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There is a very heated public debate about abortion in Poland at this moment. Pro-life organizations, seeing opportunity in the fact that the current government claims to be pro-Catholic, formally proposed a complete prohibition of abortion, with the possibility to penalize women guilty of it. This proposal has, however, recently been rejected by the Parliament, with prominent members of the governing party citing the position of the episcopate, who keep reiterating that while they support any propositions to prohibit abortion, at the same time they oppose any possibility to penalize women who have performed abortion.

Is this the position of the Polish episcopate only, or is it the teaching of the whole universal Church that women guilty of performing abortion should not be penalized?

  • @Geremia Thank you for your edit, but there is one problem… I think the distinction whether the hierarchs claim something for moral or for practical reasons is important… if they cite moral reasons, then this constitutes official teaching that is binding for every member of the Church, but if they cite only practical reasons, then this is only their personal opinion that matters little more than opinions of anyone else. – gaazkam Oct 8 '16 at 16:52
  • If I understand you correctly, it seems you're alluding to the civil vs. ecclesiastical jurisdiction distinction, which I address in my answer. – Geremia Oct 8 '16 at 17:18
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Canon Law already punishes Catholics involved in abortion with automatic (latæ sententiæ) excommunication:

Can. 1398 A person who procures a completed abortion incurs a latæ sententiæ excommunication.

This includes all Catholics involved: the woman, her family, the abortionist, assisting nurses and doctors, and even those on medical ethics boards who approve of the direct killing of the unborn (cf. the 2010 case of the excommunication of Sr. Margaret McBride).
cf. canonist Dom Augustine's commentary on those who perform abortion.

The question the Polish bishops are dealing with is whether those involved in abortion should be penalized by civil authorities. When Church and State were not so separated as today, Catholics guilty of a crime could choose whether to be tried in an ecclesiastical court or a civil court. Perhaps the Polish bishops believe Catholic women who procure abortions do not need to be tried twice when the Church has already judged and punished them with excommunication. Non-Catholics cannot be tried in ecclesiastical courts because the Church only has jurisdiction over Catholics. Thus the question becomes: Can Church authorities tell civil authorities how to punish non-Catholics involved in abortion?

This is related to the question St. Thomas Aquinas addresses in the Treatise on Law of his Summa Theologica I-II q. 96 a. 2: "Does it belong to the human law to repress [as with punishment or coercion] all vices [e.g., abortion]?." He answers (c.):

[H]uman law is framed for a number of human beings, the majority of whom are not perfect in virtue. Wherefore human laws do not forbid all vices, from which the virtuous abstain, but only the more grievous vices, from which it is possible for the majority to abstain; and chiefly those that are to the hurt of others, without the prohibition of which human society could not be maintained: thus human law prohibits murder [e.g., abortion], theft and such like.

Thus, human law should repress abortion. Exactly how it should be repressed inside the civil sphere is outside the jurisdiction of leaders of the Church and must be left to the prudence of civil authorities (cf. St. Thomas's Summa II-II q. 67 a. 1 question "Can a man justly judge one who is not subject to his jurisdiction?").

  • Many thanks for your answer. Before anything else, however, might I nitpick a little? You cite St. Thomas Aquinas, where he says law should prohibit murder; and then you conclude that law should repress murder (e.g. abortion). St. Thomas seems to equate the law prohibiting and repressing a vice; but it seems that Polish bishops want abortion prohibited, but not repressed. St. Thomas literally says it should be prohibited, but he does not literally say it should be repressed. – gaazkam Oct 9 '16 at 11:23
  • Now Im not disputing your answer, nor am I trying to disprove it; Im just trying to figure all of this out in my mind... Im not saying you're wrong, Im just saying there's something I don't exactly understand... Have an upvote. – gaazkam Oct 9 '16 at 11:24
  • @gaazkam So the Polish bishops want an unenforced law? Can there even be such a thing? The law is a teacher. St. Thomas defines law (Summa Theologica I-II q. 90 a. 1 c.) as "a rule and measure of acts, whereby man is induced to act or is restrained from acting: for 'lex' [law] is derived from "ligare" [to bind; from where the word 'legislation' comes], because it binds one to act". – Geremia Oct 10 '16 at 0:56
  • IIUC the bishops want the abortion to be prohibited, and they want the abortionists to be penalized; but despite they want the law to prohibit women to perform abortion on themselves, they still don't want such women to be punished. I also find this odd, but I wonder if I'm obliged to agree with my bishops… – gaazkam Oct 10 '16 at 21:23

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