Will the Catholic Church excommunicate Andrew Cuomo over abortion law?

NEW YORK — Politics and religion have come into conflict once again after Roman Catholic conservatives called for New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo to be excommunicated, splitting the church’s hierarchy on how to deal with politicians who further an agenda contrary to the Vatican’s teachings.

The call came after Cuomo signed into state law a measure that expanded abortion rights across the state. After passing the Senate, a chamber newly-controlled by Democrats after this past November’s elections, on Jan. 22, Cuomo signed the Reproductive Health Act. The law codifies the 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling to allow abortion in the event the Supreme Court were to overturn it in the future – something Democrats fear could occur in the next few years.

The law takes the Supreme Court ruling to new levels. It allows an abortion to take place up to the day of birth. The law also says that if a baby survives an abortion, a doctor is not required to save the baby’s life. In addition, a doctor’s assistant can perform a surgical abortions.

Within hours of its signing, Cuomo, also a Democrat, ordered that One World Trade Center be lit in pink in celebration. Anti-aboriton advocates across the country were swift in their condemnation. New York’s Cardinal Timothy Dolan — along with the Catholic bishops across the state — signed a letter condemning the bill, adding that “our beloved state has become a more dangerous one for women and their unborn babies.”

Days later, he backed off the excommunication word (Cuomo is a Catholic who is divorced and lives with his longtime girlfriend), while many voices on the right called the new law “infanticide.”    

Dolan joined the excommunication fray, saying a week later during an appearance on Fox News Channel that such a move “would be counterproductive.”

“We would be giving ammo to our enemies who say, ‘This is an internal Catholic disciplinary matter. This is really not civil rights, this is not biology. These Catholics don’t have freedom when it comes to this.’ I think we’d be giving our enemies ammo,” he added.

Various Catholic bishops have made public statements in support for excommunicating Cuomo. In response, Cuomo told reporters, “I have my own Catholic beliefs, how I live my life… I don’t govern as a Catholic. I don’t legislate as a Catholic.”

The controversy begs the question: what kind of case would call for excommunication?

Writing in First Things, Ed Condon, a canon lawyer and Washington bureau chief for Catholic News Agency, noted: “As a canon lawyer with some experience in penal law, allow me to disagree. Many people are pointing out that Cuomo has not violated c. 1398, which provides a penalty of excommunication for the procurement of a completed abortion. However, c. 1364 provides the same penalty for heresy – “the obstinate denial or doubt after baptism of some truth which is to be believed with divine and Catholic faith.”

Dolan also said he didn’t want to “weaponize” excommunication, but Condon argued in his column: “Let me be clear: I am not arguing that any Catholic politician who has supported or voted for pro-abortion legislation can ipso facto be termed a heretic. Gov. Cuomo’s consistent and vocal support for this particular legislation, his unique role in enacting it, and his flouting of the clear and public admonitions of two bishops who can claim jurisdiction over him make his case unique.”

Even Protestants, like pastor Franklin Graham, urged Dolan to excommunicate Cuomo.

Excommunication, a process dating back to early Christianity, have taken place in the past. The very act was aimed at shunning a person or people from the community as a whole, something that had greater meaning in the Europe of the Middle Ages. Among those excommunicated by the church were King John of England 1208 by Pope Innocent III after refusing to accept Cardinal Stephen Langdon as the pope’s choice for Archbishop of Canterbury. He eventually relented five years later and his status within the church restored.

In 1521, Martin Luther was excommunicated by Pope Leo X, followed by King Henry VIII of England in 1538 by Pope Paul III — two major events in Western history that fueled the growth of Protestantism.

Other notable people excommunicated by the church was Napoleon after ordering the annexation of Rome in 1809.

In recent years, various Catholic priests and organization — seen to be at odds with the church’s teachings — were excommunicated by local bishops and confirmed by the Vatican. Any move to excommunicate Cuomo, however, would be one of the highest-profile excommunication of a public official in centuries.

The most-recent excommunication by the church took place in February 2018 when Pope Francis made the move against Ezinwanne Igbo, a Nigerian priest working in Australia, for breaking the seal of the confessional.

Will Cuomo be excommunicated? It appears highly unlikely — but something that’s not without precedent in the Catholic church.