For the past 20 years, Dr. Matthew E. Bunson has been active in the area of Catholic social communications and education, including writing, editing, and teaching on a variety of topics related to Church history, the papacy, the saints and Catholic culture. He is faculty chair at Catholic Distance University, a senior fellow of the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology, and the author or co-author of over 50 books including: The Encyclopedia of Catholic History, The Pope Encyclopedia, We Have a Pope! Benedict XVI, The Saints Encyclopedia and best-selling biographies of St. Damien of Molokai and St. Kateri Tekakwitha.
Back in February of last year, in the wake of the U.S. Senate’s failure to pass the Pain-Capable Unborn Children’s Act, Bishop Thomas Paprocki of Springfield, Illinois, made the public declaration that Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., one of 14 Catholic senators who voted against the legislation — should be prohibited from receiving Holy Communion in the diocese.
Now, in a new decree issued today, Bishop Paprocki has extended that prohibition to Catholic politicians who voted in favor of two Illinois bills that promote abortion, the just approved Senate Bill 25 and House Bill 40 that was approved in 2017.
The Illinois House Bill 40 legalized taxpayer funding of abortions, and Illinois Senate Bill 25 declares abortion “a fundamental right,” permits abortions up to the moment of birth and mandates that private insurance pay for abortion.
The decree states that all Illinois Catholic lawmakers who voted for either of these bills are not to present themselves to receive Holy Communion in the Diocese of Springfield “without first being reconciled to Christ and the Church.”
The new decree mentions two Illinois politicians by name: House Speaker Michael Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton, because of their important leadership roles in the passage of the bills.
Bishop Paprocki sees the decree as necessary because some Catholic political leaders have been obstinate and persistent in their support of extreme abortion legislation. He wrote in the decree that “they have obstinately persisted in promoting the abominable crime and very grave sin of abortion as evidenced by the influence they exerted in their leadership roles and their repeated votes and obdurate public support for abortion rights over an extended period of time.”
A New Storm
The question of prohibiting Communion for Catholic politicians who reject clear Church teaching is not a new one. It was especially prominent during the 2004 presidential election when Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., ran as the Democrat nominee for president against President George W. Bush. Kerry’s ardent support of abortion sparked a discussion among Catholics as to whether he should be prohibited from receiving Communion. Then-Archbishop Raymond Burke of St. Louis forbade Kerry from receiving Communion within the archdiocese of St. Louis. Some bishops disagreed with this, and the debate among the bishops continued at their June meeting in 2004.
In the resulting bishops’ document, “Statement on Catholics in Political Life,” quoted by Bishop Paprocki in his decree, the bishops said, “Failing to protect the lives of innocent and defenseless members of the human race is to sin against justice. Those who formulate law therefore have an obligation in conscience to work toward correcting morally defective laws, lest they be guilty of cooperating in evil and in sinning against the common good.”
The need for even greater clarity in helping Catholics and Catholic political leaders in particular to form their consciences properly is even more pressing today than in 2004. As Bishop Paprocki told the Register, “We are at a point now where we simply have to be more vocal and we have to be more clear about what the Church teaches in this regard.”
Canons at Work
As with his declaration regarding Durbin, Bishop Paprocki in his new decree is expressing his grave concern over the clear and obstinate rejection of Church teaching by so many political leaders who also publicly declare themselves to be Catholics. They have been in the national spotlight especially in the last year, from Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi of California, whose literal first act once back in control of the House of Representatives after seven years was to propose a budget that would destroy the Mexico City Policy, to Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York, who pushed and then signed a bill that would permit abortions up to the moment of birth.
As a canon lawyer as well as a bishop, and doing what he can for his own diocese, he is expressing his concern for the spiritual welfare of elected Catholic officials and trying to prevent scandal and confusion among the faithful, but he is especially working to safeguard the sacrament of the Eucharist. He cites two key canons of the Church’s Code of Canon Law in his decree.
Canon 915 states that those “who obstinately persist in manifest grave sin are not to be admitted to Holy Communion.” Canon 916 declares, “a person who is conscious of grave sin is not to celebrate Mass or to receive the Body of the Lord without prior sacramental confession unless a grave reason is present and there is no opportunity of confessing; in this case the person is to be mindful of the obligation to make an act of perfect contrition, including the intention of confessing as soon as possible.”
Abortion has emerged as one of the major issues for the 2020 presidential election, and as history has proven, the question of Communion for Catholic politicians who reject Church teachings needs to be addressed and firm and clear teachings offered for Catholics and non-Catholics alike.
Bishop Paprocki intends that with the decree. He said in his interview with the Register, “I think they should see this as a clear affirmation of Church teaching about the respect for human life from conception to natural death. It should be also an affirmation of the clear teaching that abortion is wrong. It should also be seen as a clear effort to uphold the integrity of the sacraments and to maintain the consistency between all of those.”
He is also not alone among the bishops. Across the country, a number of bishops have issued similar statements, including Bishop Joseph Strickland of Tyler, Texas, and Bishop Thomas Daly of Spokane, Washington.
In his interview with the Register, Bishop Paprocki especially cited the statement by Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City, Kansas, the chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops Committee on Pro-Life Activities. Writing a piece for the Catholic News Service that was reprinted on the USCCB website, Naumann declared:
“In my own role as a bishop, I have a serious responsibility to make certain that those entrusted to my pastoral care are aware of the moral gravity and spiritual consequences of their actions. I also have a serious obligation to protect other members of my flock from being misled by a seeming tolerance of the scandalous behavior of some Catholics in public life. It is critically important that I attempt to enter into dialogue with such Catholic leaders. If even after an extended dialogue a Catholic in public life persists in scandalous actions, I have found it necessary to request that they not present themselves to receive Holy Communion, for their own spiritual welfare and for the protection of many others from moral confusion.”
More radical bills are in the works across the country to enshrine abortion on demand. And Catholic political leaders are playing major roles in their drafting and passage.
Several self-identified Catholics are also running for president in 2020, most notably former Vice President Joe Biden and New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand. Like Kerry before them, they will and should face tough questions about their denial of Church teaching. But this is not a political argument. Bishop Paprocki put it plainly to the Register.
“I’m concerned for the salvation of the souls of these politicians who are voting and promoting legislation that is gravely sinful,” he said. “But I’m also as a shepherd of souls concerned about the scandal that they are giving to other people who, if we don’t respond appropriately, they’re looking at this saying, ‘Well, the bishops are not saying anything. So I guess it’s maybe not that bad.’ And that’s very scandalous, not only for the politician to be doing that, but also for the bishop’s inaction, in a sense. And what kind of messages is that giving?”
In Bishop Paprocki’s case the message is unambiguous. In today’s culture, it is also heroic and desperately needed.