Excommunication is a big deal in the Catholic faith. Ex, for outside, communication for community, it means "cut from the community". It means your sins are so great that you can no longer participate in the sacramental life of the Church, unless you either confess or have it lifted by the bishop. The principle of excommunication is taken from various New Testament passages where St. Paul declares apostates to be anathema (Gal 1:8, for example). One has to wonder: What can you do that is so terrible, the Church can basically cut you off?
According to the Church, you can be excommunicated for the following: 1) Violating the sacrament of Confession (whether using it to solicit sex or by breaking the seal), 2) Using physical force against the Pope, 3) Desecrating the Eucharist (the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus Christ), 4) Procuring a completed abortion, 5) Belonging to the Freemasons, 6) Heresy, apostasy or schism. In recent news however, excommunications for abortions have been the most prominent (Sister Margaret McBride, for example or the Brazilian mother whose nine-year-old was carrying twins). For some reason, given our recent scandals, this bothers me.
First, with the teaching of abortion, we profess that all life is sacred, from conception to natural death. While very strict exceptions are made for self-defense, war, and even the death penalty (though the bishops hold that there is no justification for its use in the U.S.), it is a serious crime to kill anyone. So, I'm wondering why you cannot also be excommunicated for participating in euthanasia or serving as an executioner. Furthermore, since quality and dignity of life are included in our pro-life definition, should you not also be excommunicated if you allow someone to starve or otherwise fail to aid the least of these? Should you not be excommunicated if you pulled a Bernie Madoff and made so many people lose their livelihoods?
Second, with the issue of abortion, we also have teachings on the levels of culpability. For mortal sin to take place, there must be three qualifications: 1) Grave matter, 2) Full knowledge, 3) Full consent of the will. You have to be extremely convicted that the decision is wrong, but you decide to do it anyway. However, if you are coerced, if you do something because you believe it will save someone's life or otherwise produce good, your culpability is lessened. In addition, with regards to life threatening complications in pregnancy, the idea is that doctors must try and save both the lives of the mother and child but, if they can't, they have to at least save one. For the nine-year-old girl raped by her stepfather, she was carrying twins. I can only imagine her mother's agony, whether at the fact that her husband betrayed them both, at the fact that a prepubescent child was impregnated, or at the fact that now she's faced with the decision of having her daughter's pregnancy terminated to save her (not how most of us imagine becoming first time grandmas). For the more recent woman, her baby would have died anyway (because she would have died and her child was not viable) but the doctors decided that abortion was the only way to save her life. I can only imagine Sister Margaret's inner turmoil as she made this decision. So, while I am not God or these women, I cannot imagine that these were acts willfully done with the intention of shedding innocent blood. They were faced with a difficult decision of either ending one (or more than one) life to save another or to watch all lives end in the process.
Third, I cannot imagine that there are no political motives behind the decision to (not) excommunicate. As we all have seen, there have been horrible scandals involving the institutional sexual abuse of children and teenagers at the hands of parish priests. The Pope's initial response has been an accusation of media bias and bigotry. While he later amended this and realized the necessity of protection, he has taken little measures to either punish this crime inside the Church or emphasize the need for cooperation with law enforcement. Indeed, when I mentioned my disgust, Catholic friends of mine made excuses, saying, "You don't know what's been confessed!" and "The Church isn't perfect!" While it is true that priests have been defrocked for these crimes and that dioceses have taken stronger measures, it is dependent on the individual bishops and we have yet to see the clergy as a whole address this. In addition, within my home state of CT, the bishops have actually lobbied against a law that would end the statute of limitations, stating it would harm them. What relation does this have? The Church considers a sin to be so great, you can be excommunicated (regardless of culpability or complications) but lets its own leaders off scot-free for the crimes of not only sexual abuse (horrific in and of itself) but the abuse of power and the very destruction of an individual's relationship with God.
While I believe it's important to protect the dignity of the sacraments, of life, and the unity of our faith, I do believe that we have been failing in accountability. I also believe that the priorities used for excommunicating have not sent a strong enough message to protect all tenets of our faith. In addition, I believe it has been used more as a political measure rather than as a genuine concern for our faith. Rather than pointing the finger at people, I believe the Church hierarchy needs to take an honest look at itself and realize what truly is worth fighting for. I want to see my Church truly defend the innocent, not just paying lip service and meting out severe punishment in the process.