Deacon Steven Greydanus on the Errors of the Combox Bishops in Paper Mitres

Published March 15, 2021

I am so grateful when Steve does all my homework for me. He writes:

APOSTASY? HERESY? AUTOMATIC EXCOMMUNICATION? NOT BEING A (PRACTICING) CATHOLIC? (On frequently misused/misunderstood terms and concepts)

In the early weeks of the administration of only the second Catholic to win the presidency of the United States, there has been a great deal of discussion among Catholics—and a great deal of confusion—about President Joseph Biden’s state of dissent toward Catholic teaching on a number of points and the implications of that dissent.

Perhaps most notoriously, on the subject of abortion, although Mr. Biden professes to affirm the Church’s teaching regarding the immorality of abortion, he strongly dissents from the Church’s teaching regarding the moral obligation of states to protect the lives of all members of the human community, including the unborn.

This is a serious matter: one with serious consequences in Church law.

Dissenting as he does on so grave a topic of Church teaching, Mr. Biden is in an impaired state of communion with the Church. Because of this, per canon 916, he is morally obliged to refrain from presenting himself for communion.

Furthermore, my understanding of canon 915 is that he should be advised of this obligation and exhorted to repent—and if, in spite of this, he continues to present himself for communion without repenting, at some point he should be denied communion. (More from Cardinal Ratzinger [http://bit.ly/39V1RkM] and canonist Ed Peters [http://bit.ly/2YL3T0M]; Cardinal Gregory, unfortunately in my view, is of a different view.)

On the other hand, a recent headline in The Federalist opined that “Joe Biden’s Unrepentant Abortion Policies Are Grounds For Excommunication.” Other voices in Catholic media argue that Mr. Biden has already automatically excommunicated himself (a penalty known as latae sententiae excommunication).

Some reject the characterization of Mr. Biden as “Catholic” in any sense (after all, doesn’t excommunication mean you’re kicked out of the Church?), and certainly not a “practicing Catholic.” Other terms are bandied about: For example, Mr. Biden is regularly called both a “heretic” and an “apostate.”

First things first.

The word “apostasy” is widely misused today as a synonym for “heresy” (or an intensified form of heresy, like really bad heresy). In fact, heresy and apostasy are very different things.

Apostasy refers to “total repudiation of the Christian faith” (CCL 751). In other words, an apostate is a baptized person who plainly disowns the name of Christian and all allegiance to Jesus Christ. This is different from a heretic, who claims to be a Christian, but distorts the faith in a specific way. (I find that some people are helped on this point by the observation that the emperor Julian the Apostate was an apostate, while Arius the Arch-heretic was only a heretic.)

Clearly Mr. Biden, who identifies as Catholic and goes to Mass, is not an apostate.

Is he then a heretic? Heresy is a specific type of deformation of the Christian faith, namely, “the obstinate denial or obstinate doubt after the reception of baptism of some truth which is to be believed by divine and Catholic faith” (CCL 751).

This describes what is properly called dogma — that is, “all those things contained in the word of God, written or handed on, that is, in the one deposit of faith entrusted to the Church, and at the same time proposed as divinely revealed either by the solemn magisterium of the Church or by its ordinary and universal magisterium which is manifested by the common adherence of the Christian faithful under the leadership of the sacred magisterium” (CCL 750).

The teaching that states are morally obliged to protect the lives of all members of the human community, including the unborn, belongs to the social teaching of the Church. It is not a divinely revealed dogma which must be believed with divine and catholic faith. So Mr. Biden’s dissent on this point does not rise to the level of heresy.

What about the oft-repeated slogan that “You can’t be Catholic and support abortion”? It is certainly true that someone who supports legal abortion can’t claim to be a Catholic “in good standing,” (i.e., in full, unimpaired communion with the Church).

