Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Can the Church excommunicate pro-abort pols?

You don't have to look far to find many who insist the Church should excommunicate pro-abortion politicians. Nor will you have trouble finding people very critical of the bishops for not doing so.

So, I got thinking: if the bishops together -- or a particular bishop -- were to do this, how would it work? (Can anyone tell me if any bishop in the U.S. has actually done this? I mean, actually excommunicated anyone over a public policy position, such as abortion or related issues?)

Here's the problem I ran into right away: in such matters, the penalty is incurred for a concrete action, but its not merely the act per se, it also includes the intention. In the example of the woman participating in a simulated ordination, that ordination is the concrete act; for those receiving or imparting the invalid ordination, how can they have any intention that is defensible? On the other hand, one who was merely present might be able to say, "I wasn't there to support it, I was there as a journalist, reporting on it," or, "I work on the boat" -- such people, while present, did not have the culpable intention: i.e., their cooperation was not formal, but only material; and not immediate (i.e., the one actually imposing hands can hardly disclaim intention).

OK now, let us apply this to "supporting legal abortion." The Church, in giving warning about this, would have to specify certain acts that incurred the excommunication; or would there have to be a hearing, an examination, etc., after the fact? Canon lawyers, please advise...

But let me share with you where this line of thinking foundered for me--and feel free to contribute constructive solutions: in trying to name the concrete act that would incur the excommunication, I found myself well able to think of an intention that would be legitimate.

So let us take poor Senator Kerry as an example. What has he done?

* He votes for tax funding for abortions
* He votes against every abortion restriction put before him -- or, if not every one, most of them.
* He gives vocal support to the status quo on abortion, he accepts financial support and endorsements from pro-abortion organizations.

Can any of these actions have defensible intentions?

Well, what if he says--as he well may--that he believes the constitution requires abortions be provided at taxpayer expense. Likewise, he could well argue that all the laws put forward violate the Constitution. (In the latter case, it's clear the Supreme Court thinks so.) However faulty I think that reasoning is, does the Church really excommunicate someone for bad constitutional reasoning?

Is accepting political contributions and endorsements from the abortion industry an excommunicable act? I'm not asking if its bad, offensive, and all that--is it such that one can be excommunicated for it? Could he not say, "I don't agree with them about abortion--I agree with my Church that it's a terrible evil. But we do agree on the constitution and on other issues, and I'm not endorsing them, they're endorsing me."

Then, supposing we took that route, that would mean he merely needs to refuse the contributions -- that doesn't help much, does it?

As far as defending the status quo -- what if he were to say (and I think he does say some of this), "As awful as I think abortion is, I believe the Constitution protects it. And I regret this, but I think the constitution is so important to us that we have to honor the constitution, but oppose abortion in other ways." Is his excommunicable act his opposition to changing the constitution? I'm not sure, but this might be the best grounds. However, would it not have the effect of meaning a Catholic is bound to support a constitutional amendment against abortion, if not another equivalent remedy?

And--supposing we took this route, and he changes his behavior, then while that would mute his pro-abortion rhetoric, and commit him to supporting a change in Roe v. Wade or a constitutional amendment, he'd still be voting mostly the same way he has . . .

You might say, he voted against Alito and Roberts. Well, whatever one thinks of that, how can that incur an excommunication? Can't a Catholic oppose a Supreme Court nominee? In any case, surely Kerry could have cited a morally defensible reason: "I voted against them because I believed they would distort the meaning the framers intended for the constitution."

I'm not trying to be cagey; the classic rule in Canon Law is to interpret strict provisions strictly -- i.e., anything that brings such a severe penalty on someone must not be done in a loosey-goosey fashion. And if you want the bishops to do this, this is the sort of examination of the matter that would have to be done, only better, because I'm no canon lawyer.

After all, consider this. Let us imagine, happily, that Roe v. Wade has been overturned. Now someone introduces federal legislation outlawing abortion in all 50 states. But you have a fair number of conservaties in Congress, including probably some Catholics, who say, I want to outlaw all abortions, but I believe the states have that authority; not the federal government. I believe it distorts our federal system when Congress takes on more and more legislative power. So I will oppose this measure for that reason.

Should that person be excommunicated?

See the problem?

Has anyone else explored this in detail? What have they come up with?


Tracy said...

Well Father, I believe that if your are really and truly and FULLY living as a Catholic, then that Catholicism and the beliefs that go with it will carry into ALL facets of one's life. There is NO WAY someone who REALLY understands the Church's teaching on when life begins would ever support abortion. I get tired of ppl who come to Church to be seen in the right circles, and that is their only agenda for being there.

But I agree that ex-communicaiton is very much a strong thing, but as long as you're publicly saying you support abortion, you surely should not be allowed to recieve Jesus in the Eucharist. When you go up to recieve, you are saying that you are in agreement with all of the Church's teachings, (or maybe while not in agreement, at least of acceptance that the Church has the final say, kwim?).

Either you are Catholic or you are not. Too often we hear, "oh I'm Catholic but not really practising." Well geuss what?! This isn't practice, this is THE GAME, the Superbowl, and until the Church stops allowing ppl to be so "Cafeteria" how are they expected to grow?

No one understands or respects the Church's teaching because the Church is too afraid of losing numbers to uphold those teachings.

What's the point of even having teachings and magesterium if nothing is done to encourage living by the faith and teachings of the Church?

My 2 cents, which are jmho, and don't really offer a detailed solution on how to fix this BUT why not? This way isn't working!


Fr Martin Fox said...


I don't disagree; the problem I am posing is, if we want the bishops to do this, how do they frame their decree that specifies what concrete actions incur the penalty? My post was intended to show my own difficulties in answering that.

Pro Ecclesia said...

Back in the early 1960s, I believe the Archbishop of New Orleans excommunicated some Louisiana politicians (Democrats, by the way) for their segregationist policies.

I'm not sure it would work today with respect to abortion, but it's been done in the not-too-distant (although pre-Vatican II) past regarding another matter of public policy.

Tracy said...

I think I am too black and white for this...in the words of NIKE, "Just DO it!" It's all right there, it's jsut being brave enough to follow through.

As I said, at the very least, communion should be denied. But it's become a bigger scandal for a priest to do that, than it is for the commuicant creating the original scandal!

*SIGH* There are no easy answers as long as humanity allows fear and political correctedness to rule. I have faith that if anyone can find the answer it will be you!

