Some thoughts on excommunication by the eminent canonist Fr. Timothy Ferguson
Excommunication should not be used as a "weapon." Arguably, there were times, particularly in the high middle ages, when it was used as a weapon in political wars between the Church and State. To the extent that it was used as a weapon, that was wrong.
Excommunication is a medicinal penalty. It is a red flag warning to someone who's gone off the rails that, unless serious steps are taken, one's soul is in grave danger. It is a tool the Church uses out of love and concern for the soul of sinner who has significantly damaged his relationship to the Church and to the Lord who founded Her.
In the Code of Canon Law, excommunication, like all penalties, is subject to a very strict interpretation. The Church does not throw penalties around lightly. Not all sins are excommunicatable. Just because violating the integrity of marriage is not subject to any canonical penalty does not mean the Church does not take adultery seriously.
Canon 1398 establishes that someone who procures an abortion is subject to an automatic excommunication. Previous canons define in a more detailed fashion when a penalty might be mitigated by other factors (for example, someone who is forced to procure an abortion against her will would not be subject to the excommunication. Lack of understanding, significant emotional pressure, and other factors also lessen someone's culpability). Moral theology lays out some clear principles, too, about remote and proximate cooperation in evil acts - e.g., it's generally understood that the doctor who performs the abortion is subject to the penalty, and most would also say the nurse, whose cooperation is necessary, is also subject. What about the receptionist who works at the clinic? The taxi driver who drops off the woman at the clinic? The building owner who leases the property? In general, the more remote one's cooperation is, the lesser degree one is culpable for the offense.
What about the politicians who render the horrific crime of abortion legal - and who celebrate their evil actions with aplomb? Most canonists would say that their participation in this evil while sinful, doesn't fall under the strict interpretation required by the law to subject themselves of an automatic penalty.
Yet, there are other canons in the Code.
The very next canon, in fact, canon 1399, states, "Besides the cases prescribed in this or other laws, the external violation of divine or canon law can be punished, and with a just penalty, only when the special gravity of the violation requires it and necessity demands that scandals be prevented or repaired."
This brings up another very important element of the Church's penal law - the prevention of scandal. Scandal is not just "people being shocked." If that were the case, in our current climate, nothing would be scandalous. Scandal is something which leads another to evil. Scandal needs to be singled out, and punished so that the faithful are not led to sin.
In the current situation in New York, I would argue that scandal has been caused. Political leaders, calling themselves Catholic, have shown a callous disregard for the value of human life, for the teachings and the teaching authority of the Church, and indeed for God, the author of life. Permitting them to go unpunished is an offense itself. The Church needs - in love - to point out to them what precarious situations they have placed their own immortal souls. The Church also needs to remind the faithful of how seriously She takes the value of human life. These politicians - and the governor of New York in the first place - need to put on canonical trial and, unless there are mitigating circumstances of which I am not aware, excommunicated for the sake of their own souls, and for the souls of countless numbers of the faithful who are scandalized by his behavior.