Yet this does not remove them from membership in the Church. Even excommunicated Catholics are still Catholic; contrary to popular belief, excommunication does not place you outside the Catholic Church or take away your membership in the Church. (More from Dr. Peters [https://bit.ly/2YK4wHN])

So Mr. Biden is definitely Catholic. Is he a practicing Catholic? “Practicing” isn’t a canonical or theological term, but it seems to me that, as the term is commonly used, if a person goes to Mass with any regularity, they can reasonably claim to be “practicing.”

Is Mr. Biden excommunicate? Or, at least, *could he be* excommunicated by Church authority on the basis of his dissent from Church teaching on the moral obligation of states to protect the lives of the unborn?

Again, the answer is no: Mr. Biden’s dissent, as serious as it is, simply does not meet the specific criteria for excommunication. (Dr. Peters again [http://bit.ly/3tr7wqG])

In short: Mr. Biden is in dissent, and that is quite serious enough. He should refrain from receiving communion, and I believe it would be just to deny him communion.

But his pro-choice position does not make him apostate or a heretic; it does not make him not a Catholic (or not practicing); it does not make him automatically excommunicate or qualify him for excommunication.

The extent of each of these words (“practicing” aside) and penalties is carefully defined. We should take care not to throw them about recklessly.

35 Responses

  1. My (very) limited understanding of Canon law would lead to the same conclusion. I’m quite sure though that the more vocal members of the ”excommunicate Biden and his voters” crowd are not interested in this, whatsoever.

  2. First off, I’m not sure what are they expecting Biden to do; its not like he has either the political or legal power to actually stop abortions in the US.

    Even so, I would argue that he does believe in the Church’s teaching regarding the moral obligation of states to protect the lives of all members of the human community; he just doesn’t think that banning abortion is the best way to go about it. There is a case to be made for that from a Catholic perspective:
    https://www.patheos.com/blogs/michellearnold/2020/11/why-im-a-pro-choice-pro-life-catholic/

    But if RCC wants to deny him communion, by all means, go ahead. Let it send out the message, loud, clear and unequivocally, that people Barr and Bannon are fully embraced by the Church while people like Biden are not,

    That should go over well.

    1. Ms. Arnold’s position appears to be a very narrow sense of pro-choice. Her real concern seems to be about the possibility that a poorly written law restricting abortion could be used to punish a woman who suffered a natural miscarriage, or even that the focus of restrictions might be more focused on punishing a mother who procures abortion, rather than the doctor who carried it out, or more importantly, on ensuring families have the resources they need to eliminate material concerns as a motivation for abortion.

      While Pope John Paul II made many similar comments in Evangelium Vitae, it was very clear that those concerns must be addressed in other manners than by legally condoning abortion. For brevity, I must leave out numerous relevant parts from the quotes below, but it is interesting to note that while he even acknowledged (narrowly) the possibility of prudentially declining to restrict an evil if the unintended consequences are worse (I would say that’s a very difficult argument in this case), Pope John Paul II left no room whatsoever to adopt a positively pro-choice position:

      “Precisely for this reason, civil law must ensure that all members of society enjoy respect for certain fundamental rights which innately belong to the person, rights which every positive law must recognize and guarantee. First and fundamental among these is the inviolable right to life of every innocent human being. While public authority can sometimes choose not to put a stop to something which-were it prohibited- would cause more serious harm, 92 it can never presume to legitimize as a right of individuals-even if they are the majority of the members of society-an offence against other persons caused by the disregard of so fundamental a right as the right to life. The legal toleration of abortion or of euthanasia can in no way claim to be based on respect for the conscience of others, precisely because society has the right and the duty to protect itself against the abuses which can occur in the name of conscience and under the pretext of freedom.
      ….
      In the case of an intrinsically unjust law, such as a law permitting abortion or euthanasia, it is therefore never licit to obey it, or to “take part in a propaganda campaign in favour of such a law, or vote for it.
      ….
      when it is not possible to overturn or completely abrogate a pro-abortion law, an elected official, whose absolute personal opposition to procured abortion was well known, could licitly support proposals aimed at limiting the harm done by such a law and at lessening its negative consequences at the level of general opinion and public morality.”