God Bless,

Anonymous said...

"...what if he says--as he well may--that he believes the constitution requires abortions be provided at taxpayer expense."

I'm having a hard time figuring out how someone who was "actually" Catholic - and could "actually" think - could hold this position. At some point, we fall into "culpable ignorance," don't we?

But I must conceed that there is no way to know for sure that Kerry's intentions are not indefensible. Simply can't get into his head or heart. (And I'm thankful for that, myself.)

That's why I tend to be (like Tracy) much more interested in the "withholding communion" approach. Because that does have a far more measurable and attainable trigger: public scandal.

We don't need to make a judgement about Kerry's intentions to know if his continued support of pro-abortion causes and legislation is a cause of scandal. And so we remove his intentions altogether.

If an understanding of his intention is required for excommunication, than I can't see how it would ever work.

Dad29 said...

The Constitution protects a number of things which are NOT funded by the Feds.

Seems to me that if Kerry (eg) is indictable, it's easy on the funding question.

Also on the "partial-birth" question, which is far more questionable, Constitutionally.

Jeff Miller said...

In 1996 Bishop Bruskewitz excomunicated anybody an his diocese that belonged to specific organizations.

Planned Parenthood
Society of Saint Pius X (Lefebvre Group)
Hemlock Society
Call to Action
Call to Action Nebraska
Saint Michael the Archangel Chapel
Job's Daughters
Eastern Star
Rainbow Girls
Catholics for a Free Choice

Fr Martin Fox said...

Father Barry:

But here's the thing: a minister cannot withhold communion from someone without a just reason.

"Canon 912: Any baptized person who is not prohibited by law can and must be admitted to Holy Communion."

"Canon 213: "The Christian faithful have the right to receive assitance from the sacred pastors out of the spiritual goods of the Church, especially the word of God and the sacraments."

I'm not trying to be difficult; simply showing why this seems difficult -- at least to me...

Fr Martin Fox said...


Yes, membership in a group can provide clarity on the specific act and requisite intention. But how does that solve the problem of pro-abortion politicians?

Deacon Jim said...

To answer your first question I would imagine that if any excommunications were handed out they would have been from Bishop Bruskewitz or Abp. Burke.

I think Bishop Bruskewitz developed and published a list of offenses for which he would excommunicate people (see Excommunications in the Heartland). I think all of them would have to be explored from the point you make - where is the concrete act and proof.

For example, I think one of the offenses was membership in the Masons. How do we know who is/is not a member. Secret society and all I do not think they publish their lists - could be wrong. Does the Church tag everyone with a Mason symbol on the back of their car?

As you say, this is exceedingly difficult. I think that's why it is used so infrequently. No matter how many people cry for the blood of their opponents, the Church has to be circumspect in the application of Law.

I’m all for the balanced application of Law. It avoids overreaching and reductio ad absurdum

Anonymous said...

Kudos again - I think Kerry’s a crock and a wimp, but we’ve REEALLLY gotta be absolutely sure of ourselves before denying communion to anyone, let alone formal excommunication.

Speaking of, is there an actual excommunication ceremony?

Anonymous said...

"Canon 912: Any baptized person who is not prohibited by law must be admitted to Holy Communion."

I would agree, even if it wasn't a canon. I do not think people can be prohibited unless they break the law...but my problem is that I'm not sure exactly what "law" is being discussed here. (I feel like Clinton whenever I pull that kind of rhetorical/logicla move. Ugh.)

Is it Canon 915? Is it "those who are excommunicated or interdicted after the imposition or declaration of the penalty and others who obstinately persist in manifest grave sin?"

Because I would argue that Kerry definitely falls into the second group. The bishops may be reluctant to "call his bluff," but it seems to me that he is both obstinant and persisting in something I would consider manifest and most definitely grave.

Course, I suspect that's another point for serious (and honest) disagreement.

And perhaps Canon 213 would most immediately apply to confession in this case?


Anonymous said...

Unlike the application of the rule of law in the judiciary (which follows necessary and set rules for a greater good), the role of the politician is one of prudential judgement - we elect people who the plurality of us trust to make just laws in pursuit of the greater good.

So, just as a Catholic judge must recuse himself instead of utilizing the power of his office to do something intrinsically contrary to the Faith (for instance, directing the executive to execute a Catholic for practicing Catholicism, or a Jew for being a Jew, etc), or a Catholic member of an Executive branch must not commit an intrinsically evil act (as in China, perhaps, participating in someone to have an abortion), the pol must not exercise his power to enable that which is contrary to the Faith. His sense of the greater good must be informed by the faith, and must necessarily impact his vote, since that's his job: if the voters decide not to elect him because of it, then fine, their choice, but that's his witness and his calling if he wishes to assume office - if he refuses it, he separates himself from the Church.

Fr Martin Fox said...

Father Barry:

OK, if we simply say he's "obstinant in grave sin," then that's different from being "excommunicated."

So, let's say the bishops go that route. He shows up at Mass. Can a priest deny him communion?

Depends--did he go to confession? If he did, and validly received absolution, then he's not prohibited from the sacrament, seems to me. And how, when I'm distributing communion, can I know that?

Denying someone a sacrament is not a trifling thing, and Canon Law is clear -- one must be "prohibited." And that should be interpreted strictly -- i.e., not broadly, so that people have to win their right to the sacraments back.

This is why you have excommunication -- to remove it from the confessional, and require the persistent sinner to be reconciled with the bishop (or the pope).

Anonymous said...

Why are so many Catholics filled with anger? It comes out loud & clear when yall go on these vigillante crusades.
Instead of trying to find out why people behave as they do (such as seeking abortions) and re-educating them lovingly (yes, lovingly - the Christian way...) too many want to throw fits of righteous indignation and then punish the offenders with excommunication and/or loss of Holy Communion.
Withholding Communion is never theologically acceptable. Why? Because placing restrictions on Communion is to own and control it. We don't own or control Christ. Actually, using Communion to effect our own ends is a big scary thing to do, because we were not given the gift of Christ in order to use it to manipulate others. If you think you are defending the church or promoting its rules & regs, stop and think about this. The church isn't edified when its members act hateful in the name of religion. Notice how wars develop when this attitude takes over.
We're all human beings, just like the human beings who have aroused this poisonous wrath. Yes, human beings have done things we don't approve. If you yourself have never done anything deserving of disapproval and censure, please stand up. (If you stand up, we'll all know you're lying, and that's not nice either!)
When people sin, God knows it. Yet he does not withhold himself from the sinner. He came to earth and dined with sinners, walked with sinners, defended sinners. He didn't excommunicate those who sinned or didn't agree with him. He forgave those who killed him. Maybe, just maybe, the sinner needs to receive Christ more than anyone.
Maybe all of us who receive Christ are sinners in one way or another, hmmm?
Where is all this Catholic anger coming from? What's the point? Can you see that it could be a serious sin as well?

