Contra Ed Peters on Excommunication for Abortion

The news media falsely claim that Pope Francis now permits priests to forgive the sin of abortion. My understanding is that priests could and still can forgive the sin of abortion, and many priests have long been authorized to lift the excommunication for abortion. For the Year of Mercy, Pope Francis permits all priests to lift the excommunication as well as forgive the sin. See my post here.

Canonist Dr. Edward Peters has written on this subject: Pope Francis on Reconciliation for Abortion (also found at Crisis Magazine). He agrees that all priests have long been able to forgive the sin of abortion, regardless of whether or not they could lift the excommunication.

But he strangely claims that most or all women who have abortions are not excommunicated. I will provide some evidence, in this post, that the penalty of automatic excommunication does apply to the woman who procures the abortion, not only to the abortionist who performs it.

The Canon in question (1983 code) is this:

“Can. 1398 A person who procures a completed abortion incurs a latae sententiae excommunication.”

A 1985 clarification from the Pontifical Commission for the Authentic Interpretation of the Code of Canon Law, approved by Pope Saint John Paul II, states that “abortion” includes not only surgical abortion, but all forms of abortion (such as chemical).

” D. Utrum abortus, de quo in can. 1398, intelligatur tantum de eiectione fetus immaturi, an etiam de eiusdem fetus occisione quocumque modo et quocumque tempore a momento conceptionis procuretur.

R. Negative ad primam partem; affirmative ad secundam. (Source)”


D. [doubt] Whether the abortion, to which Canon 1398 [refers], is to be understood [1] only concerning the expulsion of the immature fetus, or [2] also to the killing of the same fetus being procured in any manner, and at any time, from the moment of conception.

R. [response] Negative to the first part; affirmative to the second [part].

Pope John Paul II, in an audience on May 23, 1988, approved the above response. The Holy See has therefore ruled that any [direct and voluntary] killing of a prenatal, at any time from conception and in any manner, is the type of abortion that falls under the sentence of automatic excommunication in Canon 1398.

Since abortion can be procured by chemical abortifacients or by abortifacient contraception, this implies that the pregnant woman who procures the abortion is subject to excommunication (contrary to Dr. Peters’ assertion).

The encyclical of Pope Saint John Paul II, Evangelium Vitae, issued in 1995, also speaks of the canonical penalty for abortion:

“The Church’s canonical discipline, from the earliest centuries, has inflicted penal sanctions on those guilty of abortion. This practice, with more or less severe penalties, has been confirmed in various periods of history. The 1917 Code of Canon Law punished abortion with excommunication. The revised canonical legislation continues this tradition when it decrees that “a person who actually procures an abortion incurs automatic (latae sententiae) excommunication”. The excommunication affects all those who commit this crime with knowledge of the penalty attached, and thus includes those accomplices without whose help the crime would not have been committed. By this reiterated sanction, the Church makes clear that abortion is a most serious and dangerous crime, thereby encouraging those who commit it to seek without delay the path of conversion. In the Church the purpose of the penalty of excommunication is to make an individual fully aware of the gravity of a certain sin and then to foster genuine conversion and repentance.” [Evangelium Vitae 62]

The person who procures the abortion is excommunicated, according to Pope Saint John Paul II. This even includes “accomplices without whose help the crime [of abortion] would not have been committed.” If even accomplices are excommunicated, then certainly the woman who procures the abortion is excommunicated.

Therefore, a woman who procures an abortion, including surgical and chemical abortions (and any other kind), is excommunicated, if she knew of the law and its penalty (though most women do not know).

If she is repentant, she can have her sin forgiven by any priest. The excommunication can be lifted by any priest with the faculty to lift this excommunication, or by any priest at all if the penitent cannot soon have recourse to a priest with the faculty, or, during the Year of Mercy, by any priest at all.

Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and translator of the Catholic Public Domain Version of the Bible.

Please take a look at this list of my books and booklets, and see if any topic interests you.

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2 Responses to Contra Ed Peters on Excommunication for Abortion

  1. Anthony says:

    Hi Ron,
    at the end of Dr Ed’s post he has
    “* See my “Canon 1324: exemption from a penalty” and “Canon 1398: Excommunication for procured abortion” in 2010 CLSA Advisory Opinions 169-174 and 178-182 respectively. ”

    you don’t mention canon 1324 here do you think that ever exempts a woman? and even if it did in some circumstances Dr Ed seems to state that a pregnant woman who aborts her child is never excommunicated automatically which is strange

    • Ron Conte says:

      The main way that women are exempted from the excommunication for abortion is by not knowing about the law and penalty. And Pope John Paul II’s words on this subject in Evangelium Vitae 62 are authoritative, over and above Canon Law. Since the Pope there clearly states that the person who procures the abortion is excommunicated, Peters is wrong to say otherwise. But the Pope also clearly states that she must know of the penalty. I don’t think 1324 applies to most cases.

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