Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Communion Wars

If you look at what energizes the Catholic blogosphere today, you would be forgiven for thinking that pro-abortion politicians standing in communion lines is the leading moral issue of the day! It all harks back of course to the right-wing assault on John Kerry in 2004, coordinated by Bush's Catholic allies, including the dynamic duo of Deal Hudson and William Donohue. Now, the issue relates to the newly-elected speaker, Nancy Pelosi. Donald Wuerl, Archbishop of Washington DC, stated clearly that he has no intention of banning Pelosi from receiving communion. Instead, he drew attention to the Church's teaching role. The reaction was predictable. From Amy Welborn, who runs one of the most popular Catholic blogs:
"I think what Archbishop Wuerl and others fail to understand is the impact of things like this on the lay Catholic who is struggling to be a faithful disciple in the world. The message that is sent by silence is strong, in terms of the lay apostolate in the world, in terms of the unity of faith and life."
And Welborn's response was relatively timid. Richard John Neuhaus, whose essay I addressed in part yesterday, had this to say:
"It is understandable that Catholics and others have drawn the conclusion that, for both Wuerl and Egan, bishops of the two most prominent sees in the country, rejecting the Church’s teaching on the human dignity of the unborn child is not a big deal."
Neuhaus also accused Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, Wuerl's immediate predecessor, of misrepresenting a letter sent by Cardinal McCarrick in 2004. Pretty serious charges. I've discussed this letter many times before in different contexts, including the relationship between abortion on one hand, and war and the death penalty on the other; and the conditions under which Catholics can licitly vote for pro-abortion candidates. But now the time has come to address the main point of the letter, the issue of communion. Here is Ratzinger:
"Regarding the grave sin of abortion or euthanasia, when a person’s formal cooperation becomes manifest (understood, in the case of a Catholic politician, as his consistently campaigning and voting for permissive abortion and euthanasia laws), his Pastor should meet with him, instructing him about the Church’s teaching, informing him that he is not to present himself for Holy Communion until he brings to an end the objective situation of sin, and warning him that he will otherwise be denied the Eucharist."
This results directly from the truth that directly-procured abortion is always and everywhere wrong, without recourse to intent or circumstance. It is the taking of innocent life. There can be no "right to take life". In this sense, and only in this sense, is abortion "non-negotiable".

So, what does this mean? First, formal cooperation in evil means something pretty specific. It refers to the proximity of the person to the act of abortion itself. It can be defined as "..when a person or organization freely participates in the action(s) of a principal agent, or shares in the agent’s intention, either for its own sake or as a means to some other goal." According to Ratzinger, in the case of abortion, formal cooperation includes "consistently campaigning and voting for permissive" laws.

Now, this may come as a shock to some American commentators, but perhaps Ratzinger was not just thinking about the United States when he set of these principles. In the United States, the "right" to abortion comes directly from the U.S. Supreme Court. Members of Congress do not typically vote for permissive abortion laws. If anything, legislators are indicted by their rhetoric, if inappropriate. It is therefore really difficult to discern the true intent of a politician in voting for or against a piece of legislation. As blogger M.Z. Forrest notes, "a politician could claim that by enacting a piece of legislation that would be turned down by the courts at this time he would cause harm to justice and not effect the rate of abortion."Cardinal Avery Dulles has also discussed this issue, noting that voting for an appropriations bill that includes some provisions for funding abortions "might arguably be licit if the funding for abortion were only incidental and could not be removed from a bill that was otherwise very desirable." And of course, it is perfectly licit to vote against a Supreme Court nominee that might well vote to overturn Roe v. Wade (but who knows if they actually will?) for other compelling reasons.

Overall, given the source of the abortion "right" in the United States, the proximity of legislators to the act of abortion is automatically diminished. Of course, that does not let them off the hook, especially if they share in the intention of Roe v. Wade that abortion is a "right" and hence something good. But this becomes incredibly difficult to discern. And even when the Church is compelled to deny the Eucharist in a specific case, the guidelines call for it to be done privately, without the fanfare of right-wing Catholics jumping up and down.

Of course, one can argue that persistently lobbying for abortion creates a public scandal. The USCCB statement on the issue makes this point by noting that "to give scandal means more than to cause other people to be shocked or upset by what one does...Rather, one’s action leads someone else to sin.” But does anybody really think that John Kerry or Nancy Pelosi are encouraging others to sin, either directly or indirectly? And what about the public scandal of the Bush administration defending torture for the sake of "security"? And so many other examples spring to mind...