Anonymous said...

Hello Father,

I think you ask some excellent questions.

And to be sure: We ought not desire that anyone be separated from the Body Christ, either the True or the Mystical. The goal ought not to be to trip someone up on a technicality or a grey area. And that is why canon law is structured the way it is.

So I might suggest some concrete actions which would not trip up many pro-abort politicians. But this would be beneficial in that it would not appear as if the Church was excommunicating indiscriminately, or lightly. The truly hard-core, culture of death proponents would be the ones taking the hits, and such would be apparent to all with eyes to see.

So we could propose, perhaps:

1. Active membership in a proscribed organization, after refusal of requests to disavow same;

2. To introduce, vocally support, or vote for legislation which has the effect of expanding the taking of innocent life beyond even what the Courts will admit as required by the COnstitution;

3) To publicly challenge Church teaching on the sanctity of innocent human life in regards to abortion euthanasia, et al, and to refuse to recant after being given ample opportunity to do so;

4) This might be the dodgiest of the bunch, but worth tinkering with: To publicly insist on a litmus test of upholding a right to abortion or euthanasia for all federal court appointees.

It would be a real necessity to do as Bruskewitz did, and to make this conditions for excommunication or denial of communion crystal clear and public, and do so well in advance of any sanctions being declared - and of course to try to work with the polticians to have a chance to disavow their actions.

best regards,

Fr Martin Fox said...


Thanks for accepting the challenge of my post, and offering something concrete.

What you offer sounds, at first blush, to be a pretty good, objective standard.

Not to be contentious, but I will offer two critiques:

1. The first one would seem hardly to apply in the U.S. -- abortion is now about as legal as it could be.

2. Note: John Kerry could easily pass these tests.

Anonymous said...

Marc Balestrieri, a canon lawyer who has an organization called De Fide, has filed canonical lawsuits against John Kerry and I believe Rudy Giuliani and Arnold Schwarzenegger on the basis of their dissent from Church teaching on abortion and other issues.

So at least a few canon lawyers think they can be excommunicated.

Fr Martin Fox said...


And they may be correct. However, I noted they seemed to basing their case on affirmative statements made by Kerry (and others); and that would be a slam-dunk. However, all Kerry has to do is say, I agree with Church teaching and there goes the excommunication.

Anonymous said...

Since I only know about this through gossip, even though it was widely distributed gossip, I'm going to be a little cagey about the details.

I know of a case where a loudly pro-choice democrat was also loudly "Catholic." Supposedly, he was a member of my parish, but we only ever saw him in October of even numbered years. When he showed up, it turned into a kind of political rally in the church hall, despite the pastor's misgivings. I heard that he would make similar appearances in September and October in neighboring parishes.

Well, the rumor that went around was that the bishop had called him and said, in effect, I don't want to have a public battle with you, but your behavior is disruptive and forcing me to respond. I don't know if that conversation actually happened, but that was the rumor.

At any rate, two years later there was not a single sighting of this politician at any local parish, nor has there been since (It's been 6 years) even though he's still in Congress.

I think that's a good way for handling local politicians. It doesn't work so well for a politician with a national campaign.

Anonymous said...


I am a priest of a diocese where the bishop joined two neighboring bishops in releasing a statement concerning politicians.


The bishops involved did not intend to name names with their initial statement, but if they ever thought they would be forced to give names to the priests, then we would be told how to act. Also, it would be no secret to the person who would be denied the Eucharist that they were going to be denied the Eucharist. In other words, the bishops would not leave the priests out to dry to be bearers of the news.

I get the impression that my bishop thought he had to say something. Good for him.

Unknown said...


That was a very thought provoking post. I can see the difficulty involved in imposing an excommunication based on voting for a certain bill, etc.... It seems much more clear cut if the person is making public statements that would clearly contradict Church teaching. If someone says "the right to abortion is a fundamental human right" he is saying something heretical (as far as I can tell). If these comments are obstinate and public, especially if they're voiced in Congress or in connection with political events, it could be seen as persisting in manifest obstinate grave sin.

I can see the difficulty of having individual priests deny Communion without formal excommunication (at least with excommunication you can be sure they can't be admitted).

Also, is it moral for a politician to vote for a piece of legislation that supports abortion, even if they are basing it on constitutional law? It seems as though the natural moral law should have more authority, but then again I'm not a theologian.

I'm not sure if that made a lot of sense, but I can see a case for it excommunication potentially. We don't want the Blessed Sacrament profaned and souls lost for making sacriligious communions, but we can't really assume that someone isn't in a state of grace either.

So basically I still don't know.

Orange_Cross said...

Whatever happened to the good old days where a person could be excommunicated for disagreeing with the church in earshot of a church authority? The good old days where Joan of Arc was burned at the stake. The good old days where a person couldn't be a priest because of their sex organs. The good old days where soldiers were encouraged to follow their orders, snipers shooting scores of people in the head, pilots launching missiles to destroy civilian residences, and chiding veterans who realize the errors of the way and sue for peace. Remember the good old days where the church wouldn't allow the study of human physiology, the study of reproduction, of eggs, of fetuses of embryos left over from fertility clinics, the autopsying of bodies the eating of animals, of blood, the using of one's brain, of hearing the mass in a language one didn't understood, of contempt for the vulgar public. Ah, the good times are still here, we'll hold off judgment for a while yet I spose. I should probably donate a few bucks to some church or other, so they can paint their house and I can shave off a few weeks in purgatory. Yahoo.

Chris Sullivan said...

Fr Fox,

I'm convinced you're right about this.

What would Jesus do ?

What did he do at the last supper ? He invited the man he knew was about to betray him.

That doesn't sound like excommunication to me. It sounds like a man who really believes in loving his enemies and praying for them.

Perhaps we might follow him ?

God Bless

Fr Martin Fox said...


I don't want to spoil all the good feeling, but -- I'm generally in sympathy with excommunicating these politicians. But when I thought about how to do it, I came up against the problems I described.

