Thursday, May 10, 2007

Benedict XVI hits the ground running

From The Times May 10, 2007:

"A combative Pope Benedict XVI opened his trip to Brazil yesterday in no-holds-barred mood, giving a warning that the penalty for supporting abortion was excommunication.

In uncompromising remarks on “core teachings” on board the papal plane from Rome, the Pope backed the Church hierarchy in Mexico for excommunicating politicians who voted for a law that legalised abortion in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy in Mexico City, as well as doctors and nurses who performed abortions.

“This is nothing new, it is normal, it wasn’t arbitrary,” he told reporters. “It is what is foreseen by the Church’s doctrine.” He had reiterated previously the Vatican’s opposition to abortion but had not specifically backed the excommunications.

The Pope also spoke strongly against abortion during his first speech in Brazil. Speaking in Portuguese, he said he was certain that the bishops will reinforce “the promotion of respect for life from the moment of conception until natural death” as an integral requirement of human nature.

The Pope observed that “canon law says the killing of an innocent child is incompatible with receiving Communion, which is receiving the body of Christ . . . It expresses our belief that human individuality, the human personality, is present from the first moment of life.”

Some had expected the Pope to adopt a diplomatic approach on his first significant overseas trip. A recent survey in Brazil said that 86 per cent favoured the use of condoms and more than half disagreed with the Church’s stand on abortion.

Instead, he came out with all guns blazing, a reflection of his belief that an assertion of bedrock Christian values is the only way to stem the tide toward secularism.

He said that legislators who voted in favour of abortion clearly had “doubts about the value of life and the beauty of life, even doubts about the future. Selfishness and fear are at the root of pro-abortion legislation. We in the Church have a great struggle to defend life. Life is beautiful, it is always a gift, even when lived in the most difficult circumstances.”

However Associated Press set out exactly what the Pope said and meant:

"The pope was asked where he stands on the issue during the flight to Brazil, in his first full-fledged news conference since becoming pontiff in 2005.

"Do you agree with the excommunications given to legislators in Mexico City on the question?" a reporter asked.

"Yes," Benedict replied. "The excommunication was not something arbitrary. It is part of the (canon law) code. It is based simply on the principle that the killing of an innocent human child is incompatible with going in Communion with the body of Christ. Thus, they (the bishops) didn't do anything new or anything surprising. Or arbitrary."

Church officials later said the pope might have thought the Mexican bishops had issued a formal declaration of excommunication for the legislators, something Mexican Cardinal Norberto Rivera has said he has no intention of doing.

Benedict's spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said the pope was not setting a new policy and did not intend to formally excommunicate anyone — a rare process under church law that is separate from the doctrine of self-excommunication.

"Since excommunication hasn't been declared by the Mexican bishops, the pope has no intention himself of declaring it," Lombardi said in a statement approved by the pope.

But Lombardi added that politicians who vote in favor of abortion should not receive the sacrament of Holy Communion. "Legislative action in favor of abortion is incompatible with participation in the Eucharist. ... Politicians exclude themselves from Communion," he said.

Pressed again to say whether the lawmakers were excommunicated, Lombardi reiterated: "No, they exclude themselves from Communion."

Excommunication is the severest penalty the Roman Catholic Church can impose on its members. When someone is excommunicated "his status before the church is that of a stranger," the New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia says. In practical terms, that means the excommunicated person is forbidden from receiving the sacraments and participating in public worship.

Church teaching says anyone who has an abortion is automatically excommunicated. "Being a conspiring or necessary accomplice" to an abortion also means excommunication under church law."

In other words, there is no formal ceremony or sentence of excommunication. The offenders excommunicate themselves.

And no, the Mexican bishops did not excommunicate the legislators: the legislators excommunicated themselves.

Of course it is a better news story to suggest that there is a formal process or sentence. It adds to the drama but perhaps not to the truth.

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