From Unam Sanctam Catholicam
The very brave Bishop Tobin—in a shrug heard round the world—has suggested that there's no point in trying to use canonical discipline against what he admits as "pseudo-Catholic" politicians like Governor Cuomo. Why? "The Church lost her ability/will to discipline them a long time ago." Several clergymen like Tobin are speaking out on the subject as well, attempting to justify the appalling and mystifying refusal of the Catholic hierarchy to impose any sort of sanction whatsoever against Cuomo in light of New York's barbaric new abortion law. Tobin argues that a gesture such as excommunication would be pointless since such canonical penalties are no longer effective.
A few thoughts on this matter:
It is good to revisit the passage in the Scriptures where St. Paul speaks of the concept of excommunication, though that word is not used specifically. I am referring to 1 Corinthians 5. In this passage, St. Paul addresses a situation of extreme immorality unfolding within the Corinthian church:
It is actually reported that there is immorality among you, and of a kind that is not found even among pagans; for a man is living with his father’s wife. And you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn? (1 Cor. 5:1-2)
The only comment I will offer here is to note that St. Paul is not only appalled at the sin itself, but on the attitude of the Corinthians towards it. I'm not sure what he means exactly that they were "arrogant", but his words call to mind the celebratory attitude of Governor Cuomo and the Assembly of New York upon the passage of the abortion bill.
St. Paul goes on to call for excommunication against the man:
Let him who has done this be removed from among you. For though absent in body I am present in spirit, and as if present, I have already pronounced judgment in the name of the Lord Jesus on the man who has done such a thing. When you are assembled, and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus. (1 Cor. 5:2-5)
The phrase "deliver this man to Satan" is another way to say "remove this person from the communion of the Church." The desired outcome is that, by being cut off from the access to the community and the grace of the sacraments (i.e., being delivered to the kingdom of Satan), that this person's fleshly attitude may be prodded to repentance by the shock of being deprived of the sacraments.
However, excommunication is not solely remedial. St. Paul hopes the man will come to repentance, but that is not it's only purpose. In the following verses he explains the value of excommunication to the Christian community:
Your boasting is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened. For Christ, our paschal lamb, has been sacrificed. Let us, therefore, celebrate the festival, not with the old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth. (1 Cor. 5:6-8)
Let us really contemplate this passage—the purpose of excommunication is not merely for the good of the sinner's soul; it is also for the edification and protection of the community. "Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump." St. Paul teaches that excommunication helps purge the body of "leaven", and that without this purging such leaven will cause a rot throughout the body. When the offender is singled out and has judgment pronounced upon him, the faithful at least see that such behavior is proscripted. St. Paul is not only worried about the sinner, but about the boasting of the congregation, that is, their attitude about the sinner. By excommunicating him, St. Paul judges not only the sinner, but the broader attitude that allows sin to flourish unchecked.
To bring this back to Governor Cuomo: from the biblical perspective, whether Cuomo will repent or not, whether he respects the authority of the Church or not, whether the Church can claim any socio-political leverage in these matters, is not ultimately the main concern. The fact is, the good of the Catholic Church in America demands that this man be thrown out. At least make an attempt to purify the lump of its leaven. If we don't, we are celebrating with the old leaven. It's about the integrity of the community as much as it is about the sinner.
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There have often been times in Church history where discipline has been lost or seriously eroded. We can think of various monastic reforms throughout the centuries. Or the era of the Counter Reform and the Council of Trent when the Church had to fight an uphill battle to transform the episcopacy from a class of political courtiers into something more in line with what Christ intended. Countless regional synods from the first millennium and the era of the barbarian invasions attest to the Church's commitment to maintaining or restoring discipline in an age of chaos when order seemed to be falling apart everywhere.
Yes, there will be times when the Church loses her will and ability to discipline. But the lesson we see from these varied examples is that the will to discipline is restored by...disciplining. It is common sense. If the will to discipline has been lost and you will it to be restored, then you discipline. Imagine we swap out the issue of discipline for something else...say, painting your house:
You: "Hey man, the paint on your house is peeling off everywhere. It looks really awful. It's kind of an eye-sore. You really ought to paint it."Me: "That's not a realistic option."You: "Why not? There's nothing stopping you from doing it."Me: "I lost the will to paint it a long time ago. It's hard to recapture that will now."
In such a dialogue, you would rightfully infer that it's not really a matter of me having "lost the will" to paint the house, but more that I simply do not care if the house is painted or not. I have kind of washed my hands over the state of the house. It is no longer of pressing concern to me whether it is an eye sore or not. If I truly cared about how it looked, I would find the will and ability, whether painting it myself or devoting resources to hiring someone else. When people care about something, they make effort. If I refuse to make effort, you rightfully deduce that I don't care.
