This morning, Gov. Chris Christie (R-NJ), who is running for president, attacked Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), who is also running for president, by arguing that Rubio is too pro-life. From the New York Times:
Chris Christie’s kitchen-sink approach to undercutting Senator Marco Rubio took an unexpected turn on Thursday: He portrayed Mr. Rubio’s opposition to abortion as too extreme for New Hampshire Republicans.
But in the process, it appears Mr. Christie misrepresented Mr. Rubio’s current views.
“He’s made it very clear that — on the issue of pro-life, Marco Rubio is not for an exception for rape, incest or life of the mother,” Mr. Christie said. “Now, you know, I think that’s the kind of position that New Hampshire voters would be really concerned about.”
In an interview on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” program, Mr. Christie added, “I am pro-life, but I believe that rape, incest and life of the mother, as Ronald Reagan did, should be exceptions to that rule.”
Mr. Rubio is emphatically opposed to abortion in almost all cases. But contrary to Mr. Christie’s claim, he does support an exception for cases in which a mother’s life is in danger.
Now, one could say a great deal about this, from a political perspective. One could say, for example, that it’s a despicable, false attack that betrays the shallowness of Christie’s so-called candidacy, his desperation to win (even at the cost of feeding free attack ads to the Clinton campaign), and perhaps the moral bankruptcy of the GOP establishment itself. But I don’t wish to focus on the impact Mr. Christie’s comments will have on the horse race, nor on the inherent cruelty (and incoherence) of Christie’s position. Others, I’m sure, are way ahead of me on that.
Instead, I’d like to focus on a subject of much more narrow interest: what this public statement means for Christie’s relationship with the Catholic Church, the church he is baptized in and continues to profess belief in. Those of you who aren’t Catholic can tune out now, unless you’re really into Church sanctions.
Christie is hardly the first Republican presidential candidate to support rape and incest exceptions to a general prohibition of abortion. Presidents Reagan and Bush both supported similar exceptions. Jeb!Bush, who is also Catholic, has stated that he supports exceptions for rape and incest, though his reasoning is not clear. In 2012, Mitt Romney took out advertisements specifically to clarify that he supports killing kids whose dads are rapists — though he didn’t put it quite like that. (It was his only ad on abortion in the 2012 campaign.)
However, it is very rare for a Republican candidate to say that these exceptions are positively necessary and good, as Christie does here. Often, support for these exceptions is couched in language about the fact that the exceptions are politically necessary to get pro-life legislation passed. One does not often say, as Christie does, that these exceptions “should be” there as a matter of moral fact. (Romney paid dearly for doing so.) Moreover, to my knowledge, Christie is the first candidate this cycle — and the first Catholic candidate in Republican history — to actually attack another candidate for being more pro-life than he is.
The problem for Christie is that his Church condemns all direct abortions, without exception, in the strongest possible terms, and — significantly — positively requires that lawmakers prohibit them:
Human life must be respected and protected absolutely from the moment of conception. From the first moment of his existence, a human being must be recognized as having the rights of a person – among which is the inviolable right of every innocent being to life. “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you…” (Jer 1:5)
Since the first century the Church has affirmed the moral evil of every procured abortion. This teaching has not changed and remains unchangeable. Direct abortion, that is to say, abortion willed either as an end or a means, is gravely contrary to the moral law…
Formal cooperation in an abortion constitutes a grave offense. The Church attaches the canonical penalty of excommunication to this crime against human life. “A person who procures a completed abortion incurs excommunication latae sententiae,” “by the very commission of the offense,” and subject to the conditions provided by Canon Law. The Church does not thereby intend to restrict the scope of mercy. Rather, she makes clear the gravity of the crime committed, the irreparable harm done to the innocent who is put to death, as well as to the parents and the whole of society.
The inalienable right to life of every innocent human individual is a constitutive element of a civil society and its legislation:
“The inalienable rights of the person must be recognized and respected by civil society and the political authority. These human rights depend neither on single individuals nor on parents; nor do they represent a concession made by society and the state; they belong to human nature and are inherent in the person by virtue of the creative act from which the person took his origin. Among such fundamental rights one should mention in this regard every human being’s right to life and physical integrity from the moment of conception until death.”
“The moment a positive law deprives a category of human beings of the protection which civil legislation ought to accord them, the state is denying the equality of all before the law. When the state does not place its power at the service of the rights of each citizen, and in particular of the more vulnerable, the very foundations of a state based on law are undermined. . . . As a consequence of the respect and protection which must be ensured for the unborn child from the moment of conception, the law must provide appropriate penal sanctions for every deliberate violation of the child’s rights.”
-Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2270-2273
A Catholic legislator who publicly rejects this position and promotes laws to the contrary, even just for some unborn babies (“rights for some, death for others!”), commits a grave sin in the eyes of the Church. For this reason, Gov. Christie must not present himself for communion:
Can. 916 A person who is conscious of grave sin is not to celebrate Mass or receive the body of the Lord without previous sacramental confession unless there is agrave reason and there is no opportunity to confess. -Code of Canon Law
For he that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh judgment to himself, not discerning the body of the Lord. -1 Cor 11:29
Canon 916, sadly, is frequently disobeyed, even by politicians. Foreseeing this, the Church includes additional safeguard against sacrilege and scandal in the form of Canon 915:
Can. 915 Those who have been excommunicated or interdicted after the imposition or declaration of the penalty and others obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin are not to be admitted to holy communion.
When a sin is both manifest (that is, public and notorious), grave (and supporting abortion rights is certainly grave, as established above) and obstinate (Christie has passively held this position for years, but today’s comments mark an important shift toward actively promoting it), then Canon 915 demands that those responsible for distributing Holy Communion (that is, the bishops, as well as the priests and ministers who operate under them) positively refuse the sinner admission to Holy Communion, until the sin is repented. This is not a mere enforcement option; the bishops do not enjoy a vague discretion about whether to apply it or not. It is a positive duty to deny Chris Christie communion. Canonist Ed Peters writes extensively on these very subjects, in very similar cases, in two articles I recommend: “Fencing the Altar” and “Denial of the Eucharist to Pro-Abortion Catholic Politicians.” (Hopefully, the very sober Mr. Peters agrees with my application of these principles in the Christie case!)
This has come up occasionally in political contexts before. Several bishops refused communion to John Kerry in 2004, because Kerry was both Catholic and a major supporter of abortion rights. Kathleen Sebelius has been denied communion for more nearly a decade now, for similar reasons. Nancy Pelosi faced similar scrutiny in… well, every year since I’ve been politically conscious, actually, though her local bishop has failed to carry out his duty in her case. In each case, Democrats cried out that this was a partisan political persecution — that conservative bishops were opportunistically attacking Democrats in order to improve Republicans’ standing in the eyes of the faithful.
Well, here’s a Republican, a nationally prominent, somewhat popular one who is currently running for president, and he is now in violation of Canon 915 just as much as those other guys. It is time for him to face the appropriate sanctions. Archbishop Myers of Newark should condemn Christie’s comments and instruct him to refrain from communion for as long as he obstinately holds this destructive position on human life. I know they’re friends, and they can certainly continue to be, but Gov. Christie must not continue to receive communion. This isn’t about partisan politics; it’s about the protection of the faithful, not to mention the Sacrament.
I single out Gov. Christie because he so clearly violates Catholic teaching here. He does not just endorse a gravely sinful position, but openly attacks another Catholic for refusing to follow him down that road to Hell. Some of the other Republican Catholic candidates might arguably be seen as violating canon 915, but this is not clear-cut to me. Mr. Bush’s support for rape and incest exceptions may just be a political compromise rather than a moral position, and, even if it isn’t, it isn’t clear to me that he holds it “obstinately”. Mr. Rubio’s support for a “life of the mother” exception may actually be 100% compatible in sync with Catholic teaching, depending on the details, since Catholicism permits so-called “indirect abortions” in cases where necessary to save the mother’s life, under the principle of double effect. (This is mentioned obliquely in the Catechism passage quoted above, but I’ve written more about it here.) The three other Catholic Republican candidates (Jindal, Pataki, and Santorum) have all dropped out, so I’ll leave them out of this. This lack of clarity matters a great deal: according to Canon 18, we must follow a “strict interpretation” of Canon 915, which means the individual gets the benefit of every reasonable doubt. Christie’s case is unique because, as of at least this morning, there can be no reasonable doubt that he is on the wrong side of Canon 915.
As a president, Chris Christie is, in my mind, a better option than Hillary Clinton. He may be an evil, but the lesser of two evils can be an acceptable option for Catholics under certain circumstances, at least when it comes to the right not to be murdered. Sadly, that’s an option we’ve had to exercise many, many times before. I would likely vote for Christie in a general election. Heck, if my only choices in the primary were Trump and Christie, I’d probably vote Christie there, too. However, in a Republican primary that still features a number of other genuinely pro-life candidates, I do believe this should disqualify Gov. Christie in the eyes of Catholic voters. (In lieu of an argument, I’ll link that article again.) But that’s just politics.
As a Catholic, Gov. Christie’s soul is imperiled by his refusal to accept the teaching of Jesus Christ through the Church on an issue affecting tens of thousands of undefended human lives. Worse, his decision, as a prominent Catholic, to promote those gravely evil views, to even attack another man for being more virtuous than he, is a national scandal that imperils many other souls as well. It is the responsibility of his bishop to sternly admonish this crime against unborn children and against the body of Christ, and, furthermore, to enforce the prescribed canonical penalties against him until such time as Gov. Christie repents.