RC said...

You may be interested in Pete Vere's comments on the topic in 2003 at Catholic Light.

He and the commenters bring several canons into the subject: e.g., a bishop can deny Communion to a manifest public sinner (c. 915); an accomplice to an offense can also be punished (c. 1329).

Anonymous said...

Your questions about the object and intention of supporting abortion have been addressed in Catholic traditon. the Catholic tradition is that everything about an act has to be good for the act to be good; where 'everything' includes the object (what it is that is being done), the intention (why it is that it is being done), and the circumstances surrounding the doing of it. So the idea that you have to identify the intention of an action in order to determine whether or not the action is wrong is mistaken. If the object of the action is wrong as such, then the action is wrong, regardless of intention or circumstances. This is what the encyclical Veritatis Splendor (esp. paras 78 and after) was about, but it was just repeating what the church has always believed and taught. Some of Kerry's actions, like voting for government funding of abortions (i.e. for the murder of innocents), are wrong in themselves ; so the intentions he may have had in doing them make no difference to their wrongness, and he can justly be punished for them. His intentions re the Constitution are not relevant to this issue, as the American Constitution does not trump the moral law. He ought certainly to be punished through a regular ecclesiastical process that can be addressed in ecclesiastical courts; that is what happens in the parallel case of civil offense agaisnt civil laws, and that is what canon law and ecclesiastical courts are there for.

Anonymous said...

Haven't at least some pro-abortion politicians gone to Planned Parenthood meetings and said how wonderful PP is, and how everyone should join it, because reproductive rights are so great?

Isn't that a concrete act? And surely, in that case, to receive proper absolution, the politician would have to retract his stated support for the organisation-and given the fact it was a public speech, wouldn't the church have the right to ask for a public retraction?

Having publicly supported something like PP, just saying "I accept the church's teaching" wouldn't be enough. Because then the bishop could say: "OK, so you accept the teaching, now retract your public statements". And surely, in that case, someone like Kerry couldn't afford to do that.

I recall the Dutch bishops forbade the Sacraments to Dutch Nazi party collaborators, based on their active support for the organisation, whether they were actual members or not.

Anonymous said...

I would say only Church teachings apply, secular laws do in deciding on excommunication. Favorble vote on abortion should be automatic excommunication, a warning that the polititian separated himself from the Church. The Bishop would remind him in a letter and that would make it formal and public.

We must defend the unborn and the Church.

Fr Martin Fox said...


"So the idea that you have to identify the intention of an action in order to determine whether or not the action is wrong is mistaken."

That's true only with what you say further: "If the object of the action is wrong as such, then the action is wrong, regardless of intention or circumstances."

Yes, and I said that.

The question is, how does that apply to the legislative process.

If an elected official votes against a particular bill, is that vote "wrong as such"? If so, that means there can be no circumstances under which that is morally right: voting for that bill equals a moral imperative.

Is that really your claim?

I repose the question: God willing, Roe v. Wade is overturned. Then a federal ban on abortion is introduced. Congressmen who otherwise voted prolife vote against it, because they believe it violates the federal-state relationship. Is that vote "wrong as such"?

"Some of Kerry's actions, like voting for government funding of abortions (i.e. for the murder of innocents), are wrong in themselves..." -- I think that's probably right.

"His intentions re the Constitution are not relevant to this issue, as the American Constitution does not trump the moral law."

So is your argument that a Catholic in office is free to ignore the constitution, and even bound to? If he should ignore the constitution, why not other laws?

Someone else made the argument that in such a conflict, the Catholic should recuse himself, or resign. That makes far more sense to me than to say he must disregard what he believes is constitutional or not.

(I happen to believe these folks are badly mistaken about what the constitution means, and what they can do under it--but I insist one cannot be excommunicated for a wrong idea of constitutional law.)

Anonymous said...

Fr. Fox,

I wish to distinguish, as someone did above, between excommunication and denial of communion. The latter can be necessary even if the standards for the former are not met. Canon 915 does not *permit* the denial of communion--it mandates it. Ministers must deny communion under the circumstances described, which certainly include the public advocacy of an ongoing slaughter of millions of innocent children.

You comment that we are not sure whether someone like John Kerry just went to confession. Respectfully, I do not consider this a legitimate argument. "Manifest" in 915 ensures that everyone knows the offender's status, and "obstinate" indicates that the offender's bishop has already told him that he must be denied communion unless he repents. A truly repentant John Kerry would not be offended by being denied communion minutes after his secret confession. Indeed, he would make sure that the minister was aware. Unrealistic hypotheticals nullify canon 915, which is an odd result given its clarity, forcefulness, and importance.

Fr Martin Fox said...


You make a good argument; but I think you agree, the need remains for competent authority to give direction about who is to be denied communion. We don't want each minister of communion deciding this, case-by-case?

As to who is competent -- the pastor is, but for various reasons, there are times you want the bishop to do it. It would be counterproductive for a pastor to take this stand, very publicly, and then to be undercut by his bishop.

Actually, pastors do this already: we do this with folks we know are in invalid marriages; with people who have left the church, but try to "straddle"; we do this if and when we say, publicly, what things keep someone from coming to communion.

I guess I'm saying that in effect, this becomes a kind of excommunication: the bishop makes a public declaration, about a specific person, over a specific problem of belief or way of life; and it has to be remedied to the bishop's satisfaction.

Other than a question of process, how is this different from excommunication?

I guess my point about such a person coming to communion, and the minister wondering, pertained to a situation where the bishop had not given direction in this matter.

OK, back to the larger question: let us suppose our bishops make this declaration: "John Kerry cannot come to communion until he ___" -- how do you fill in the blank?

My point is, I'm having a hard time spelling this out in terms of concrete legislative or political actions. If you say, "until he repents of supporting legal abortion," he may well say, "I don't 'support' legal abortion, the constitution, as interpreted by the Supreme Court, does, and I am bound by that as are we all."

Then we respond, "but you could support a change in the constitution" -- that's what I was alluding to; it seems this process means a Catholic politician would be bound to agree to do all in his power (under law) to change the constitution (as well as refrain from affirmative endorsements of legal abortion). While I hardly expect Mr. Kerry to respond in that fashion, it occurs to me, that if he did, then he'd still be able to cast a great number of his votes the same way!

