WASHINGTON, D.C., April 12, 2011 ( – Excommunication of Catholic politicians backing taxpayer funding for Planned Parenthood can only happen if bishops institute a specific law or penalty to that effect, says a prominent American canon lawyer.


American Life League (ALL), the country’s largest Catholic pro-life organization, last week called for the excommunication of the 62 Catholic congressmen who voted in February against defunding America’s largest abortion provider.  The group pointed out that the Catholic Church has a history of excommunicating those who support its greatest enemies, including supporters of Freemasonry, Nazism, and communism.

Commenting on the proposal, Dr. Edward Peters, who holds the Edmund Cardinal Szoka Chair at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, and serves as a consultant to the Vatican’s highest court, emphasized that a local bishop or the national bishops’ conference would probably have to lay down a specific law allowing for excommunication of those backing Planned Parenthood, because such conduct is not covered by the Church’s universal law.

ALL notes that the German bishops laid down such a law in the case of the Nazis and their supporters, for example.

“ALL identifies a serious pastoral problem, namely, Catholic legislative support for a thoroughly evil organization, Planned Parenthood, and they suggest a measure that the Church can take in response to such legislators, namely, excommunication,” Peters told LifeSiteNews. “ALL is quite within their rights to make that case.”

Such an action, however, “would almost certainly require the establishment of a new penal law and the specification of the penalty of excommunication with an eye toward enforcement against future actions,” he explained.  “No canon currently penalizes any form of legislative activity per se by Catholics (even terrible actions as supporting Planned Parenthood).”

But even without a specific local law, Peters said that on a case-by-case basis bishops even now could consider invoking two canons that call for a “just penalty” – a penalty that can be tailored to the gravity of the offense – for a person who “gravely injures good morals” (c. 1369) or commits an external violation of a divine law where there’s a need to prevent scandal (c. 1399).

While these canons could eventually lead to excommunication, they “do not support invoking excommunication as their first resort,” he said.  “These norms don’t have the ‘impact’ of excommunication, I grant, but some response might be better than the current no response to such conduct.”

He also suggested the bishops could act to deny Communion to the politicians “without ever getting into canonical criminal law.”  He said this “would help limit the damage being done by the scandal of Catholic support for Planned Parenthood.”

Legislation by various local bishops might be “cumbersome,” he noted, but a nationwide effort would present a much greater challenge. “Nationally coordinated action would have to come through the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and would face some significant procedural hurdles,” he explained, pointing to canon 455, which requires a two-thirds vote from the bishops’ conference and approval from the Holy See.

ALL’s Michael Hichborn agreed with Peters that “the law has to exist prior to the existence of a crime.”

“We’re trying to persuade the bishops to officially declare Planned Parenthood an enemy of the Church, just as Freemasonry, Nazism, and Communism were declared as such,” he told LifeSiteNews.  “The point of our video was to illustrate that Planned Parenthood is an enemy of the Catholic Church, by the very purpose of its existence, and as such, any support for it should be an excommunicable offense.”

The issue is a contentious one in North America and across the world, with many bishops hesitating, or flat-out refusing even to follow the Vatican’s directives to deny communion to pro-abortion politicians.

Peters made headlines earlier this year when he called for Bishop Howard Hubbard of Albany to deny Communion to pro-abortion New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, who is also a divorcee living with his girlfriend.