      It’s an extensive encyclical, so if you want to read more but focus on the parts related to civil law, I’d recommend looking at the sections numbered 68-74.

      Pope Francis has not added much of his own writing on the topic, but still has spoken strongly against pro-abortion laws. Prior to the legalization of abortion in his home country, he compared it to dealing with a problem by hiring an assassin.

      “But if RCC wants to deny him communion, by all means, go ahead. Let it send out the message, loud, clear and unequivocally, that people Barr and Bannon are fully embraced by the Church while people like Biden are not,”

      If considered in the context Deacon Greydamus intended, Biden, Barr, and Bannon are all embraced by the Church, but none of them have all their positions embraced. Since racism can be a slippery matter to pin down with legal clarity, I’ll leave aside Bannon at the moment. Barr’s support of the death penalty arguably has the strongest parallel to Biden’s support of abortion. I’m not equipped to discuss it at this time and don’t care to expend any mental effort that might be misperceived as defending him, but the applicability of Canon 915 to Mr. Barr seems like a legitimate point of discussion.

    1. Not so, Joel.

      It may be that two-thirds of the population of Ireland ought to refrain (voluntarily) from presenting themselves for communion, as anyone should who is in grave sin.

      However, under canon 915, denial of communion is warranted only for those who obstinately persevere in manifest grave sin. (According to canon lawyers, “manifest” means something like “public and notorious.” Joe Biden’s position on abortion are public and notorious. A great many people voted in favor of the Thirty-sixth Amendment without making their views being public and notorious.)

      1. Mr. Slim,

        Under the last three popes, the Church has increasingly committed to opposing the death penalty, declared “inadmissible” by Pope Francis. I consider this teaching manifestly correct and important, and I believe that being authentically pro-life in the 21st century calls us all to oppose the death penalty.

        Like the Church’s opposition to permissive abortion laws, the teaching against the death penalty belongs to the Church’s social teaching. There is still, though, an asymmetry between procured abortion, which is intrinsically wrong always and everywhere, and the death penalty, the inadmissibility of which is tied to circumstance (i.e., non-necessity in order to protect innocents from violent offenders), and thus to prudential judgment.

        Now, anyone who seriously argues that the death penalty is truly necessary in 2021 to protect innocents from violent offenders is staking out a manifestly ludicrous “prudential” stance. But it’s not morally equivalent as saying that procured abortion can ever be justified.

        As for the canonical implications as regards moral freedom to present oneself for Holy Communion, and whether, where one obstinately perseveres in manifest opposition to the Church’s social teaching on the topic, it might ever be right to deny the person Communion, on that question I would defer to those better qualified to speak than I.

    2. That is not what Canon 915 specifies. Depending on their individual circumstances including the catechesis they have received, degree of conviction, and any actions they have taken in contradiction to Church teaching, they may need to consider Canon 916’s separate instruction to refrain from receiving Communion as an individual matter.

      Canon 915 is specifically about when a minister should not administer Communion to an individual, and is intended to be limited in its application. It does not treat private refusal to ascent to Catholic teaching as having the same level of seriousness nor as being evident to the minister, compared to publicly and persistently working in contradiction to Catholic teaching.

      The links that Deacon Greydamus provided to Dr. Peters’ writings help explain some of these matters better than I could.

      The links go through forwarding services that are generally not recommended by security professionals, and that may even be blocked by some filters, so here are the direct links:

      (1) https://www.catholicworldreport.com/2018/11/20/excommunicated-catholics-are-still-catholic/

      (2) http://www.canonlaw.info/2007/05/primer-for-those-who-prefer-knowing-to_4375.html

      1. iamlucky13,

        What specifically do you read me as saying that is in any way at odds with the sources I myself cited?

