Bishops Tackle Issue of Communion for Politicians

WASHINGTON — As America headed into the last month of the presidential race, Catholic leaders and thinkers continued to push the issue of equal protection for unborn children. And bishops and others have made some of the strongest statements yet on whether a Catholic candidate who supports abortion, embryonic stem-cell research or euthanasia should be allowed to receive Communion.

Continuing the debate that began last spring, bishops across the United States weighed in on how Catholics should decide their vote on Nov. 2.

Writing Sept. 17 in The Wall Street Journal, Archbishop John Myers of Newark, N.J., said a candidate's stand in favor of abortion cannot be outweighed by any other issue.

Bishop John Yanta of Amarillo, Texas, said in a column for The West Texas Catholic newspaper that any newspaper that any Catholic politician who continued to support keeping abortion legal after pastoral counseling should be denied Communion.

In Atlanta, Archbishop John Donoghue said a vote intended to “restrict insofar as possible the evil that another candidate might do if elected” could have “a good purpose.” Earlier, he issued a joint letter with two other bishops, telling Catholics “whose beliefs and conduct do not correspond to the Gospel and to Church teaching” not to come to Communion.

And canon law became a hot topic at the National Press Club here, as leading Catholic thinkers took turns tackling the question of refusing Communion to pro-abortion Catholic politicians. The Sept. 16 conference, called “Public Witness/Public Scandal: Faith, Politics and Life Issues,” was broadcast on C-SPAN.

Speakers parsed the implications and impact of enforcing Canon 915, which states: “Those…who obstinately persist in manifest grave sin, are not to be admitted to holy Communion.”

Franciscan Father John Coughlin, a civil and canon lawyer, said Church law obliges bishops to deny Communion to politicians who obstinately refuse to budge from a public position upholding legal abortion despite warnings and efforts to educate them on why their view is contrary to Church teaching. But he said there may be good pastoral reasons for not doing that during an election campaign.

Father Coughlin, a professor at the University of Notre Dame Law School, said recent Vatican documents make it clear that Catholic politicians are in “manifest grave sin” if their voting record “shows a definite pro-abortion or pro-euthanasia position.”

He cited this summer's statement of principles, “Worthiness to Receive Holy Communion,” by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, prefect of the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The statement, he said, is a key document spelling out the theological and canonical principles for the determination that Catholic politicians who support legal abortion are in manifest grave sin, as well as the procedures to be followed by Church authorities for dealing with those politicians.

The cardinal sent the statement in a confidential letter to Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington, head of a task force of U.S. bishops examining that issue, shortly before the bishops’ June special assembly, at which the question was discussed. In early July, the Vatican cardinal's statement was leaked to an Italian magazine.

Attendees at the National Press Club conference agreed that the media misinterpreted part of the statement to support the view that the Church allows Catholics to vote for pro-abortion candidates as long as the voter does not share the candidate's support for abortion rights and there are “proportionate reasons” to support the candidate.

In his column, Archbishop Myers said he found no issue to be proportionate with the 1.3 million abortions performed yearly in the United States, “plus the killing that would take place if public funds were made available for embryo-destructive research.

“What evil could be so grave and widespread as to constitute a ‘proportionate reason’ to support candidates who would preserve and protect the abortion license and even extend it to publicly funded embryo killing in our nation's labs?” the archbishop wrote.

“Certainly, policies on welfare, national security, the war in Iraq, Social Security or taxes, taken singly or in any combination, do not provide a proportionate reason to vote for a pro-abortion candidate,” he added.

Not Just a Catholic Issue

Robert George, McCormick professor of American jurisprudence at Princeton University, laid down some basics in his speech at the conference: “The position that all human beings equally possess fundamental human rights, including the right to life, is the definitely settled teaching of the Catholic Church.”

He reminded the audience that public officials are not obligated to enforce the teaching of the Catholic Church, but to “fulfill the demands of justice” that flow from the principle that every member of the human family, beginning with the embryo, has inherent and equal dignity. The embryo is a person — unlike the sperm and the egg. … Being vulnerable and weak, it needs protection. It deserves the right to life, just like a human being.

“The Church also teaches that it is the solemn obligation of legislators and other public officials to honor and protect the rights of all,” George continued. Those to whom the care of the community is entrusted — above all, those who participate in making the community's laws — have primary responsibility for ensuring that the right to life is embodied in the laws and effectively protected in practice.”

George pointed out that Democratic candidate Sen. John Kerry belongs to a school of thought that concedes embryos are human beings because life begins at conception, but denies that all human beings are persons. George referred to an interview this summer in which ABC News anchor Peter Jennings asked the Democratic presidential candidate, “If you believe that life begins at conception, is even a first-trimester abortion not murder?”

Kerry responded, “No, because it is not the form of life that takes person-hood in the terms that we have judged in the past. It's the beginning of life. Does life begin? Yes, it begins.”

In George's analysis, besides being contrary to Catholic values, the contrived distinction between human beings and persons “makes nonsense” of our commitment to the principle that all human beings are equal: “To believe that some human beings are human non-persons is to reject a core teaching of Catholicism. It is quite literally to break communion with the Church. For someone who has thus broken communion to present himself at the Communion table is … to make of holy Communion a sham.”

To Enforce or Not?

So what should leaders of the Church do about politicians who claim to be in communion with the Church, yet promote abortion?

Newsweek reporter and author reporter and author Kenneth Woodward was the most cautious speaker at the conference, which was hosted by Ave Maria School of Law and Our Sunday Visitor Foundation. Acknowledging that “it is long overdue” for the Church to confront pro-abortion Catholic politicians, he urged the clergy to use a “one-on-one” approach in counseling them.

Woodward does not think the Church should “make public declarations and invent rules” in the middle of a presidential election. More than most speakers, he was concerned about public-opinion polls and perception if Church officials appear to act too “blunt” in sanctioning pro-abortion politicians.

Father Coughlin said “it is a source of scandal for all devout believers” to see politicians receive Communion when they publicly oppose Church teaching on abortion. But he offered a defense of bishops who may not seek to bar dissident politicians from Communion immediately.

“The present absence of agreement among the bishops” could lead a dissenting politician to conclude that the law in question is a lex dubia, or doubtful law, and there is a longstanding canonical principle that a doubtful law does not bind, he said.

He also said that “a sudden enforcement of Canon 915,” after many years of non-enforcement, could give an overall impression of arbitrariness, causing pastoral harm.

“Canon law was never intended to influence an election,” so it might be pastorally prudent to wait until after the upcoming elections to begin the process of educating and warning dissenting politicians. He reminded the audience that when Archbishop Burke acted in Wisconsin, it was not during an election period.

“A bishop must consider the effect on his diocese,” he said.

Noting that Kerry comes from Boston, he said that with the Church in Boston embroiled in two years of turmoil over the clergy sexual-abuse scandal, Boston Archbishop Sean O'Malley “could reasonably conclude that it was not realistic at this time” to begin the process to bar the Democratic presidential candidate from Communion.

He suggested bishops might begin to give dissident politicians notice that “after a certain time” they are going to begin enforcing the provisions of Canon 915 — “outside the context of an election contest” and in the pastoral context of seeking to get dissenting politicians to understand and accept the Church's teaching.

Father Richard John Neuhaus, editor of First Things, declared this to be the most fundamental issue facing the Church in the United States today. He said it is a longstanding scandal that most bishops have tried to evade their responsibility in calling Catholics to account in years past.

“That's the job of bishops,” he said, “to be concerned about spiritual welfare and to make sure the Church's teaching is not fudged or compromised in public.”

Victor Gaetan writes from

Washington, D.C.

CNS Contributed to this report.