I.e., I fail to see how voting against particular Supreme Court justices, per se (i.e., absent a clear declaration of his intent in so doing), would suffice; I don't see how voting against a number of abortion-restricting bills per se would suffice, again unless he said (and he would be insane to say it if he wanted to be reconciled), "I voted against these in order to protect legal abortion"--as opposed to saying, "I regret that these laws are flawed, and so I oppose them, despite agreeing with their intent.

In short, if we take this path, I wonder if we might not get a situation that would appear very strange and perhaps even incomprehensible: some pro-abortion politicians would be subject to sanction by the Church, but not others; and it might not be that those who were sanctioned who, to most eyes, seemed "worst" on the issue.

For example: a vote for tax funding, or an affirmative statement endorsing legal abortion, would get one sanctioned; while another who avoids those, but votes against every restriction on abortion (other than a constitutional amendment, which never comes before him), but justifies those votes on what he believes is constitutional and/or prudent, probably would not.

Or do you disagree with me that an elected official would be entitled to say, "I am against abortion, but I believe this anti-abortion bill is bad for various reasons (constitution, has other bad effects, etc.) and so I vote against it nonetheless"?

There is legislation before Congress that would effectively overturn Roe v. Wade, by declaring unborn children persons under the 14th Amendment. If a Catholic member of Congress refuses to support this, is he subject to sanction for that act per se?

Morning's Minion said...

Fr. Fox,

What you are basically taking about are the "prudential" issue that surround in the issue of abortion. Even if is in itself objectively evil, how to deal with it in society is not always clear.

On the issue of not voting for Alito or Roberts, I think Kerry (and everybody else) was totally justified given their appalling theories on the power of the exective. Remeber it was the Catholic justices that dissented in the Hamden case which (cutting through all the legal balderdash) effectively forced the Texas Torturer to restore the Geneva conventions. As you know, torture is up there with abortion in terms of being always evil, no exceptions.

Anonymous said...

Fr. Fox,

As always - posts that make me think (and others that make me laugh - not this one though).

Yes - being very clear in how to apply something as 'terrible' as excommunication or denying Holy Communion is very important. And not being a canon lawyer - I'm not sure I have the canons or the education to argue at that level BUT I am a Mom and make similar - at least for our domestic Church - decisions.

So - here are some of my questions

1. Both of these acts, it seems to me, are to do two things - a. Jar the person being excommunicated or denied Holy Communion, into realizing the evil of their position and the danger their soul is in and do something different (in other words a loving thing) and b. to let all the other kids in the family know for sure that this act or position is really bad and to not go there (another loving thing.) Yes?

2. If there is NEVER a way (or almost never a way) that a bishop can do either of these things - then the canons are useless and not available for the loving 'whack'.

3. What about the scandal. I am hugely annoyed by Senator Kennedy and Senator Kerry and the likes. It's not just because of their positions in abortion and others, but that it's so dog gone in your face AND they do it and use 'Catholicism' while they do it. What does that say to the rest of us in the pew who are watching? And, what does it say about our Spiritual Fathers - it makes them look weak and whimpy and by extention, makes the Church and the Faith look that way. And, it that understanding helping people get to heaven and know the true faith - either the Senator or the faithful in the pews or those reading the newspaper? Do we have the same worries about the scandal given as we do to the exact and absolutely perfect application of either of these measures?

So - I don't have answers but I do know as a Mom - I don't rules that I don't enforce, I don't have punishments on the books (or threaten with them in a family context) that I am not willing to do exactly how and when I tell you they will be AND I start my decision making with my son is an intelligent young man (now) and I know what I have taught him or trained him in. Clearly this changes with age but, for me, that's how I judge the intention. And, as a Mom, it really is my job to judge the behavior, the age, and the intention/knowledge and go from there. I don't always get it right - but that's the Mom job description. Is't is the Bishop's job description too?

Anonymous said...

I agree that the Bishop should be involved in applying canon 915 to politicians, and in cases where ministers have actually attempted to follow canon 915 this has been the practice. It could start with a pastor, though, in consultation with the Bishop. Canonically 915 is not a sanction. It is a required practice in order to respect the Eucharist.

Your main question is whether there is a line that can be drawn to identify politicians as really pro-abortion. The Church has answered this question affirmatively. Abortion is a grave crime; so is failing to oppose its legality, according to Evangelium Vitae 73. It is never licit to "take part in a propaganda campaign in favour of" a law permitting abortion, or to "vote for it." Even where a more restrictive law is at issue, a politician must make his "absolute personal opposition to procured abortion [] well known." According to the recent US Bishops' statement, Catholic politicians are required to "work actively to restrain, restrict and bring to an end the destruction of unborn human life."

There is no reasonable question that the public statements and voting records of the infamous Catholic Democrats (and similar Republicans, though none come to mind) championing the legality of "safe" abortion, fail gravely and manifestly by all measures, and are not redeemed by mere statements like "I am personally opposed to abortion." If their bishops or pastors confront them on it, and they obstinately persist, canon 915 is mandatory.

I concede that a borderline case cna be hypothesized. I don't think it's along the lines of "personally opposed but think the constitution requires abortion." There is no exception in EV 73 for instances where the law requires legal abortion. It is mythical to postulate an American politician who is trumpeting pro-life speeches and making every attempt to outlaw abortion, while at the same time based on a quirky legal view voting for every legislative measure that legalizes and pays for abortion, and against every measure that if upheld would restrict it.

Maybe there could be someone who votes for most but not all pro-life measures, and makes truly equivocal public statements. Or someone who votes against a particular good law but usually does the right thing. Bishops have to deal with politicians on a case by case basis. The only alternative is refusal to enforce canon 915 in this area at all, and that is an injustice not only to the Eucharist but also to the gravity of butchering innocent children.

Anonymous said...

Fr. Martin:

This keeps getting more and more interesting. As I read on, I can see that my emotional reaction is one thing, and my intellectual reaction is another altogether.

I want something to be done about this, because I'm sick and tired of people like Kerry saying that they are Catholic for political gain, and then acting completely unCatholic.

But that's an emotional reaction.

When I use my head, I can see what you're saying. It's tough to see how it would actually work out "in the details." Which is where the devil always is, right? ;-)

But I do think that we need a very clear statement from the bishops, which would go a long ways towards forcing the issue. Something can't be "prohibited" in a vague way. But if the bishops could say - in a letter, like Burke, perhaps - that Catholic politicians need to come talk to them, we could get at the "intentions."

I think what I'm doing is deciding on what I want to have happen, and working backwards.

