Denying Communion to Politicians

A theologian explains why it's wrong

So Archbishop Raymond Burke of Saint Louis has thrown down the gauntlet, instructing his clergy to refuse prochoice Catholic politicians Communion. In his previous jurisdiction he had done the same, except he included euthanasia in his published bill of particulars. Other bishops have followed suit. For me, such an episcopal move was not a first. In February 1942, in the Netherlands, I watched a daily communicant being refused the sacrament in a scuffle at the Communion rail. I was a sixth grader, an altar boy awed by liturgy, and determined to be a priest.

The Sunday before, at the 7 a.m. Mass, our feisty pastor had sur­prised us. Emerging from the sacristy after the Gospel, he emphat­i­cal­ly read a pastoral letter from the Dutch bishops: any Catholic di­rect­ly or indirectly engaged in identifying Jewish citizens to the occupying German authorities was excommunicated. He repeated his performance at four more Masses; I went every time. Later I heard he had done so to prevent his assistants from being arrested.

One result of the Dutch bishops’ letter was retribution. Within weeks, SS troops were round­ing up Jews who were Catholic converts or associated with Catholics; Jews as­sociated with Protestants were mostly left alone. Nine months later, I found my violin teacher’s apartment sealed-his wife was Catholic; two weeks later, he was killed in Auschwitz. Three months be­fore, St. Benedicta of the Cross, a Carmelite nun better known as Edith Stein, had been murdered there. In 1938, she had fled Germany for the Netherlands in the dead of night.

As soon as I heard about Archbishop Burke’s edict, I thought of those events. But unlike my childhood experience of public episcopal censure, which I found just, his measure I found disproportionate. I needed to figure out why. This piece is the result.

I am not alone in being persuaded that ever since Humanae vitae, Pope Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical on birth control, the Cath­o­lic bishops of the United States have suf­fered a critical loss of pastoral and magisterial authority, among both the la­i­ty and the cler­gy, on matters pertaining to marriage and sexuality. This loss has been de­cisive­ly worsened by the recent clergy sexual-abuse scandal. For Catholic theologians, this must raise a question about the extent to which these events are weakening the uni­ty of the Cath­olic Church in the United States. Under these circum­stances, I will ar­gue, it is imprudent for bishops to push the envelope by threatening Cath­olic pol­i­ti­cians who vote prochoice with refusal of Holy Communion, since the grounds on which the threat is based arguably do not hold up under scrutiny, even if the bishops were enjoying proper authority.

A few preliminaries. Being a Catholic theologian involves both respon­si­bil­ities and privileges. The latter do not include the right to publicly op­pose a bishop’s authority or his motives; the former may involve questioning his pastoral theological wisdom in making particular deci­sions.

My argument with Archbishop Burke’s action is based on two theological sources: the Catholic tradition since at least the Middle Ages, and more recently, the practice of the Catholic faith in the United States. Only at the end will I offer conclusions.

Let me begin with three nontheological remarks. First, in this piece I will not be stating “my opinion.” “Good ideas are a dime a dozen,” as Bernard Lonergan, SJ, used to note caustically-so I dislike theologians’ “opin­ions.” Second, while opin­ions per se guarantee neither truth nor sound judgment, a climate where differing opinions are expressed freely is in­tellectually stimulating; it invites tough questioning. I have personally enjoyed the freedom to express opin­ion in the United States. By contrast to the northern Low Countries’ stern tolerance, American-style tolerance positively welcomes a variety of opinions. So, I am grateful for liv­ing, learning, and teaching in this republic, which, con­sti­tutionally, neither opposes religion nor supports particular religious es­tablishments. I will admit, though, that I occasionally wonder about the current taste for ideology, where opinion can take on the air of absolute truth.

Archbishop Burke writes: “the port of entry for the culture of death in our society has been the abandonment of the respect for the procreative meaning of the conjugal act.” True, but let me add some­thing. Long before Humanae vitae, our public culture was moving toward an acceptance of the enjoyment of the sexual experi­ence per se. Popular psychology, coupled with modern advertising techniques, fa­vored these developments, which, not surprisingly, often lacked depth. Our pub­lic culture now accepts, and indeed encourages, sexual expe­ri­ence without marital commitment or openness to new life. The only life that seems to count (and it hurts to write this) is the “private” lives of individuals who live as they please.

