Lessons from the past?

The Vaughan Monroe generation will remember what follows, gathered from reports in the NY Times.On October 21, 1960, three weeks before the presidential election in the U.S., the bishops of Puerto Rico issued a pastoral letter in which they prohibited Catholics from voting in favor of the party of Governor Muoz Marin. They had earlier helped organize a new political party, the Christian Action party," which the NY Times said was "a coalition of statehood and independence advocates backed by the church hierarchy."According to the Times, "the church says it is entering island politics in assertion of its right to oppose political programs that negate Christian morality. It has long feuded with the Governors party over his advocacy of birth control and sterilization and his partys refusal to allow the islands 500,000 public school pupils time off for religious instruction."Bishop James E. McManus, originally from Brooklyn, who went to Puerto Rico as a Redemptorist missionary and later became bishop of Ponce, said: "Those who knowingly violate the injunction commit sinthe sin of disobedience," even if there is no ecclesiastical penalty. He said that the "whole issue is whether the Bishops may use their spiritual authority to prohibit something that is considered a civil right. He maintained that the Church had such a right, just as it had the power to forbid other civil rights such as divorce, sterilization and abortion. If a party puts heresy in its platform the church has the right to forbid the people from participating in that heresy, he declared. Voting for a heresy is the same as participating in a heresyin an evil."The chancellor of the diocese of Ponce said later that "anyone who publicly supported the party could be excommunicated." Any Catholic commits a grave sin if he votes for the Popular party because the prohibition of the Bishops is based on grave matters of conscience. Any Catholic who preaches or publicly supports the program of the Popular Democratic party with its heretical content, not only commits a mortal sin, but also can be excommunicated according to Canon 2316. Let the leader of the Popular Democratic party take note of that." Bishop McManus later said that excommunication was not envisaged.Cardinal Cushing "said that to dictate the political voting of citizens in the U.S. would be totally out of step with the American tradition." Cardinal Spellman said that he did not think any sin would be involved if a Catholic were to ignore the bishops directive. The archbishop of San Juan, James P. Davis, said that the Bishops statement "was not a political document, but one dealing with a moral question, because voting is a moral and human act." He did not think that their action should have any implications for the presidential election in the US, because US democracy was much more mature than Puerto Rican. Archbishop Egidio Vagnozzi, Apostolic Delegate to the U.S. "expressed confidence that the Catholic bishops of the United States would never take a position similar to that of the Puerto Rican bishops."A second pastoral letter from the bishops of Puerto Rico defended the first one and said that its prohibition extended to voting for any party that backed "godless morality."Muoz Marin won the election by 58% of the vote, down from 62% in 1956; the bishops Christian Action party received only 6.5% of the vote, not enough to qualify it as a recognized political party. Continuing the quarrel, the rector of the cathedral in San Juan requested that anyone who had publicly disobeyed the bishops letters refrain from receiving communion. "If you sin, you have to confessits as simple as that," the priest said." In response the woman Mayor of San Juan "said she would contest her pastors right to deny her Holy Communion because of the way she had voted in the Nov. 8 election." A circular letter from the archdiocese of San Juan then threatened canonical sanctions against those who had disobeyed the bishops, but Archbishop Davis said that the letter had gone out without his authorization and that no canonical penalties or sanctions would be imposed and no one was to be refused the sacraments.Here is how Time wrote up the last act: http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,895098,00.html

Rev. Joseph A. Komonchak, professor emeritus of the School of Theology and Religious Studies at the Catholic University of America, is a retired priest of the Archdiocese of New York.

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