NEW YORK — Several years ago while he was still mayor of New York, Rudy Giuliani and Cardinal Edward Egan of New York reached a private understanding.

Giuliani agreed to refrain from receiving Communion because of his strong support for abortion rights.

But when the pro-abortion politician breached his private commitment in just about the most public manner conceivable — by receiving the Eucharist at the April 19 Mass celebrated by Pope Benedict XVI at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York — Cardinal Egan decided an equally public rebuke was required.

In an April 28 statement posted on the archdiocesan website (, Cardinal Egan said, “I deeply regret that Mr. Giuliani received the Eucharist during the papal visit here in New York, and I will be seeking a meeting with him to insist that he abide by our understanding.”

Giuliani acknowledged he had an understanding with Egan, the New York Daily News reported April 29.

Giuliani declined to discuss the understanding, saying, “It’s a personal religious matter.” Asked by a reporter if he felt uncomfortable about receiving Communion, Giuliani replied, “No.”

Russell Shaw, former spokesman for the U.S. bishops’ conference, said Cardinal Egan responded appropriately to the scandal caused by Giuliani.

“The cardinal made a good-faith effort before it happened to persuade Giuliani not to do it, and he’s trying to get together with Giuliani after the fact and tell him again,” said Shaw, who noted it is almost impossible to prevent a pro-abortion politician from receiving Communion. “I think that’s a pretty good handling of it.”

The issue of pro-abortion Catholic politicians who receive Communion has been a contentious issue for decades in the Church.

In November 2002, to provide greater clarity with respect to the obligation for all Catholic politicians to oppose abortion, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith published “A Doctrinal Note on Some Questions Regarding the Participation of Catholics in Public Life.”

The doctrinal note states that Catholics “who are directly involved in lawmaking bodies have a grave and clear obligation to oppose any law that attacks human life. For them, as for every Catholic, it is impossible to promote such laws or to vote for them” (No. 4).

Canon Law

The conditions for reception of Communion are governed by Canon 915 of the Church’s 1983 Code of Canon Law.

Canon 915 states, “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.”

Father Owen Keenan, a priest of the archdiocese of Toronto who last year wrote a licentiate thesis at the Gregorian University in Rome on Canon 915, said Church law imposes a duty on all bishops and other pastors to take action when a Catholic is known to have violated the canon.

In the case of a politician who has supported abortion, he said, “obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin” would probably mean a consistent pattern of supporting pro-abortion legislation.

When that occurs, the politician’s pastor would seek to persuade the politician to stop supporting abortion legislation and, if he refuses, instruct him to stop receiving Communion.

But in cases where a politician refuses either course of action, Father Keenan said Canon 915 requires public action, like Cardinal Egan’s statement about Giuliani.

The same principles apply in other cases of serious public sin, such as when an organized crime member who is known to have committed murders and other heinous crimes receives Communion despite refusing to repent of his crimes.

“I think it’s important to look at this not just in terms of abortion, which is perhaps the gravest sin,” Father Keenan said. “This is not just an anti-abortion thing; this is a call to radical Communion with the body of Christ, which is the sacrament, which is the Church.”


The issue last became prominent in the United States in 2004, when the Democratic Party selected Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, a pro-abortion Catholic, as its presidential nominee.

With no consensus among U.S. bishops about the best way to deal with pro-abortion politicians who receive Communion, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, then archbishop of Washington, requested guidance from then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

In a memo sent to Cardinal McCarrick in the spring of 2004, the future Pope said a Catholic politician manifests “formal cooperation” with grave sin by “consistently campaigning and voting for permissive abortion and euthanasia laws.”

When that occurs the politician’s pastor should “meet with him, instructing him about the Church’s teaching, informing him that he is not to present himself for holy Communion until he brings to an end the objective situation of sin, and warning him that he will otherwise be denied the Eucharist,” Cardinal Ratzinger wrote.

“When ‘these precautionary measures have not had their effect or in which they were not possible,’ and the person in question, with obstinate persistence, still presents himself to receive the holy Eucharist, ‘the minister of holy Communion must refuse to distribute it,’” he said, quoting from a 2002 ruling on divorced-and-remarried Catholics issued by the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts.

In June 2004, the U.S. bishops released their statement, “Catholics in Public Life.”

It said that “given the wide range of circumstances involved in arriving at a prudential judgment” about whether a pro-abortion politician should be denied Communion, “bishops can legitimately make different judgments on the most prudent course of pastoral action.”

Shaw agrees that it’s reasonable for bishops to opt for different approaches when confronted with the problem.

But he contended individual bishops should discuss which approach they have chosen, rather than remaining quiet as some U.S. bishops have chosen to do.

Said Shaw, “Whatever the bishop has honestly concluded in his own mind and in his own conscience, he should say it and tell us how he reads the situation and what his conscientious judgment is.”

Archbishop Wuerl

Sen. Kerry and pro-abortion House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., both received Communion at the April 17 papal Mass at Nationals Stadium in Washington, despite their continued public support for abortion legislation.

Archbishop Donald Wuerl did not publicly rebuke any pro-abortion Catholic politicians for having received Communion at the papal Mass. But he addressed the issue in his column in the May 1 issue of the archdiocesan newspaper, The Catholic Standard.

“A decision regarding the refusal of holy Communion to an individual is one that should be made only after clear efforts to persuade and convince the person that their actions are wrong and bear moral consequences,” Archbishop Wuerl said. “In the case of public figures who serve in Washington as representatives of other parts of the nation, this dialogue and any decisions would take place within their home diocese.”

As of May 2, the archdioceses of San Francisco and Boston, the respective home dioceses of Pelosi and Kerry, had made no comment on the reception of Communion by those politicians at the papal Mass in Washington. Shaw predicts the issue will not be as prominent this year as in 2004 because there are no Catholic candidates left in the 2008 presidential race.

But that could change if a pro-abortion Catholic is a vice-presidential candidate, he added.

“One or another of the presidential candidates could choose a Catholic running mate,” Shaw said. “Then the fat might be in the fire again, wouldn’t it?”

(CNS contributed to this story.)

Tom McFeely is based in

Victoria, British Columbia.