Hot Water Over Communion and Obama

Last week at the parish of St. Mary’s in Greenville, S.C., we found ourselves in hot water. The Sunday after the election, Father Jay Scott Newman published his usual parish bulletin.

In that bulletin, he commented on the election of Barack Obama and told his parishioners: “Voting for a pro-abortion politician when a plausible pro-life alternative exists constitutes material cooperation with intrinsic evil, and those Catholics who do so place themselves outside of the full communion of Christ’s Church and under the judgment of divine law.”

Newman commented that if a Catholic voted for Obama they ought to go to confession before coming to Communion. He concluded by reminding his parishioners that it is our duty to support the duly elected president and to pray for him.

Some think Father Newman’s statement could have been clearer. Maybe he should have added that for it to be a serious sin the Catholic needed to be fully knowledgeable about the Catholic Church’s teaching on abortion, on Sen. Obama’s voting record on abortion and his intention to promote the abortion agenda. However, Father Newman did not write a pontifical statement for the instruction of all Catholics in America. This was a bulletin column to his people in a parish where there has been steady and consistent catechesis on the whole range of Catholic issues, including abortion.

By Monday, the local newspaper picked up the story. Father Newman was very careful to ask for written questions and gave written replies, making it very clear that he could not and would not deny Communion to anyone. Nevertheless, by Wednesday, the Associated Press was running the headline, “Catholic Priest Says ‘No Communion’ to Obama Supporters.” Most of the major news outlets picked up the story, and the parish was swamped with responses from across America.

In the face of these distortions, Father Newman produced two documents that clarified matters.

By Friday, the Diocese of Charleston issued a statement attempting to correct the press distortions and clarify the Church’s teaching. Unfortunately, many people thought the statement itself was poorly written and only served to confuse matters further.

However, the statement did say that the diocese enjoys tax-exempt status and wrote that the Internal Revenue Service considers churches in violation of the law “when such words as ‘conservative,’ ‘liberal,’ ‘pro-life,’ ‘pro-choice,’ ‘anti-choice,’ ‘Republican,’ or ‘Democrat’ are used in relation to a candidate, political party or an election, even if no candidate is specifically mentioned.”

Does my memory serve me correctly? I thought the United State of America was proud of her freedoms. Is it my imagination, or does this directive from the IRS constitute a direct and blatant attack on both freedom of religion and freedom of speech?

The parish of St. Mary’s has received well over 5,000 e-mails on this issue over the last week, and still the e-mails and letters are coming in. Many of them are from Catholics applauding Father Newman for taking a courageous stand against the culture of death. Many of them ask why their own priests and bishops did not speak out more forcefully before the election.

The answer is: We are not allowed to. We may speak on moral issues, and are expected to do so, but there seems to be one moral issue we can only speak about through circumlocution: abortion.

What can faithful Catholics and loyal Americans do?

Catholic priests and bishops may well risk their tax-exempt status with civil disobedience. What would happen if the bishops said, “We are going to talk about pro-life issues whether you like it or not, and if need be, take away our tax-exempt status. We will not be silent!”?

I think this is unlikely.

Instead, it is probably the role of the bishops to take a courageous but cautious stance. They need to speak out with care but without compromise, and if statements over the recent months are anything to go by, it looks like they are finding their voices.

But if the clergy are curtailed, and if there are restrictions on the official organs of the Catholic Church, then it must be the role of the laity to speak out. Who can muzzle the voice of ordinary Catholics?

My advice to the laity is: Don’t wait to be asked, and don’t wait to be thanked. Continue your efforts for life through the media. Get involved in radio, television and film. Distribute pro-life information and advertisements. Be happy warriors. Be joyful. Be positive. March for Life. Pray for Life. Work for Life. Give for Life. Live for Life.

After all, there are far more of you than there are of us anyway.

Any fight is messy, unpredictable and painful. You may get into trouble. The devil may bite back. It is true that fighting for human life may get you into hot water. Last week at St. Mary’s in Greenville, we got into hot water.

But remember what G.K.-- Chesterton wrote: “I believe in getting into hot water. It keeps you clean.”

Father Dwight Longenecker is chaplain of St. Joseph’s Catholic School in Greenville, South Carolina.