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.