Ever since Humanae vitae, I have been listen­ing to younger and older Catholic couples. Fairly recently this led me to study the encyclical again. In light of the Catholic tradition, Paul VI’s major point was that contraception is not a matter of convenience; rather, it is a fully human-that is, moral-issue. In this regard, contraception differs in kind from our choices of, say, furniture or toothpaste.

But I recall a classroom incident in 1969. A sophomore told me it was Catholic teaching that we must go to confes­sion before receiving Communion. When I told him that this was imprecise, he bristled. It took me a moment to notice his resistance. In due course, I discovered how widely held was the assumption that nearly all people, married and un­mar­ried, were living in mortal sin, since all genital gratification both inside and outside mar­riage constituted such sin. Aquinas had taught it, we were told.

But Aquinas, I found, never treats sinful sexual acts with­in marriage. Was he still following the undivided tradition, where the sexual sins of married cou­ples were nev­er discussed? At least one Orthodox theologian told me: “Our moral the­ology stops at the sanctuary of the marriage bed.”

What, then, is the issue? Among North American Catholics, es­pecially in communities influenced by seventeenth-century Jansen­ism and Puritanism, sexual activity came to be viewed as morally de­lin­quent, except, conceivably, in the context of marriage. But even there, pas­sages from Augustine were regularly quoted, out of context, to prove that there really was no such thing as intercourse without at least ve­ni­al sin. This misrepresentation of Catholic tradition was what lay behind my bristling sophomore’s reaction. Naturally, I had found this climate elsewhere, if not at the same pitch. It was prevalent enough for Vati­can II to insist on the high human (that is, moral) value of faithful sexu­al intimacy and love-the central philosophical and theological theme in John Paul II’s discourses and writings on marriage as well. (Unable to have it any other way, the media have kept insisting that his governing concern is the immorality of contraception.)

Humanae vitae taught that contraception is an intrinsically immoral act; hence, it cannot be commended as “a positively good and human thing to do.” Importantly, though, the encyclical stopped short of teach­ing that every act of marital intimacy blemished by contraception is mortally sinful. Several bishops’ conferences saw this almost immediate­ly, and welcoming the teaching of Humanae vitae, they referred the mar­ried to their consciences-a common Catholic way of suggesting that there is room for venial sin in the practice of sexual intimacy in marriage.

Here we must also recall the history of the contraception issue. In Di­vini il­lius (1928) and Casti connubii (1930), Pius XI left no doubt that unlimited sex­ual liberation was abhorrent. But late in the next pontificate, Pius XII recognized the morality of some forms of planned parenthood. Paul VI de­cided to clarify this precise issue, which he reserved to himself. This, and his assembling a promising ad­vi­so­ry committee, had most Catholics hoping for a simple yes-or-no ruling on contraception. The answer, deeply frustrating at the time, was Hu­ma­­nae vitae, which called contraception immoral. Unfortunately, what fell be­tween the cracks was the question: How immoral? As I have indicated, Humanae vitae implied, without saying so directly, that contraception was not necessarily mortally sinful.

Now let us pass to my second source: the Catholic experience in the United States. Following Humanae vitae, the bishops treated contra­cep­tion as a doctrinal, rather than a pastoral theological, matter-a bad mis­take, in my judgment, which would haunt them. How so? Instead of teach­ing that Christian marriage is a lifelong school of love where no students are ever fully formed, and underscoring the need for the mar­ried to grow in the mature love detailed in Humanae vi­tae, the bish­ops left the married (so to speak) to their own devices. God knows how many couples conscientiously struggled with church teaching, and how many felt they were abandoned by the bishops. Yet the Catholics who visibly bore the brunt of the church’s public, ca­nonical re­jection of contraception were mainly celibates-priests-who were depicted as “dissenters,” Charles Curran being only the most visible. Ever since then, the media has mocked the church for what it reports as (and makes merry over) widespread lay and clerical in­sub­ordina­tion to papal and episcopal control. On top of this came the recent clerical sexual-abuse scandal: under the “leadership” of a hand­ful of pastorally and theologically inept figures-some criminally complicit with a minority of pathological priests-the bishops once again fell short of their pastoral responsibility to the married, their children, and their own priests.

