Communion politics

What do bishops who propose refusing the Eucharist to prochoice politicians hope to accomplish? St. Louis Archbishop Raymond L. Burke has been the most vocal in resorting to this tactic, demanding that Democratic presidential candidate Senator John Kerry not receive Communion in Missouri. In New Jersey three bishops recently issued public warnings, some veiled and some not, to that state’s prochoice Democratic governor, James McGreevey. In a May 5 pastoral letter, Newark Archbishop John J. Myers wrote that prochoice Catholic politicians have “abandoned the full Catholic faith” and thereby separated themselves from the church. “Every faithful Catholic must be not only ‘personally opposed’ to abortion, but also must live that opposition in his or her actions,” Myers wrote. “As voters, Catholics are under an obligation to avoid implicating themselves in abortion, which is one of the gravest injustices....That some Catholics, who claim to believe what the church believes, are willing to allow others to continue directly to kill the innocent is a grave scandal.”

It is not clear whether Myers contacted Governor McGreevey privately about these concerns, as good pastoral practice requires. In any event, McGreevey has graciously acceded to the bishops’ demands, saying he will no longer receive Communion, at least not in public settings. Nor is it clear, at least in Myers’s case, how broadly his condemnation of those who support legalized abortion reaches. His pastoral letter suggests that all Catholics, not just Catholic politicians, who oppose the recriminalization of abortion, or who vote for prochoice politicians, are under a similar obligation to refrain from receiving Communion. On the question of abortion, Myers insists, “there can be no legitimate diversity of opinion” among Catholics.

But of course there is a legitimate diversity of opinion among Catholics on this tortuous question, especially about the legal status of abortion. There is even a difference of opinion among bishops, at least on how the church should deal with Catholic politicians who support abortion rights. Washington’s Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, who heads a committee of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) charged with studying the problem, has said that he doesn’t think the Eucharist should be used as a sanction against prochoice politicians. Bishop Wilton Gregory, president of the USCCB, agrees. Barring someone from Communion should be a last resort, Gregory has said. A careful reading of canon law also suggests that withholding the Eucharist without due process violates a Catholic’s rights.

Cardinal McCarrick’s committee is not scheduled to deliver its recommendations until after the November election, another sign that the vast majority of bishops is skeptical (and rightly so) of demanding that Catholics vote in a certain way, and is resistant to the idea that the church should favor one presidential candidate or one party over another. But the USCCB may not have the luxury of waiting until after the election to make the legitimacy of diverse Catholic opinion better known. Burke and Myers have already captured the headlines and sound bites, prompting many citizens, Catholic and not, to wonder if the church hierarchy is now committed to a campaign against prochoice, meaning mostly Democratic, Catholic politicians. If the USCCB doesn’t act as a body, it will be assumed by many that Burke and Myers speak for the church as a whole. That would spell disaster, much as happened when Cardinal Bernard Law’s egregious handling of sexual abuse in Boston came to be widely, if erroneously, accepted as the measure of the church’s actions nationwide. McCarrick and his committee should speak out soon. The committee need not issue its full report, but it should at least let Catholics and others know that no simple equation can exist between Catholic principles and a vote for any one candidate. If the USCCB is unable or unwilling to act, individual bishops should challenge Myers and Burke on their notion that abortion trumps every other issue when Catholics consider a candidate’s merits. A politician’s views on war, capital punishment, care for the needy, and other life issues must all be weighed in the balance.

Bishops have every right, indeed a duty, to challenge self-identified Catholic politicians, such as Kerry, who dogmatically champion unrestricted abortion rights. The more difficult question, however, is what steps can realistically be taken to end abortion practice as we know it? Here the prudence that has traditionally characterized the Thomistic approach to criminal law can be a guide. The attempt to enforce a law opposed by the majority of citizens is futile, and breeds contempt for the very idea of law itself. Laws that do not reflect a moral consensus are inherently unstable, even unjust, and the police and prosecutorial action of the state in such circumstances will inevitably threaten other liberties. Abortion is a grave moral evil, but it does not follow that it should be criminalized in every instance, or that support for its criminalization is the only moral, let alone the only “authentic” Catholic response. As Aquinas wrote, there are limits to what the criminal law can do to compel virtue. The damage done by the unrestricted abortion franchise cannot be undone by suddenly and broadly recriminalizing the procedure. Respect and protection for the life of the unborn will only be regained gradually.

Does the anathematizing of Kerry and McGreevey by some bishops make it more or less likely that the prolife message will be heard? The question all but answers itself. As the passage of the ban on partial-birth abortion demonstrated, the campaign to restrict abortion has made strides in recent years by patiently informing the public of what abortion, especially late-term abortion, entails. Most Americans now support some restrictions on access to the procedure. At the same time, only a small minority wants to outlaw abortion in every instance. Politics must deal with the possible. Now is not the time to revert to extreme rhetoric and draconian sanctions against those who support abortion rights. Even President George W. Bush, whose prolife credentials are rarely questioned, has acknowledged that “the culture has [not] changed to the extent that the American people or the Congress would totally ban abortions.”

If bishops want to change that culture, they will refrain from banning prochoice politicians from Communion, which in all likelihood will only revive fears of the church’s authoritarian and antidemocratic character. Instead, bishops should patiently continue to make the case that for women, as well as for their unborn children, abortion is a great and unnecessary tragedy. But it is a tragedy that will end only with a change of heart, not just a change in the law.

May 11, 2004

Published in the 2004-05-21 issue: 
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