Ryan Lim / AP)