      2. SDG – sorry the hierarchy of the thread is not clear, but my response was to Joel’s comment. Your comment and mine are parallel and in agreement.

  3. Joe is no apostate. I’m one and he’s not in the membership directory. We voted for him as president, not bishop and most of us couldn’t care less about his religion or standing within it. Our hopes for him are modest: show up and actually try to do the job and don’t build an entire administration on sadism. That’s it. Anything more would be great but let’s concentrate on walking before supersonic flight.

  4. One thing I’d mention is that Mr. Biden has never said that in an ideal world (with the right amount of welfare or healthcare, welfare or whatever) that abortion should be illegal. He believes that a woman has a right to abort her child at any time for any reason, even if she’s married to a Billionaire who has signed a document that he will support her and the child until then 10th generation.

  5. Nobody would vote for a Catholic or Christian president if the president was obligated to make everything that is immoral illegal. Don’t we want Catholics in public office?

    If God doesn’t force us to do what is right why would we make it the duty of our president to force people to live moral lives? Theocracies don’t work.

    I wish people could see that abortion is murder but many can’t and don’t. As a Catholic it isn’t Biden’s duty to try to force atheists and agnostics to believe that zygotes have the same rights as the zygote’s mother.

    I personally believe that the child has a soul at conception, but we don’t know that with 100% moral certainty do we. I would rather that everyone err on the side of preserving human lives but can’t see forcing others to see it my way. Many catholics and christians didn’t even have enough moral rectitude to care about babies and little children crying for their mothers as they were callously taken from their arms at the border. They don’t want their tax dollars going toward their health care or education. How could we trust them with the children they forced mothers to give birth to? I have zero trust in them being willing to lovingly take them all into their own homes like the first Christians did. They are as pro-life as Trump is.

    What I do have 100% confidence in is that God is merciful, and that all children who are miscarried or aborted are loved by God as whole human beings that he suffered and died for, regardless of the sins of their parents or doctors.

    I wonder if Biden could recuse himself from doing anything that isn’t pro-life. Kamala would be delighted to pull the trigger.

    1. tacoanybody,

      “Making everything that is immoral illegal” is a straw man. For example, pride, greed, wrath, envy, lust, gluttony, and sloth are all immoral, but nobody is arguing that they should be illegal.

      What should always be illegal is taking the life of any member of the human family. States are obliged to protect the fundamental rights of all members of the human family, among with the first is the right to life.

      “Ensoulment” is a red herring. The state does not require that anyone believe that they or anyone else has a “soul.” The state does require that people refrain from taking human life.

      If you are an atheist and don’t believe in “souls,” or if you are a white supremacist and do not believe that people of color have “souls,” the state will not punish you for that. If you believe that lack of souls equals license to take human lives, and you act on that belief, that action will have appropriate consequences.

      Regardless whether the unborn child has a “soul,” it is unambiguously a human life: not an organ of the mother’s body, but an organism, an individual member of the human species. No religious beliefs are required to recognize our moral duty, both individually and collectively, to protect that life. 

      1. @SDG
        I believe that procured abortion is immoral–always a terrible tragedy, but the degree of culpability varies.

        I’m trying to see the issue through the eyes of the faithless, and in a world in which Plan B vending machines exist on college campuses next to the Coke and Doritos machine.

        You’re pretty much preaching to the choir, because I already believe that induced abortion is extremely grave subject matter, I just don’t think you are being realistic when you think that here and now, with as much irreverence for human life that exists, that we could make it illegal for someone to take a simple, cheap drug that doesn’t allow an undifferentiated blastocyst to implant. That’s how more and more abortions are, and are going to be taking place. I believe the blastocyst has the right to be protected, but that only way to accomplish this is to elevate the souls of the human beings that are tempted to take those pills. There has to be a shift in the way that we value human life!