Which isn't entirely fair.

Fr Martin Fox said...


I may not have been as clear as might be helpful: my reason for spinning the hypotheticals is that I'm trying to imagine what might result after the sort of action we are contemplating actually happens.

Yes, some will not change; and let's assume they will be punished.

But I think I am not being wildly speculative to suppose politicians will, if they can do it, conform--as much as they have to and not an ounce more--in order to escape penalty. After all, we already know they do put some value in being identified as Catholic.

With respect, I think your scenario of politicians having to give "trumpeting prolife speeches" is unnecessarily fanciful; because if you think they have to do that to avoid sanction, you are mistaken. No one would be denied communion for lack of "trumpeting speeches."

Rather, all the pols need do is avoid direct statements contrary to Catholic teaching. That's a lot easier. And, as you should know, they already attempt to endorse Catholic teaching to some extent, and I predict they would do more:

"I agree with my Church on abortion--it is a grave moral evil. Our differences lie in what is possible under our current constitutional system, and how to do that."

Yes, some would be in a bind--their political alliances would compel them to say they oppose any change in current law. And that would be a problem for them under our scenario.

Yes, let's agree they would have to avoid voting for "pro-abortion" legislation.

And these benchmarks would either result in some being penalized, and/or some changes. All good.

But now, let's explore the further consequences...

Most votes in the U.S. on abortion aren't votes "for" but votes "against" -- i.e., votes on proposed restrictions.

And this is where I think your project runs into problems.

Do I take you to mean that the bishops could, and should, say that Catholics are compelled to vote FOR particular legislation, described as prolife?

If you feel so, can you tell me, exactly, how you think that would work? Because this is where I think the system you propose breaks down--in the details.

Will the bishops provide that legislation? Will they review it, and give their endorsement, saying, "you must vote for this one, but you may vote for that one"? (Currently, they will endorse legislation, but I do not believe they ever say, "must." Can you offer an actual example to the contrary?)

Will they declare irrelevant all objections based on prudence, effectiveness, constitutionality, suitability in a federal system, or resulting harms (surely you don't deny that a bill with a good objective can be badly written, so that it has other bad consequences)? Or will they specify which objections are relevant?

There actually have been votes on laws that affect government benefits to women who might bear children; and one argument against cutting those benefits was it would make abortion a more attractive option. Should the bishops make that vote a culpable vote?

Will they keep a scorecard, and say a certain score is acceptable?

I'm not trying to be smart; but you did say, you didn't think the voting against all prolife legislation would fly. OK, so how do you think it will work, when it comes to voting on restrictive legislation?

You didn't respond to the example of actual -- not hypothetical -- legislation before Congress, which declares unborn children persons under the 14th Amendment. Would Catholic politicians be morally impelled to vote for that (I am for this bill, by the way), even were they to say, but I think that's unconstitutional or at odds with our federal system? Do you think the bishops should say, "we judge the legal/constitutional questions better than you, Senator?"

My point in all this is to think through how this would actually work.

And I am not at all being fanciful in supposing, once you create new penalties and consequences, the politicians will set to figuring out how to "game the system."

My concern is what will eventuate.
I can easily imagine--but I may be wrong--that some politicians will decide they can be "Catholic enough" to evade sanction, but do no more. (And maybe that's all we expect from this enterprise of bishops taking a stand.)

It's not so hard to imagine the abortion lobby would decide to give them a pass. The gay rights lobby has and still does give a pass to many politicians for similar reasons, and so does Big Labor, on their issues.

What concerns me is when, from the general public's point of view, the reasons some get sanctioned, and others don't, seems incomprehensible. "He's just as pro-abortion--he votes wrong all the time!--but he can go to communion!"

The bishops' explanations, while consistent with norms of canon law, and moral teaching, likely would not satisfy.

Prolife organizations, not bound to pay attention to intention as the bishops are, would be more scathing; and they wouldn't appreciate the politicians pointing to their non-sanction as evidence they're not so bad, "it's just these extremist groups."

You may not like me proposing hypotheticals, but there's no way to think about what would happen, is there?

Do you care to offer an alternative picture of how this would actually work, and what would result?

Anonymous said...

Anselm:You make a good argument; but I think you agree, the need remains for competent authority to give direction about who is to be denied communion. We don't want each minister of communion deciding this, case-by-case?

Actually the Pontifical Council for Interp. of Legislative Texts has said the provisions of 915 apply to each minister of communion without requiring recourse to a higher authority than the parish priest first.

The test case has to do with divorce and remarriage, but the principles apply to polticians. here's the relevant bit:

The discernment of cases in which the faithful who find themselves in the described condition are to be excluded from Eucharistic Communion is the responsibility of the Priest who is responsible for the community. They are to give precise instructions to the deacon or to any extraordinary minister regarding the mode of acting in concrete situations.

4. Bearing in mind the nature of the above-cited norm (cfr. n. 1), no ecclesiastical authority may dispense the minister of Holy Communion from this obligation in any case, nor may he emanate directives that contradict it.

Fr Martin Fox said...


I'm sorry I was insufficiently clear in that comment you quote. I meant, each person, whether an ordinary or extraordinary minister of holy communion, making that decision at the moment of distributing the Eucharist.

The document, as I read it, does not seem to endorse each and every minister of communion -- even ordinary -- making this decision, but "the Priest who is responsible for the community" who is to instruct the other ministers. That the priest is to instruct the others, rather than that they are to decide for themselves, is what I was trying to say when I said you don't want each one deciding case-by-case.

Am I misreading the document?

Anonymous said...

Fr. Fox,

I do appreciate this discussion.

I still can't imagine a politician who opposes all imaginable pro-life laws. Not all of the prudential concerns you raise can be held at the same time. A US congressman could not oppose a constitutional amendment banning abortion on the basis that the states should decide, and also oppose all means of letting the states decide.

