Prochoice Politics and Church Law

What the anti-abortion lobby does not want you to know.
By Roxanne Evans and Sara Morello
Spring 2003

Politicians and lawmakers expect criticism and censure from their political opponents, it goes with the territory. Politicians and lawmakers who are prochoice expect further vitriol from antichoice activists. Recently, the church hierarchy and ultra-conservative Catholic activists have raised the ante in a concerted campaign to censor and intimidate prochoice Catholic politicians.

But assertions by anti-choice activists that church law automatically excommunicates those who vote and advocate prochoice politics and everyone who has or performs abortions are false. And even though church law does say abortion is illegal, and also allows for bishops to take action against those who support a woman’s right to choose, remarkably few have. Canon law, scripture and the teachings of church councils, theologians, bishops and popes underscore the right and duty of Catholics to act freely, and according to their conscience, and not succumb to threats, no matter where they come from.

Late in 2002, a Catholic priest who runs an orphanage in Sacramento, California, announced that Gray Davis, the prochoice Catholic governor of California, wasn’t welcome at an orphanage to distribute Christmas toys to the children because of his stance on abortion. Davis moved the traditional gift distribution to a state government building.

“This document will not change that respect for essential freedom of inquiry and individual conscience that policy makers have and cherish.”
– Frances Kissling, President, Catholics for a Free Choice

Then, early in 2003, the Vatican issued the Doctrinal Note on Some Questions Regarding the Participation of Catholics in Political Life. The doctrinal note pointedly told Catholic lawmakers that they cannot put aside church doctrine when it comes to making decisions in their capacity as elected officials.

Rather, the document asserted, elected officials who are Catholic should advance church teaching. The document said that elected officials must toe the church line on such issues as abortion, euthanasia and same-sex marriage. But Catholic lawmakers should not be intimidated by the doctrinal note or by the bishops.

Reaction to the note was immediate. Frances Kissling, president of Catholics for a Free Choice, put the doctrinal note into perspective. “The Doctrinal Note seems to be a throw-back to a pre-Vatican II conception of the relationship between the Roman Catholic church and the state,” she said. “It asserts that on issues that involve concepts and definitions of the human person, no opinions other than those of the Catholic church can be asserted as relevant to the formulation of public policy. This assertion of an absolute truth, owned by the Roman Catholic magisterium, flies in the face of modern science and theological studies,” she said.

She continued, “Catholic policy makers and lay people are better educated in their moral and public responsibility than this document presupposes. They have rejected in the past church demands that they slavishly apply church positions to public policy. This document will not change that respect for essential freedom of inquiry and individual conscience that policy makers have and cherish.”

Policy Makers Attacked

Perhaps emboldened by the release of the Vatican document, Sacramento Bishop William K. Weigand intensified the debate in California by calling on Gov. Davis to abstain from receiving Communion because of his prochoice position. The bishop said Davis couldn’t be a Catholic in good standing and be prochoice. Some viewed the bishop’s comments as a veiled threat of excommunication; Weigand said that wasn’t his intent.

Davis, not to be cowed by the bishop responded, “I’m unapologetically prochoice and I am not changing my position.” [1]

Other prochoice Catholic elected officials have found themselves in similar situations, seemingly created in a deliberate attempt to bully or embarrass them. For example, school officials at a Catholic all-girls high school in Michigan took a lunch with the state’s first female governor—who is a prochoice Catholic—off a fundraising auction block. The lunch with Gov. Jennifer Granholm should have been an easy earner for Mercy High School in Farmington Hills, a Detroit suburb. But the school said it removed the Granholm lunch because of concerns raised by parents and alumni. Later, the school reversed its decision and put the lunch with Gov. Granholm back on the auction block. That decision was met with protests from a small but vocal minority, but was welcomed by many students and parents. The lunch netted $3,750 for the school.

These and other attempts to pressure Catholic lawmakers took an even uglier turn with the publication of a bizarre advert by the American Life League (ALL). To coincide with the 30-year anniversary of the historic Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion in the United States, the marginal all published an advert that referred to some prochoice Catholic members of Congress as “The Deadly Dozen.”

The ad that ran in the Washington Times newspaper resembled a “wanted poster” from the Old West. One of the lawmakers targeted in the ALL ad, Sen. Edward Kennedy, responded by telling the New York Times, “I take my religion very seriously… and I also take my oath of office very seriously…. And I am prochoice.” [2]

Even death offers no protection from the loony fringe at ALL. A particularly scurrilous ad was directed at Senator Kennedy’s deceased brother, President John F. Kennedy. That advert blamed Kennedy’s ability to draw the line between his religion and public policy for the abortions that have taken place in this country. The ad also claimed that the late President Kennedy, considered by many to be a champion of civil rights, is himself responsible for the fact that a third of those who choose to have an abortion are African American women. This attack on JFK’s legacy may have been a step too far, even for those who have previously supported the ALL.

The ALL has had trouble placing these ads, and has even been rebuffed by every one of the dozen diocesan newspapers it approached. [3] The ALL (which opposes abortion—even when the very life of a pregnant woman is at stake—as well as contraception) is even considered extreme by some of its fellow anti-abortion groups. A spokesperson for the National Right to Life Committee once said, “Valuable and practical pro-life legislation never seems to measure up to their standard. I think they’re more interested in making a statement than making a difference.” [4]

And, although ALL gives the appearance of speaking for the church hierarchy, there has been scant support from individual bishops and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), despite direct appeals from ALL. It is perhaps asking a bit much of the USCCB to reject all’s claim to speak for the church on these matters, especially when it attempts to advance flawed interpretations of canon law, but that is precisely what the USCCB should do.