In this situation, where do I stand? As a priest-theologian, I do not worship the church. Rather, I suffer with it, as family members do with family. Nor am I a political agent. I rarely indicate my views on current issues. Blam­ing is as old as the Garden of Eden, and the Christian tradition rejects it. Still, Archbishop Burke’s stand, courageous as it may seem, raises so many doubts about the fit between the great tradition and North Amer­i­can Catholicity that I have resolved to do some theology in public: I ar­gue that withholding sacraments from Catholic politicians is too se­vere a penalty. Why? First, it draws per­ilously close to selective condemnation; public identification of sinners is not a priestly ministry. (Ignatius Loyola is said to have called a Jes­uit on the carpet for criticizing the current pope’s sins from the pulpit; Ignatius told him that we do not publicly discuss the sins of in­dividuals.) Second, it fails in mercy toward a wounded world steeped in sin-but not degenerate down to its root. Third, for Catholics, human life is not the ul­ti­mate norm. Savage as abortion on demand is, it has an upside: some fifteen years after Roe v. Wade I found myself telling students that know­ing they were wanted at birth was a grace; and three years ago, in my hearing, a youngish religious volunteered that a physician had “cautioned” his mother while she was pregnant. Talk about thank­ful­ness for the given gift of life!

One can’t blame the bishops for thinking that they should at least be drawing the line somewhere. Still, I suspect that some may be trying to recoup their authority. If that is the case, I fear they will only be shrugged off further.

This is all the more likely when someone like Archbishop Burke appears to overlook the canonical practice of restrictive application of laws imposing pen­al­ties and limiting freedoms, and the moral practice of distinguishing between formal and merely material cooperation. Accepting evil is not the same thing as approving of it-let alone promoting it. Even logically, being prochoice is not identical with being proabortion. Neither is cowardice nor dodg­ing proof of malice, and hence, not mortally sinful. I know of no Catholic politicians who have purposely sought to positively advance abor­tion; most are op­­posed to it “personally”-a bad choice of words.

Certainly, the ready resort to abortion in this country is a moral horror and a trag­ic lapse, protected by the American system of government. Furthermore, the widespread promotion of con­tra­ceptives as a “solution” strikes me as malign. As the late Cardinal Basil Hume noted, the blind distribution of contraceptives to high school students is “a coun­sel of despair.”

Still, Catholic Christianity holds that no evil in our world is definitive, whether it be the “contraceptive men­tality” described so tellingly by John Paul II, abortion on demand, the legalization of “mer­cy killing,” genocidal acts, or even preparation for nuclear warfare. In such a world, it is indeed difficult to be a Catholic. Yet from Jesus’ execution-theologically speaking, the worst in­justice ever-our endlessly resourceful, merciful God has drawn the greatest good.

Poor, mugwumpian Catholic politicians. They are just sinners of a vis­ible kind-implausible candidates for canonical penalties. In­tim­at­ing that their sin is mortal is not a priestly ministry. Blaming them is to for­get that Augustine called the Donatists brothers, and en­cour­aged his con­gregation to do the same. Far from refusing di­a­logue, he pursued it. The “senior prelates” who vilified Cardinal Joseph Ber­nar­din’s Common Ground Initiative were way out of touch with the tra­dition. They did not sound like God’s Word.

In 1957, a tall, athletic, slightly mischievous Dutch Jesuit priest who is now eighty-nine, inquired of a then twenty-seven-year-old scholastic, too intense for his own and his students’ good: “Can I tell you something?”

The young man replied hesitantly, “Yes.”

Then the older man smiled and said, “Don’t be so pushy with the kids. Remember, God never pushes, He only pulls.” For me, it turned out to be one of those teach­able mo­ments: God’s people are not to be pushed about. 

Published in the 2004-06-04 issue: 

The late Frans Jozef van Beeck, SJ, born in the Netherlands in 1930, was John Cardinal Cody professor emeritus of Loyola University Chicago.

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