Anon asked, “I had an interesting question from my eldest son who is quite politically active. He was reading about politicians who are considered to be excommunicated from the church as a result of their pro-choice support. He wanted to know if they were formally excommunicated or were they considered to have excommunicated themselves? In addition, if he were to support those politicians, does he, then, excommunicate himself? He also wanted to know if other politicians were also considered excommunicated as a result of their support of the death penalty and support of the war.”
Tom responded, “No American politicians have been formally excommunicated for their support of legal abortion.More common than the argument that they have excommunicated themselves is the argument that they should be denied Communion. (Excommunication and denying Communion are two different things, though they're often confused.)There is a fundamental difference between abortion and things like the death penalty and the war. Catholics may legitimately hold the opinion that the death penalty and the war are moral; they may not legitimately hold the opinion that abortion is moral.”
Also, our summer seminarian, Jim, helped to offer this about excommunication, Canon Law, and the Eucharist:
To start with, one can assume that everyone who is excommunicated excommunicates themselves, because it is their actions that incur the penalty of excommunication. Formal excommunications are public, and are imposed after determination of either the negligence or the malicious intent of the person committing the offense. Automatic excommunication occurs when someone knowingly and maliciously commits one of the offenses enumerated in the Code of Canon Law. Secondly, excommunication is a punishment that the Church imposes through the authority granted by Christ and it is used as a “medicinal” penalty, with the hope that the offender will cease his wrong behavior. Thirdly, excommunication means removal from communion with the Body of Christ, the Church, and, as such, means that the person can no longer receive the sacraments, the sources of sanctifying grace, and also loses the spiritual support that flows from them.
This should not be confused with the spiritual punishment for the offense itself, the separation from God that is the result of mortal sin, a result that is incurred automatically by the person’s willingness to commit a serious sin. Excommunication is the Church’s way to draw special attention to the offense, to encourage the person to change his ways, because his soul is at risk of eternal punishment. It is actually a loving action, although the way it’s portrayed is more often as an act of revenge.
While Canon Law states “a person who procures a complete abortion incurs a latae sententiae excommunication” (Canon #1398), it does not specify that those who advocate abortion, vote for laws making access to abortion easier, or campaign for abortion rights are excommunicated. The person (e.g., a politician) who advocates abortion can be guilty of scandal, and as such is also responsible for all evil that he directly or indirectly causes. Also, this person, by presenting himself to receive the Eucharist, again risks causing scandal, because believers might see the giving of the Eucharist to such a person as either a desecration of the Eucharist, or tacit approval of that person’s advocacy, or as a sign of weakness of the Church and its clergy. Canon Law dictates that the Eucharist may be denied to an individual for their own protection, because their actions have demonstrated a disregard for the teachings of the Church. St. Paul cautions the Corinthians that receiving the Body and Blood of Christ unworthily, that is, not in a state of grace, is a profaning of the Sacrament and invites judgment on the person receiving. In general, extreme caution is taken when denying someone Communion because we never know what it in a person’s heart; only God and the person knows.
Support of the death penalty or any war is not included in the eight types of offenses which under Canon Law incur the penalty of excommunication. One can, in good faith, disagree over the need for the death penalty in individual cases or whether the conditions for a just war are met. But to willingly go against the Church on a grave matter of dogma can incur the penalty of separating one from the love of God and condemning that person to eternal punishment. For example, voting for someone who advocates abortion because that person advocates abortion is a grave sin, and if it is done with full knowledge and full consent, it is a mortal sin.
There are many other considerations involved in the matter of either excommunication or the withholding of the Eucharist, but the most important thing to remember is that each of these are evidence of the Church’s loving concern for the souls entrusted to her, and her desire to lead all to eternal union with God.