E. Christian Brugger is Professor of Moral Theology at Saint Vincent de Paul Regional Seminary in Boynton Beach, FL. He has a BA in biology from Rutgers, Master’s degrees in moral theology and moral philosophy from Seton Hall University, Harvard University and the University of Oxford, and a Ph.D. in moral theology from Oxford. From 2015-2017, he served as a Theological Consultant to the Doctrine Committee of the USCCB. He publishes widely in sexual ethics, bioethics, natural law theory, and Catholic Social Teaching. His most recent book is Catholic Social Teaching: A Volume of Scholarly Essays (Cambridge University Press, 2019). He lives with his wife, Melissa (of 25 years), and three of his five children in Briny Breezes, Florida.
Q. If a politician supports laws that advance people’s attempt to alter their gender, is this fundamentally different, morally speaking, from the public advocacy for abortion? If a Catholic politician supports transgender ideology, should he or she be denied Holy Communion? Does the harm that sexual orientation and gender identity pose to the divine gifts of marriage, family and revelation warrant its classification as a so-called “non-negotiable” issue that Catholic voters should consider before voting? — Father Sean Code, Johnstown, Pennsylvania
If by “fundamentally different” you mean that political support for “gender transitioning” is not as wrongful as abortion advocacy, I think the answer is Yes; it is not as wrongful. If you mean that it is not seriously wrong at all, then no, there is no difference. Both acts are gravely wrong; but killing the innocent is worse than affirming a serious falsehood and self-mutilation.
Those who act with intent to transition their gender, and all those who support their intent, set their wills against the good of truth as well as the functional integrity of the human body. The truth at stake includes the particular truth of the person’s personal identity as male or female, as well as the general anthropological truth that all humans are created male and female.
Politicians who politically abet the denial of our essentially engendered nature and help people to mutilate themselves based upon this denial do very bad things. Whether they are in good faith in doing these things is not relevant to the question at hand. What’s relevant is that they publicly advocate for destructive objective evils.
Should they be denied Holy Communion? Yes, I think they should. To punish them? Not in the first place. I think the denial should firstly come from our reverence for the holiness of the sacrament and secondly for the good of souls.
On this question, the Code of Canon Law (915) states: “[those] who obstinately persist in manifest grave sin are not to be admitted to Eucharistic communion.” Pope St. John Paul II makes clear that the canon isn’t referring to a judgment on the soul of the person, since “one’s state of grace obviously belongs only to the person involved.” Rather, “manifest grave sin” refers to “outward conduct which is seriously, clearly and steadfastly contrary to the moral law” (Ecclesia de Eucharistia 37).
How should the Church go about denying these politicians Holy Communion?
In 2004, the future Benedict XVI addressed a directive to Washington’s then-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick entitled Worthiness to Receive Holy Communion: General Principles. Cardinal Ratzinger writes:
Regarding the grave sin of abortion or euthanasia, when a person’s formal cooperation becomes manifest (understood, in the case of a Catholic politician, as his consistently campaigning and voting for permissive abortion and euthanasia laws), his 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.
This seems also applicable to those who support gender ideology.
“Pastor” is best interpreted here as bishop (i.e., local ordinary). Since Canon 915 is a dictate of Church law, priests, too (as the bishop’s representatives), are authorized, indeed bound, to carry it out. But because such a denial is likely to cause an uproar, bishops should take the lead. At the very least, a priest contemplating action against a public personality should consult his bishop for guidance and to ensure his support.
The bishop should speak confidentially with the politicians. He should urge them to repent of their errors and change their actions. Because their errors have been public, the resolution to change too should be made public, in this way attempting to minimize the malicious influence of their past actions on the consciences of others. The bishop should also take the opportunity to enlighten the consciences of those who may be ignorant of the wrongness and harmfulness of gender ideology. Finally, he should specify the consequences — exclusion from Holy Communion — of maintaining the status quo.
Catholic bishops on the whole are reticent to deny anyone Holy Communion, however grave, manifest and obstinate one’s sin. No doubt they are operating from an abundance of caution, fearful to cause more harm than good.
I believe they need to be more concerned with the harm caused by not intervening. When people see notorious politicians freely receiving Holy Communion, they are led to think either that the positions they advocate are not so bad, that the Eucharist is not so holy, or that their bishops just don’t care. All of this leads people into confusion. Some are led to sin through scandal. Others are provided rationalizations for hating the hierarchy and leaving the Church. Disharmony arises between faithful Catholics and their pastors. People victimized by the evil example of politicians feel abandoned by the Church; a naïve youth, for example, who underwent “bottom” surgery thinking she was doing a good thing, who has now repented, and who looks to her leaders for honest condemnation of the evil that ruined her life, sees the immunity these politicians receive in the Catholic Church as an outrage against God and a great discouragement.
Catholic leaders need to see that permitting such politicians to receive Holy Communion makes a statement. It’s not pastorally neutral. Excluding them would too make a statement. It would say that their public and unrepentant choices are very bad, harmful to ecclesial communion, and unworthy of the privilege of receiving the Lord.
Finally, replying to the second question posed above: Yes, I do think that the issues of sexual orientation and gender identity, because bearing upon most basic goods of the human person and the weightiest problems of social wellbeing deserve classification as “nonnegotiable” issues that Catholic voters, and all reasonable people, should consider before voting.
For more on the wrongness of gender ideology, see my essay, “Is Transgenderism Sinful?”