Catholic Politicians, Canon 1375, and Impeding Catholic Ministry

Fr. John Hollowell

By Fr. John Hollowell

Father John Hollowell is a priest for the Archdiocese of Indianapolis.

[Photo Credit: Chris Kleponis/CNP/Bloomberg via Getty Images]

There has been much discussion in recent years regarding what the Catholic Church can do about self-identified Catholic politicians who support policies considered gravely immoral by the Church. Most of the conversation has centered around Canon 915, which states that those who are “obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin are not to be admitted to Holy Communion.” Debate in the Catholic Church has focused on whether Catholic politicians who vote in favor of expanding grave evils are guilty of manifest (public) grave sin. But it is another canon—Canon 1375—that might become more applicable for disciplining Catholic politicians. 

The argument for applying Canon 915 is most commonly applied to Catholic politicians supporting legalized abortion. In his 2002 Doctrinal Note on Some Questions Regarding the Participation of Catholics in Political Life, then-Cardinal Ratzinger argued in paragraph 4: “When political activity comes up against moral principles that do not admit of exception, compromise or derogation, the Catholic commitment becomes more evident and laden with responsibility. In the face of fundamental and inalienable ethical demands, Christians must recognize that what is at stake is the essence of the moral law, which concerns the integral good of the human person. This is the case with laws concerning abortion.”

Yet in spite of this view, Catholic politicians have regularly turned to the rationale first employed by then-Presidential Candidate John F. Kennedy, who would go on to become the first Catholic to be elected president. On September 12th, 1960, in a speech to “The Greater Houston Ministerial Association,” Kennedy famously assured a skeptical nation: “Whatever issue may come before me as president—on birth control, divorce, censorship, gambling or any other subject—I will make my decision in accordance…with what my conscience tells me to be the national interest, and without regard to outside religious pressures or dictates. And no power or threat of punishment could cause me to decide otherwise.”

Unfortunately for President Kennedy and all other Catholic politicians that have come after him, Pope Leo XIII anticipated his opinion 75 years prior when he definitively taught in his encyclical Immortale Dei: “It is unlawful to follow one line of conduct in private life and another in public, respecting privately the authority of the Church but publicly rejecting it, for this would amount to joining together good and evil.

Yet even given Pope Leo’s rebuff of President Kennedy and the long line of Catholic Politicians for the last 61 years that have made the same argument, President Kennedy never passed a law that impeded the Catholic Church’s ministry. That is no longer true, however, as an even more ominous development has come to pass in recent years: Catholic politicians voting for and passing laws directly impeding the ministry of the Catholic Church. And that is where Canon 1375 comes in. Canon 1375 states: “Those who impede the freedom of ecclesial ministry…can be punished with a just penalty.”

The implication of Canon 1375 is that it is a grave offense for a Catholic politician to vote for or pass any law that in any way interferes with the Catholic Church’s freedom to minister.

Canon 1375 also applies at the state and local level. Any bishop who feels that ecclesial ministry has been impeded by a state law that was voted on by any Catholic politician or signed into law by a Catholic governor (assuming the failure of prior attempts to warn the politician, either in writing or via a face-to-face meeting), could apply a just penalty to that Catholic politician, or politicians, including excommunication. It is important to emphasize that excommunication is considered a medicinal and pastoral remedy for the good of the offending person; excommunication has as its express goal the reconciliation of the politician back into the Catholic Church.

The Equality Act would fall into the category of “impeding the freedom of ecclesial ministry” in many ways. In the crosshairs of the Equality Act would be Catholic hospitals, Catholic nurses and doctors, Catholic schools, Catholic adoption agencies, and many Catholic ministry non-profits. Further, the Equality Act specifically forbids entities from appealing to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act signed in 1993 by then-President Bill Clinton. Anne Hendershott has done a great service by detailing all the implications of the Equality Act here.

There has never been a piece of legislation in the United States that seeks to limit and punish the ministries of the Catholic Church more clearly than the Equality Act, yet eighty Catholic U.S. Representatives have already voted in favor of the Equality Act. The Equality Act currently sits in the Senate, but 13 Catholic Senators have voiced their willingness to vote in favor, and a Catholic President has also signaled his support if the legislation makes it to his desk. 

It is, and always has been, a serious ecclesial crime for a Catholic politician to vote in favor of any law that impedes the Catholic Church’s ministry. Canon 1375 is another arrow in the quiver of bishops seeking to protect the Catholic Church’s many ongoing ministries.