I agree that there will be some politicians doing as little as they can do to get by. But, in my estimate, the requirements of never voting for a law permitting abortion and of making one's *absolute* opposition to abortion well known (not mere lip service, and not "personally opposed but I speak at pro-abortion rallies") are too strict to leave many politicians on the margin. Politicians would be prohibited from too much: voting for taxpayer funding of abortion, or for human embryo research, or for requiring abortion training, or for requiring health insurance coverage of abortifacients, or for international population control, to name a few. The abortion lobby is not idle--I've been to their conferences. They are proposing bills all the time. They have 5, 10, and 20 year plans for legislative change. A politician could not vote right on all of these, and make his absolute opposition to abortion well known, and never speak at a NARAL conference, and still get any money or support from abortion advocates or pro-abortion party structure. If he no longer got that support, what would the benefit be for him to vote against pro-life bills? What is the motive for a man to walk this line once he's gone so far? Public opinion wouldn't help him, since it supports most bills like parental consent, and also seems to support embryo research. If you assume the public likes abortion moderates, then absolute rhetoric on abortion wouldn't fly. That leaves a man's quirky views as a motive, compelling him to say the right things and oppose all laws on both sides, not even a law he thinks of and introduces (and again, he is required to "work actively to restrain, restrict and bring to an end the destruction of unborn human life"). I doubt such views exist, and if they did the person who held them and who had a talk with his bishop would think of a way to "work actively," and would think of bills to support.

There are and will be the most egregious violators, and enforcement of 915 in their cases may be all that is necessary. I hope we shall see. Because enforcement of 915 requires individual judgment there will be different results, and not only on less clear cases but under different bishops. We will just have to live with this. How would I advise a bishop? Start with the clear cases and see what happens. Work slowly from there, but don't refuse to start just because you don't know how it will all turn out in the end.

Fr Martin Fox said...


I am happy to have this discussion too.

You make a good point, that when we expand this to deal with voting to fund research that destroys embryonic humans to harvest their cells, and other life issues, then of course there is a broad basis for the bishops to take action -- based on votes "for" bad policy.

But the question was originally posed in the narrow question of abortion -- because the more you expand it, the less likely anything is to happen. Maybe what you're saying is, if it's worth doing, it has to be about the whole gamut of life-issues.

I agree with you that I don't call someone who never supports restrictions "prolife"; but that wasn't the issue I raised. The issue was, exactly how does the Church sanction a politician who doesn't vote for such legislation?

I tried to spell out how it might work, and found it infeasible. No offense, but I invited you to try. I note you did not. I take that to mean you don't see how that would actually work, either.

So my conclusion thus far is that the bishops can sanction someone for "make things worse" votes (and affirmative statements contrary to Church teaching); but not for lack of "make things better" votes.

Now--if your purpose is simply, "we want them sanctioned," well, then--mission accomplished.

But I think there are larger concerns--surely the bishops should not be indifferent to whether we get better policy!

Maybe we're on different wave-lengths; maybe you don't care if the bishops think about the larger context of this sort of action, and how it would impact public policy. I think they should.

By the way, there are folks in politics who -- on this issue -- don't vote to make things worse, but do fail to vote to make things better: they tend to be Republicans!

I dunno--I'm thinking out loud here--maybe it doesn't matter if the sanctions of the Church only fall on those who cast "make things worse" votes. But I do insist this should be thought through.

Anonymous said...

I remember that the original issue you raised was about sanctions, and that I changed the subject (though I wasn't the first commenter to raise it) to canon 915, which is not a sanction.

On sanctions, someone mentioned the heresy case against Kerry, and if that's viable it might be a basis for excommunication of people who deny that the unborn should be protected by law.

On canon 915, the issue is not who should be sanctioned, but what is obstinate, persistent, manifest, grave sin with respect to abortion policy. I agree it is hard to identify one particular pro-life bill that no one could in good conscience oppose. My contribution was that a politician could not have a set of beliefs thta precluded him from supporting any conceivable pro-life policy on abortion. If a guy had prudential objections to most pro-life laws but was at least doing what he thought he could do and meeting the other EV 73 conditions, the risk of desecration and scandal is removed and canon 915 is satisfied.

One other point: I am not proposing the expansion of "pro-life" beyond abortion. Protection of human embryos is included, quite simply because these are human beings not yet born, as is something like the Born Alive Infants Protection Act, which is aimed at abortions gone wrong. This is not opening the door even to issues like euthanasia, much less the seamless garment tital wave of issues. Remember, canon 915 is concerned with grave sin, and we're looking primarily at EV 73 for a clear statement of what is grave sin.

Anonymous said...

Policing politicians and policies is way too big a job for any church, and distracts it from its primary function - which is to lead souls to Christ. While wrathful Caths try to think up ways to sanction misbehavers, other needy populations and issues are neglected.

For some it's more exciting to be whooped up and mad than it is to spend the same energy at the local homeless shelter.

As much as I loathe abortion, I don't see the church well served if its members focus most of their energies on a single controversy. We are not abortion nazis, we are supposed to be. . .a loving and universal Body of Christ.

Instead of the negative focus on excommunication and withholding of Communion, why not give more attention to the programs which educate against abortion, and spare some time for other programs which serve the born as well as the unborn, but in no case to use
bitterness and hostility as a battering ram.

Fr Martin Fox said...


I am sorry you do not find what I'm saying clear.

When I spoke of "sanction," I am speaking as most people would speak, not making techical distinctions. I aver that most people would tend to see either excommunication, or denial of communion under Canon 915, as "sanctions."

When you began talking about politicians' stances on research that destroys embryonic human beings, that was an expansion beyond what our prior discussion was: politicians' stances on abortion per se. That research is as evil as abortion, but it isn't the same as abortion.

Anonymous said...

I am glad to know that I did not change the subject, since you're speaking of sanctions in this broader sense. The distinction is still relevant to our discussion, however, first because canon 915 is a different, lower standard than excommunication, and so its implementation avoids some of the complications that you have raised, and second because canon 915 is concerned with revering the Eucharist and protecting from scandal and is worded mandatorily, so that ministers are not at liberty to decide not to follow it in clear cases (e.g., Kerry) simply because they have speculative problems about its enforcement.

Destroying embryos is the same as abortion for the purposes of talking about the Church's condemnation of the latter. The Pontifical Council for the Interpretation of Legislative Texts declared in 1988 that abortion is not only "the expulsion of an immature fetus," but also "the killing of a fetus accomplished in any manner and at any time from the moment of conception."
see http://www.canonlaw.info/2006/06/excommunication-for-deliberate-embryo.html
The council made this statement for the purposes of the *excommunication* provision of canon 1398. Since that canon must be applied strictly, even moreso would EV's mere declaration that abortion is grave sin include the destruction of preborn people regardless of location. Consequently, our knowledge that supporting abortion's legality is grave sin also applies to the destruction of human embryos, without broadening our discussion to every attack on human dignity under the sun.