        I will admit that the sheer number of natural, spontaneous abortions has had an impact on the way I approach the matter. I have literally had dozens of these losses. I used to mourn them with a lot of grief, but finally came to the conclusion that life is in God’s hands and while my vision is finite, God’s is not. The lives continue–weren’t snuffed out by God, he has a plan for them too. It was actually a very conservative priest that told me that we don’t know for certain that a soul exists at conception. That really rattled my cage. I wish he hadn’t said it, but still fall back to my belief that conception is the most logical moment. –But that’s the thing, I’m a very faithful Catholic.

        When it became a pattern in my 40s that I lost every single pregnancy, I said to my spiritual advisor, “look, they can bring a woman out of menopause, pump her full of progesterone and estrogen and she can give birth to her own daughter’s baby…should I be taking supportive hormones to help sustain these pregnancies? He was adamant that the Church doesn’t ask for such a thing. Why not?

  6. I’m fascinated by the notion that individual states, and the nation as a whole, are bound by or subject to Canon 915 and 916, or any other such articles. The notion that such should even be the case is deeply problematic.

    We are typically taught American history poorly, focusing on “greatest hits” which causes misconceptions, one of which is that America was founded by people searching for religious freedom. The reality is more nuanced — the Pilgrims came to the New World to practice *their* religion, and kicked out dissenters, for instance Baptists. The Southern colonists typically stuck with the House brand; the first church in the Colonies was C of E not Puritan.

    The point of all this is that religious pluralism in this country goes back to its founding. Early Americans kicked Baptists out of settlements to starve, hanged Quakers, out Sabbath breakers in jail, and rather later burned an Ursuline convent to the ground with Sisters and orphans inside.

    That’s the background for the first sentence of the First Amendment: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of Religion. We can’t legislate based on the Code of Canon Law, even if there were national consensus that we ought to.

    1. Who defends the notion that any nation as a whole, with the exception of Vatican City, should be bound by Canon Law?

  7. I’m having a hard time answering people who say Biden excommunicated himself when he became a Protestant minister in order to perform gay weddings.

    1. Jan, Dr. Peters, who Deacon Greydanus relies on as a source here, actually addressed that specific question elsewhere:

      https://www.catholicworldreport.com/2016/08/03/some-canonical-thoughts-on-vp-bidens-recent-deed/

      In short: excommunication is a canonical act, and Canon law does not provide for latae sententiae excommunication for that act. Although serious, he did not commit formal heresy or apostasy.

      The people you are discussing this with would do well to keep in mind that Dr. Peters is no softie. He has opined previously that President Biden’s open support for abortion arise to the sort of obstinate perserverence in manifest grave sin that call for withholding of Communion.

    2. @jan

      Since there is no truth faith but the Catholic faith, and no trueminister of God besides a Catholic priest, and Mr. Biden couldn’t appoint himself a judge to perform a wedding that he obviously believed was perfectly fine, there is only a problem with it if you want to make it one.

      Of course, a very Radtrad Priest could appoint himself as the arbiter of everything good and moral, and excommunicate mr. Biden for following his conscience, which is supposed to be a good thing. But then there would be the problem of all those child molesting priests, Their fellow priests and bishops who knew all about it, and the entire diocese is it must’ve known about it as well that have not been excommunicatied, Or the pope could excommunicate him, and give the church a really nice, huge blackeye.

      Or people could just mind their own goddamn and goddamning business, and do what Jesus said: worry about the state of their own souls.

      1. Some people enjoy the study of canon law. Someone has to do it, but I’m trying to think about a good way of putting what is going on with those who need to know the degree of Biden’s moral rectitude.

        Biden says he is against abortion and is pro-life. That should be cause for celebration. But no, the mob says that he is to blame for abortions if he doesn’t make them illegal. They know that:

        A. He can’t.
        B. He is doing critical pro-life work by helping people with children get by at this extremely painful moment in history.
        C. we are arguing about higher principles while the house is on fire
        D. it’s a damned if you do and damned if you don’t corner they need to paint him into. Why?
        E. Their alternative was the most grotesque caricature of “pro-life” the entire world has ever witnessed in an American president.

