Ask a Franciscan

Excommunicated for an Abortion?

Our diocese distributed a pamphlet on examining your conscience. It states that having an abortion or encouraging a woman to do so would mean automatic excommunication from the Catholic Church. If I do that, is this so?

Abortion is the direct killing of innocent, unborn human life. It is not the same as miscarriage, which is sometimes called a “spontaneous abortion.” Canon 1398 reads, “A person who procures a completed abortion incurs a latae sententiae excommunication.” The term latae sententiae is equivalent to “automatic”—as opposed to ferendae sententiae, meaning “imposed by competent authority.”

The canon refers to the person who had the abortion and those who directly assisted in it. That would probably include any third party who knowingly financed it.

My predecessor in writing this column, the late Father Norman Perry, OFM, addressed a similar question. After quoting the canon cited above, he wrote: “That means a Catholic woman who has an abortion—and accomplices without whose assistance the offense would not have been committed (Canon 1329, #2)—is excommunicated automatically by the law itself if all the other requirements of the code are present.

“Those conditions are as follows: 1) The abortion was directly intended and was successful. It was not a case of miscarriage or accidental loss of the child; 2) The woman involved knew a penalty was attached to the law forbidding abortion; 3) She was at least 18 years old at the time of the abortion; 4) She had the full use of reason (she was not [mentally impaired] or psychologically disturbed); 5) She did not act out of serious fear. “If a woman (or accomplice, e.g., the abortionist) has incurred the penalty of excommunication, canon law (Canon 1355, #2) gives the local ordinary (the bishop) power to remit it. Many bishops delegate all confessors to absolve from this excommunication without recourse to themselves—at least in the case of a first abortion.”

Since that response appeared, I believe it would now be accurate to say that “most bishops delegate.” The “serious fear” condition mentioned above is probably a significant factor in most abortions. There are several post-abortion ministries in the United States. The most well-known may be Project Rachel, which was founded in Milwaukee in 1984, and has been nationwide since 1990. The National Office of Post-abortion Reconciliation and Healing can be contacted at 1-800-5WECARE in complete confidentiality. Rachel’s Vineyard is a Catholic ministry that also offers nondenominational retreats for people who are dealing with the lingering effects of abortion.

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