And anonymous: thank you for proving my point. I can think of no explanation for your comment except confusion about the gravity and immensity of supporting legal permission for the daily baby dismemberment that occurs down the street from your house, at least as pertains to whether it's manifest grave sin under canon 915. To the extent that such confusion exists, I believe the failure to enforce 915 at all in this area (until very recently) has made matters worse.

Anonymous said...

Anselm, I am not confused about abortion being a grave sin; I certainly agree that it is.

Abortion is an issue, however, and excommunication is an attempt at a solution to the issue. It is this solution attempt that I disagree with.

If you do not see that it is improper to use the church and Communion as weapons, then you might consider the ineffectiveness of doing so.

For instance, if you excommunicate someone and they say, "So what?", have you actually punished or threatened them, or changed their behavior? If they're as evil as you think they are, such people wouldn't care if they were excommunicated or not. If they still wanted to receive Communion they could, just by going to a parish where they are unknown. (Unless you propose branding their foreheads, of course.)

Let's think of a different solution, especially one that works.

Anonymous said...


Abortion is not an "issue." The marginal tax rate is an issue. Abortion is the bloody dismemberment of thousands of innocent children, in your neighborhood, in the greatest mass murder the world has ever seen. Obstinate public support for the legality of abortion requires the denial of communion to the offender, because of what abortion is and what the Eucharist is. Obstinate public support for racism requires the denial of communion to the offender. Etc.

You don't disagree with me--you disagree with canon law and the reality of our situation. Let me guess--you were born before 1973?

Anonymous said...

Anselm, I wonder if you would describe the results you expect from excommunication, in terms of eliminating or at least moderating the practice of abortion? I do not see how that would fix anything, so maybe you could explain it.

Incidentally, my age is of no relevance in this matter.

Anonymous said...

Enforcing canon 915 in this respect would accomplish the goals of canon 915, namely, protection of the Eucharist from desecration and scandal.

Those of us whom this government said were targets of execution when we were in the womb are less likely to categorize abortion with highway funding projects.

Father Gregory said...

I wish that certain bishops would quit playing around on this issue. They threaten to "withold communion." from these Catholic pro-abortion pols, but the job of doing that is going to fall to us pastors, not the bishops. How many pols. get communion from their bishops every Sunday? Not many.

Doesn't excommunication by the very meaning of the word imply that someone is forbidden to communicate? What is the real difference between being formally excommunicated and not allowed to receive Holy Communion? If the bishops would formally excommunicate them, then it would be cut and dried. Everyone would know of their condition and it would not fall to individual priests to have to make this decision.

If I as a pastor were do refuse communion to Sen. Kennedy, would the bishop stand behind me? Doubtful in the highest degree.

I just wish that the bishops would either excommunicate them (as difficult and unworkable as that probably is) or STOP TALKING ABOUT REFUSING HOLY COMMUNION TO PRO-ABORTION CATHOLIC LEGISLATORS.

Anonymous said...

Anselm, you describe what you hope will be the effect of excommunications but you still don't explain how that will happen. What will make the people you target for excommunication be less likely to support abortion if they are excommunicated? Will a write of excommunication stun them into a change of heart? Will they be griefstricken to be thrown out of the church and thus repent? Come now, we know that won't happen.
If there were no such thing as excommunication, how would you combat the evil of abortion? Can you think of some effective measures? I commend you for your deep concern about abortion. I don't believe spiritual violence is a solution.

Fr Martin Fox said...


This is a non-canon-lawyer's guess of an answer:

I think the difference between excommunication and denial of communion lies in the decision-maker and thus the recourse for remedy -- and to some degree, the fixity of the state of being penalized.

Denial of communion happens at the decision of the pastor, and recourse for remedy is had to him. Example: someone is in an irregular marriage situation. If and when that is remedied, or the individual elects to live chastely in that irregular marriage, then the pastor can give communion.

Since the denial of communion issue arises over persistence in grave sin, it could apply in many situations -- many of which could be remedied by a good confession.

Excommunication happens either in the act itself, or by decree of the bishop -- but either way, the remedy comes from the bishop (although he can delegate that to a pastor or priest by giving faculties to lift the excommunication.)

Anonymous said...


I said nothing about combating abortion by denying communion. I said enforcing canon 915 would protect the Eucharist from (some instances of) desecration and scandal. I also think that the Church's teaching on the gravity of legal abortion cannot be reconciled with the refusal to enforce canon 915 in cases of pro-abortion politicians. Making the Church more consistent in this area indirectly fights abortion, but that's not the point; the point is that grave sin is grave sin.

Would denying communion lead to repentence? That's an indirect goal of canon 915 but it's not the primary point. You are oh so certain that it won't, but history and human nature indicate otherwise in some cases, and both show that in any event the Church avoids a serious scandal. It is a serious scandal, unless it doesn't matter who receives communion, or unless large-scale child butchering is not that big of a deal. Neither position can be reconciled with Catholic teaching.

Anonymous said...

P.S. I an in favor of all methods of combating abortion that are non-violent and consistent with Church teaching. I couldn't possibly list them all here.

Protecting the Eucharist is not violence. If violence has any relevance to this conversation, it occurs when obstinate, persistent, manifest supporters of legal child killing are given Holy Communion.

Anonymous said...

Anselm, the violence is in the anger, the wish to retaliate against someone who has offended.

Violence never works.

The Eucharist is not degraded by
those who receive unworthily. It is themselves who are degraded.

We needn't get violent to "protect the Eucharist". God doesn't need our protection.

A great many politicians are greedy, power-addicted, and narcissistic. They are simply too dysfunctiional to respond in ways you hope. Excommunication is of little significance to them.

Another way, another way!

Anonymous said...

Again, you don't disagree with me, you disagree with the Church.

Anonymous said...

If I were Bishop of Washington D. C. and I wanted to withhold the Eucharist from pro-abort, federal politicians, then I would have to do the following:

Establish guidelines about which votes before the legislative bodies count as "prolife".

Keep track of every Catholic legislator's voting record.

Constantly keep my information updated.

Transmit this information to each priest in the Diocese.

Transmit this information to each Extraordinary Minister in the Diocese.

Keep them updated constantly.

Somehow enforce it with every priest and EM in the Diocese.

Then, hope like hell there is no case of mistaken identity. Withholding the Eucharist from a person who is innocent would be a worst case scenario.

Glad I am not an armchair bishop.