        “E” means they have lost the right to even show up to the bargaining table in the house with the burning roof.

      2. @Ben,
        I’m really sorry about how they went about that press release yesterday. Some people just won’t be happy unless they see others with a knee to the back of the neck.

        I see zero reason why a priest can’t bless a couple of people who love each other and want to spend the rest of their lives together. Nobody was coming after Catholic marriage. They put optics over people.

        As if Catholic priests haven’t blessed galleons and astronauts and kindergartners in their classrooms and people embarking on expeditions to far off places–a president and his vice president.

        A blessing doesn’t even result in a piece of paper that gets recorded at city hall.

        There is no end to their obsessions about the existence of people they fear/hate.

        If a gay couple from any walk of life or religion came up to Pope Francis in St. Peter’s square and said, “this is my partner in life. We have dedicated our lives to elevating each other, and doing our best to elevate everyone in the world. We passionately believe in this. Would you please give us your blessing for strength upon our journey together?” Of course he would bless them. Like I said, they cornered him, cried about optics and got their way on false pretenses.

      3. At taco…

        As always, you are a kind and a good person. I know that there are priests that bless unions, even if certain people disapprove of it. I’ve always said if they can bless a house, a car, a truck, a cow, or a dog, they can extend the same courtesy to gay people.

  8. @taco

    Joe Biden: “Reproductive rights are a constitutional right. And, in fact, every woman should have that right.”

    One can twist words until they have lost every original meaning, or even any meaning at all, but these are not the words of a man who is against the legality of abortion. And that’s what this is about, one’s stance on the legality of abortion. Nothing more, and nothing less.

    1. Artevelde

      If he hadn’t said that, he wouldn’t be president and the very UNpro-life Trump would have won.

      All of us here know that you can’t just outlaw abortion. It’s not going to happen in the near future short of the second coming of Jesus.

      It’s like virtue signaling. It’s so easy to say “abortion shouldn’t be legal” instead of “what have I done to promote the culture of death/life?”

      1. tacoanybody – on the contrary, taking a moderate stance on abortion would have eliminated the main reason 29% of Trump voters (per Pew’s survey) reported they were voting against Biden, rather than for Trump.

        With Biden then having probably ~60% of the vote, the turmoil following the election also would almost certainly never have occurred, either.

        Whether Biden was playing to the DNC agenda or that statement represented his actual belief I don’t know. I really hoped after the DNC tried so hard to destroy itself by willfully ignoring moderate voters in 2016, they would have wised up. They stood nothing to gain and a lot to lose with the hardline pro-abortion position, but they decided to roll the dice again. A mere 6,000 voters changing sides in Georgia and 5,500 in Arizona would have put Trump back in the White House.

  9. @Artevelde I would have a hard time handing my reproductive rights over to the state.

    I say that as someone who would rather die than procure an abortion.

    1. I know all too well that ‘reproductive rights’ are weasel words, though I’ll admit they *can* mean something different than just abortion. Which rights would you prefer not to be taken away by the state?

      1. “Which rights would you prefer not to be taken away by the state?”

        Please explain this question. I’m trying to understand you.

  10. @iamlucky

    Thank you for pointing that out.

    It still boggles my mind that so many Americans and vocal Catholic leaders voted for Trump as the pro-life candidate.

    As for “reproductive rights”. It’s not the same as saying “pro-abortion”. Even if they are waffle words, what woman would want to sign up for government oversight of her reproductive organs?

  11. @taco

    Sorrry for not being clear. You say reproductive rights are not the same as ”the right to abort”. You also say that you would have a hard time handing those rights over to the state.

    So, which reproductive rights – other than the right to abort – are, in your opinion, in danger of being taken away from you?

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