Q. A few years ago I had an abortion. I realize I committed a serious sin, but according to a test performed with our doctor's advice, the baby had a "catastrophic" defect that was fatal. I know now that does not make the abortion any less wrong. I confessed the sin and the priest told me I was forgiven. But I live every day with the pain and guilt over what I did, and I pray for forgiveness.
I just read in the Catechism of the Catholic Church that a person who has an abortion automatically "incurs excommunication 'latae sententiae'" by the very act of committing the offense.
Have I been excommunicated from the Catholic Church all this time, or did the priest have authority to absolve me? Since my confession, I've been receiving Communion every Sunday at least. Is that wrong? (Ohio)
A. No, you're not wrong. There's much involved here that few Catholics would know.
Several times in the documents preparing for and presenting the catechism, it is noted that the catechism is meant primarily as a resource for bishops, priests and other teachers of the faith.
Pope John Paul II says, for example, in his letter introducing the catechism, that it is intended as a reference text, a norm for teaching the faith, "to encourage and assist in the writing of new local catechisms, which take into account various situations and cultures." In other words, to explain and expand on the teachings contained there so people can understand and apply them correctly.
The questions you bring up are good examples of why Pope John Paul said what he did. Some elements of church teaching and law are technically complex, and all of their implications cannot be covered every time an intricate question arises.
Let me explain. The same sentence you quote (in No. 2272) says that excommunication is incurred "subject to the conditions provided by canon law." Those are important words. Canon law places many conditions which must be present before a person incurs such an excommunication. Most Catholics would of course not be aware of these conditions.
The same paragraph contains two other words that you passed over but which are significant for you. It notes that "formal cooperation" in an abortion constitutes a grave sin and can incur excommunication. This space is too short to explain what that means, but it introduces even more conditions before an individual is excommunicated.
To give an idea of what I'm talking about, in order to incur this sanction a person must be of majority age and, more important, must be aware when the act is committed that an excommunication is involved if the act is carried through.
I believe many Catholics like yourself know abortion is wrong, yet do not know that an excommunication follows, if they even know what an excommunication is. Furthermore, if the woman is experiencing terrible fear or confusion, or if she is under severe pressure from family or close friends, there may not be an excommunication.
As the catechism explains, in attaching the penalty of excommunication, the church simply wishes to make clear the gravity of destroying unborn life. It in no way pretends to limit the infinite scope of God's compassion and mercy.
Trust what the priest told you. He knew what he was doing, and he seems to have acted totally in accord with church teaching and law. You don't need to be concerned. Just be happy and grateful for where you are now with God.
For those interested in checking references, the most relevant canons are 1398, 97, 1323 and 1324.
A longtime columnist with Catholic News Service, Father Dietzen died March 27, 2011.