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.