05/09/2013 01:03 pm ET Updated Jul 09, 2013

Will the Catholic Church Ever Stop Trying to Criminalize Sin?

Here we go again.

Last October, a pregnant Indian woman died in an Irish hospital after being denied an abortion that might well have saved her life. To prevent any more such deaths, the Irish parliament is now considering a bill that would legalize abortion under very strict conditions. Aside from being allowed to terminate the pregnancy of a woman who would otherwise commit suicide, doctors could abort a fetus if -- and only if -- two doctors (one of them an obstetrician or gynecologist) certified that continued pregnancy posed a "real and substantial risk" to the life of the woman.

But this scrupulously humane bill has been roundly condemned by the Roman Catholic church.

In a joint statement, the Irish Catholic Bishops have called it "a dramatically and morally unacceptable change to Irish law." In other words, regardless of her conscience, her religious beliefs, her personal values and her elemental will to live, the bishops are determined to sacrifice on the altar of fetal sanctity any Irish woman whose pregnancy threatens her life.

At the Vatican, the screw of ecclesiastical intimidation has been further turned by Cardinal Raymond L. Burke, former archbishop of St. Louis and now head of the Vatican Court. In February, Cardinal Burke urged Irish priests to deny communion to any legislator who votes for the bill: to excommunicate any lawmaker who votes to de-criminalize a life-saving operation.

In making this statement, Cardinal Burke echoes the words of Cardinal Charles Chaput of Denver, Colorado, who in 2004 threatened to excommunicate any Catholic in his diocese who voted for John Kerry. (Though Kerry was then the first Roman Catholic candidate for president in 44 years, he did not think that abortion should be re-criminalized, which made him intolerable for the archbishop.) Just as Archbishop Chaput did before him, Cardinal Burke wholly ignores the crucial distinction between sin and crime, and thereby forgets -- if he ever knew it -- something clearly stated by two of the greatest saints in the history of Christendom: Augustine and Aquinas.

As I have explained before on this site, both of these saints argued against criminalizing all moral evils -- even grave ones. While Aquinas considered prostitution a "mortal sin" binding the soul to spiritual death, he also insisted that civil authorities should tolerate it because -- in the words of Augustine, which Aquinas quotes --"if you do away with harlots, the world will be convulsed with lust." Since human law aims not to promote eternal salvation but to ensure temporal order, Aquinas wrote, it cannot "forbid all vicious acts."

What then would Augustine or Aquinas say about a law that aims to save the life of a pregnant woman by tolerating what the Catholic church of our time considers a vicious act? Would the two great saints insist on excommunicating any legislator who voted for such a law? Or would they assign the Irish bishops and Cardinal Burke to a crash course in moral theology?

You be the judge.