Catholic voters are more likely to stand with other Americans than with their bishops and the Vatican on the abortion issue.

A Climate of Intimidation

Despite the best efforts of the Vatican and its ultra conservative cohorts, support for keeping abortion legal in the United States remains steady among Catholics and non-Catholics alike.

A Gallup poll released in early 2003 year showed that 53% of Americans believe Roe v. Wade should remain the law of the land. Only 18% of those polled said abortion should be illegal in all circumstances. [5] Therefore, most of these elected officials represent the majority of their constituents on this issue. Polls also suggest that the majority of their Catholic constituents are prochoice as well.

Indeed, it appears Catholic voters are more likely to stand with other Americans than with their bishops and the Vatican on the abortion issue. One poll found that 66% support legal abortion. [6]

Many Catholics are afraid they will be punished if their prochoice beliefs are publicly known. Just as often, statements from anti-choice voices, including some priests and bishops, contribute to this climate of fear. But church law does not back them up.

What Canon Law Actually Says 

Canon law is the law of the church. And abortion is a topic addressed in that law. Catholics who fear excommunication based on their beliefs or their votes as elected officials need to consider four elements of canon law—all of which will put their concerns into perspective.

First, holding a prochoice position doesn’t meet the test for excommunication for abortion—even as an accomplice. The penalty in the church’s law is for participation in a specific abortion, not for what you think, say or do to protect or promote safe, legal abortion, including casting votes as a prochoice elected official.

The second element relates to excommunication for being a heretic. Does being prochoice make one a heretic? Heresy is a strictly construed concept in both theology and law, and not a term that should be tossed around indiscriminately. Most theologians and canonists agree that a person who is “prochoice” is not automatically a heretic.

The third element revolves around individual threats of punishment by a bishop. Bishops can and do make laws in their dioceses, but the law limits the power of the diocesan bishop in some respects when it comes to criminal law.

Canon law states that punishments are only to be meted out as a last resort, and new penalties should be established, the law says, “only to the extent that they are truly necessary for ecclesiastical discipline.” [7] Even when they are necessary, bishops are generally cautioned against threatening automatic penalties, and are not to establish penalties of excommunication “except with the greatest moderation and only for more serious offenses.” [8]

The fourth element relates to several issues that come up in everyday situations for individual Catholics. This category includes questions like: can the parish priest refuse me communion, or refuse my marriage in the church, or my child’s baptism or enrollment in school, because of where I work or who I support politically, or for what I think or write about abortion?

The first part of the answer is no, the parish priest should not do that, and usually does not have the right to do so. The second part of the answer is that it does happen, and many people feel—and are—powerless to stand up for their rights. Certainly, one who encounters this injustice can appeal to the bishop. There is even a process in canon law for defending one’s rights against those who abuse or deny them, but dioceses rarely make resources available for lay people to do so.

Although getting an abortion is against the church’s law, the law itself is more complex and nuanced than many would expect. Abortion is a serious matter— physically, morally, religiously and politically. The way in which the church’s law deals with abortion is equally serious. However, elected officials need not feel they must choose between being faithful to the church and being faithful to their oath as an elected official. They are not mutually exclusive.

Catholic politicians should take comfort in the fact that their rights as a Catholic cannot be restricted unless the church law specifically says so, or unless a bishop or the pope takes punitive action. And, almost without exception, neither the bishops nor the pope have taken punitive against Catholic policy makers who have expressed prochoice views or cast prochoice votes.

What canon law says about abortion is also complemented by the church’s other teachings, which can be found in scripture, the teaching of church councils like Vatican II, as well as the teaching of the popes throughout history and from bishops and theologians. Changes over the years to theology and law underscore the responsibility of Catholics to form their consciences through inquiry and study, not merely reliance on one priest or bishop’s teaching—or threats.

Given the current political landscape in the US, one can expect that there will likely be more instances in which the conservative faction of the Catholic church will attempt to flex its political muscle in the public arena. And, based on recent evidence, the targets will likely be fellow Catholics who are prochoice. However, Catholics who assert their prochoice views as citizens, voters and elected officials need not be intimidated.

Roxanne Evans is Director of Communications and Sara Morello is a canon lawyer and Senior Associate at CFFC.


  1. Richard Scheinin, “Bishop pushing Davis to abandon pro-choice stance,” San Jose Mercury News, February 15, 2003.
  2. Robin Toner, “The ‘Catholic Vote’ – testing the church’s influence in politics,” New York Times, January 26, 2003.
  3. David Catanese, “Anti-abortion group denounces pro-choice Catholic legislators,” Patriot Ledger, January 23, 2003.
  4. Bruce Nolan, “Anti-abortion group congregates in New Orleans,” Times-Picayune, July 11, 2002.
  5. CNN/USA Today/Gallup Poll, January 10-12, 2003.
  6. Belden Russonello and Stewart, poll for Catholics for a Free Choice of 1,003 adults nationally, October 10-15, 2000.
  7. Canon 1317.
  8. Canon 1318.
Catholics for Choice