And that's the sad truth here. Cardinal Tobin, Dolan and the like don't care what the optics are here. They don't care whether the House of the Lord is an eye sore, an abomination to the people. "God's name is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you" (Rom. 2:24); but they don't care. If discipline has been lost, then the common sense approach is to restore it. You restore it by making examples of people and actually asserting your will to enforce discipline. If you can't do that or refuse to, it simply means you don't even want discipline restored. You're happy with the status quo. This is the inescapable conclusion: Cuomo will not face excommunication because the princes of the Church are content with the current situation.
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Why are they content? Why do they prefer this current state of things to something else? The fact is, if Dolan, Tobin, etc. were to excommunicate these pro-abort politicians, they would raise the ire of liberal Catholics who would probably cut off what paltry financial support they already give. Someone like Dolan looks at his archdiocese and says, "Hmm...okay, I have so-and-so many million Catholics here, donating about such-and-such million dollars annually. I know demographically (in New York) that somewhere between 60-70% of them identify as liberal and favor liberal causes." He does a quick mental calculus and figures out that angering this constituency can cost him a net loss of X million dollars every year. With declining Mass attendance, the collapsing parochial school system, and the shadow of impending gargantuan abuse scandal settlement payouts, he dare not endanger his financial outlook any more. He simply cannot afford to agitate the liberal Catholic demographic.
And truth be told, he doesn't really want to even if he could. A prelate who attains Dolan-level prominence is not an ideologue. He is a bureaucrat and a pragmatist. He wants to walk the path of least resistance; if the diocese is heavily liberalized liturgically and ideologically, he is content to just go with the flow, keeping his head down as much as possible—not drawing the attention of the Vatican but neither doing anything to inspire their flock. To expect the bishops to take a man like Cuomo to task is like a man sitting in the warm comfort of his home being asked to go outside and pick a fight with a bear that's knocking over his trash with nothing to be gained from such effort save guaranteed pain and massive hospital bills. It's easier to just sit in the fluffy arm-chair sipping wine with the Wall Street Journal on your lap, watch the bear thrash your garbage bins through the window, shrug and say, "What can I do?"
None of us would risk our lives just to run a bear away from our trash; it just doesn't make sense. They view this political problem the same way; it doesn't make sense to them. Of course, they are seeing it errantly, and our own resolve would change if that were our children and not the garbage the bear was destroying. And of course, it is our children who are at stake here. That they even see the question in any other terms betrays an appalling, scandalous lack of testicular fortitude.
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Like the contemporary discussion about capital punishment, these prelates' attitudes focus way too exclusively on the remedial-corrective aspect of the subject while ignoring the retributive-justice side of the question (see "Death Penalty and Retributive Justice", USC). There is too much hand-wringing about "Oh well Cuomo won't care about an excommunication; excommunications don't carry that sort of weight anymore...this will accomplish nothing." Regardless of whether it "accomplished" anything in the temporal order, justice and the integrity of the Faith demands it. The heinous nature of the New York law cries out for it on principle.
Consider the famous scene from the film Becket, depicted here. Doesn't that give you chills? If only we had that kind of leadership today. But let's delve into the historical background of this scene a bit. This scene is meant to encapsulate the historic excommunications of several agents of King Henry II of England by Becket throughout the 1160's over the issue of the royal power infringing on the rights of the Church. Did Becket think his excommunications were going to change King Henry's policies? Perhaps, perhaps not. Becket had worked with King Henry for years as his royal chancellor and must have known how iron-willed the king was. But ultimately the temporal success of his efforts, while important, was secondary.
Did Pius VII think excommunication was going to change Napoleon? Did St. Pius V think Queen Elizabeth was going to repent when he excommunicated her? I'd have to assume not. But they acted because they knew the rights of the Church were at stake and that they must be defended. They were able and willing to act on principle. That is what is lacking in men like Tobin and Dolan.
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Finally, let's remember that we can't limit God's grace. Maybe, just maybe an excommunication would have some desirable temporal affect. Maybe Cuomo would be shocked into repenting. Maybe this could be the occasion of an infusion of grace that could change his heart. Maybe it would rally the faithful Catholics of New York and lead to some sort of pro-life renaissance in the state. Maybe, amidst the hostility, expressions of solidarity would pour in from faithful Catholics around the country, who would renew their prayers for New York and the governor and the Church. Maybe miracles of grace would happen that we can't conceive of. Stranger things have happened in the history of the Church. It's not impossible.
That is, not impossible if the bishops man up and do their job. But since Vatican II, positive excommunication by decree (as opposed to latae sententiae) has really only been used against clergy, like Marcel Lefbvre or Hans Kung. Excommunicating laity by positive decree is an unspoken no-no.
Ultimately, as the adage goes, you miss 100% of the shots you never take.