Faith Matters

'The Church must be able to protect its sacraments - and the most vulnerable'

Following the Republic's decision to repeal the Eighth Amendment there has been debate regarding the Church's position towards Catholics who publicly promote or advocate abortion, including whether it should offer them the sacraments. Fr John McKeever sets out the Catholic Church's official position and argues that the Church must be courageous in using canon law to support its teaching

A man enters a polling station in a parochial hall to cast his vote in last month's referendum. Picture by Brian Lawless, Press Association
Fr John McKeever

IT was inevitable that the recent abortion referendum result would increase calls for a much needed re-examination of the Catholic Church's relationship with Irish citizens who, regardless of their cultural inheritance, no longer share its beliefs or regularly participate in its practices.

Media coverage of Fr Damien Quigley's attempt to pastorally engage with a couple preparing for the sacrament of marriage highlights the need for clarity regarding the position of Catholics who publicly promote or advocate abortion.

A Love Both rally in Dublin, ahead of the referendum on the Eighth Amendment of the Irish Constitution. Picture by Niall Carson, Press Association

The Catholic Church is first and foremost a community of faith. It received the gift of this faith from Jesus Christ himself and must preserve it intact until Christ comes again.

While the Church proposes many teachings on matters of faith and morals, there is a small number of core teachings which a person must accept in order to be a full member of this community of faith.

These teachings are founded on the word of God and have been taught by the Church to be divinely revealed. They are laid down in the Church's official Profession of Faith.

Fr John McKeever

Pope Emeritus Benedict clearly stated in his 1998 Commentary on the Profession of Faith that among those teachings which must be believed and held by all the faithful is "the doctrine of the grave immorality of direct and voluntary killing of an innocent human being".

He also confirmed that anyone who obstinately denies these teachings is guilty of heresy.

The Code of Canon Law provides for the automatic excommunication of heretics (canon 1364). An excommunicated person cannot celebrate or receive the sacraments, nor can they hold any office or ministry within the Church (canon 1331).

The Church, like any other society, needs to be able to use its laws in order to protect its identity and the rights of its members, especially the most vulnerable 

For the sake of precision, I must stress that simply believing abortion to be acceptable or voting for it in the privacy of the referendum polling booth, though gravely sinful and requiring confession and absolution in the sacrament of Penance, does not merit excommunication.

For the penalty to be incurred, the person must publicly manifest their heretical belief in some way, whether that be in writing, by speech or by posting on social media.

Debate over the north's abortion laws has intensified since the Republic backed the repeal of the Eighth Amendment. Picture by Niall Carson, Press Association

Moreover, they must act willingly and in the knowledge that they are violating a divinely revealed teaching that the Church requires its members to accept.

If someone publicly manifested support for abortion, the only way a priest could determine whether they were excommunicated or not would be to meet them and discuss their thinking and motivation on the matter.

His aim in such a meeting would be to help them recognise the truth of the Lord's teaching on the sanctity of all human life and be reconciled with God and the Church so that they could indeed continue to receive the sacraments.

After the example of Christ the Good Shepherd, his aim would always be to seek out and save the lost, not to exclude them.

Regrettably, however, should the person obstinately persist in rejecting God's word in this matter, he would have to say that they would be unable to receive or celebrate any sacraments, including marriage, because they have in effect excommunicated themselves from the life and faith of the Church.

Sinn Féin's Michelle O'Neill and Mary Lou McDonald celebrate the 'Yes' victory

The Church, like any other society, needs to be able to use its laws in order to protect its identity and the rights of its members, especially the most vulnerable.

At this critical moment in Irish history the Church must raise its voice and use its laws to protect the unborn and all mothers tempted to suffer an abortion with all its risks and long-term effects.

In his letter to the Catholics of Ireland following the sexual abuse scandals, Pope Benedict criticised "the misguided tendency to avoid penal approaches to canonically irregular situations".

By not using the punishments provided by canon law, bishops allowed abusers greater access to victims.

Having already failed born children by our weakness in maintaining Church discipline, surely we must learn our lesson and be courageous in using canon law to protect the unborn.

To do otherwise would be to write another scandalous chapter in the history of Irish Catholicism.

  • Fr John McKeever is assistant chancellor in the Archdiocese of Armagh and administrator of the Armagh Regional Marriage Tribunal. He is administrator of the Keady, Derrynoose and Madden parish.

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