There has been much discussion in recent years regarding what the Catholic Church can do about self-identified Catholic politicians who support policies considered gravely immoral by the Church. Most of the conversation has centered around Canon 915, which states that those who are “obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin are not to be admitted to Holy Communion.” Debate in the Catholic Church has focused on whether Catholic politicians who vote in favor of expanding grave evils are guilty of manifest (public) grave sin. But it is another canon—Canon 1375—that might become more applicable for disciplining Catholic politicians. 

The argument for applying Canon 915 is most commonly applied to Catholic politicians supporting legalized abortion. In his 2002 Doctrinal Note on Some Questions Regarding the Participation of Catholics in Political Life, then-Cardinal Ratzinger argued in paragraph 4: “When political activity comes up against moral principles that do not admit of exception, compromise or derogation, the Catholic commitment becomes more evident and laden with responsibility. In the face of fundamental and inalienable ethical demands, Christians must recognize that what is at stake is the essence of the moral law, which concerns the integral good of the human person. This is the case with laws concerning abortion.”

Yet in spite of this view, Catholic politicians have regularly turned to the rationale first employed by then-Presidential Candidate John F. Kennedy, who would go on to become the first Catholic to be elected president. On September 12th, 1960, in a speech to “The Greater Houston Ministerial Association,” Kennedy famously assured a skeptical nation: “Whatever issue may come before me as president—on birth control, divorce, censorship, gambling or any other subject—I will make my decision in accordance…with what my conscience tells me to be the national interest, and without regard to outside religious pressures or dictates. And no power or threat of punishment could cause me to decide otherwise.”

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