Of course, for Catholics, participation in the Eucharist is a serious issue, not to be taken lightly. And many pro-abortion politicians probably should not participate. Any Catholic can tell you that we are encouraged to partake in the sacrament of reconciliation before receiving communion after committing grave sins. And there are many such sins out there, ranging from murder and abortion through malicious gossip and missing mass. How many of those who receive the Eucharist do so correctly? No, the key issue is coercion, whether people should be refused communion. The line is hard to draw. In Northern Ireland, the Church did not refuse communion to members of Sinn Fein and supporters, even though they supported terrorism. How many known mafia members are turned away in parts of Italy?

If the Church singles out one issue, the abortion issue, it will be seen as politicizing the Eucharist. Cardinal Dulles makes this point when he says that a coercive approach raises the possibility that "people can easily accuse the Church of trying to meddle in the political process, which in this country depends on the free consent of the governed." Moreover, he claims that the Church could be accused of trying to coerce the politicians conscience, and, even worse, risk " alienating judges, legislators and public administrators whose good will is needed for other good programs, such as the support of Catholic education and the care of the poor." No, the correct approach is the non-coercive approach, the teaching approach, and that is favored by both Archbishop Wuerl and Pope Benedict.

For these reasons, the bishops in the United States opted not to deny communion to John Kerry, Nancy Pelosi, or any other politician. There were a few exceptions (you can count them on one hand) and they were heavily criticized by their brother bishops. We should also realize that Wuerl's position on this was a matter of public record long before he was appointed Archbishop of Washington, and that he was chosen by Pope Benedict, who also happens to the the author of the Ratzinger letter. Clearly, some American Catholics seem to know more about the mind of Ratzinger than Ratzinger himself!


Rene Henry said...

It seems obvious to me (and I hope everyone else) that you are deliberately obfuscating the relation of Cardinal Ratzinger’s words with the failure of Wuerl and Egan to be obedient to the directive of the Holy See. No need to confuse formal cooperation in abortion with the actions of abortionists since the Cardinal specifically stated: “understood, in the case of a Catholic politician, as his consistently campaigning and voting for permissive abortion and euthanasia laws.”

Similarly, you deliberately confuse “campaigning and voting” with legalizing abortion; as you yourself state: abortion is legal by virtue of the US Supreme Court decision. The campaigning and voting at issue here are the speeches and votes Catholic senators have made against laws that would restrict abortion-on-demand, such as the “Partial Birth Abortion Law” which practically all the Catholic Senators fought and voted against.

Egan and Wuerl should meet with each of those Catholic members of Congress whose Pastor they are and “instructing him about the Church’s teaching, informing him that he is not to present himself for Holy Communion until he brings to an end the objective situation of sin, and warning him that he will otherwise be denied the Eucharist."

T. Marzen said...

Your comments are well taken. However, the fact is that Pelosi and many others (including Republicans) have not only persistently campaigned in favor of allowing "freedom of choice" (or against criminalization) of abortion, but in favor of public funding and facilitation of abortion (and embryonic stem cell research). The later is most defininately "encouraging others to sin, either directly or indirectly" -- more than this, it is directly aiding in procuring abortion in the same manner as someone who offers to pay for the abortion of another. This is formal cooperation with evil, defined as "when a person or organization freely participates in the action(s) of a principal agent, or shares in the agent’s intention, either for its own sake or as a means to some other goal." Even worse, it compels at least the material cooperation of objecting taxpayers in abortion. Under the very standard that you suggest, therefore, such politicians should be counseled privately and then publicly denied communion if they persist in supporting such legislation.

Fr Joseph O'Leary said...

Delighted to discover your blog -- what a breath of fresh air. The decontextualized moralism of the Catholic right feeds right into the hands of the gross immoralities perpetrated by the Bush administration. The sleek Gonzales is a model of the way morality has been twisted in the US.

Katerina Marie said...

Good post. I agree with the poster above... a breath of fresh air!! Your posts are very insightful and educated, which is hard to find out there.

Michael and I always talk about how right now the issue of abortion laws is primarily on the Supreme Court's hands and they've already had a case with the new justices presented to them and didn't do anything.

I still think is wrong for politicians who have the power to pass or not certain laws to advocate abortion and other laws that do not take into account the essence of humanity and that denial of communion would be one way of showing to the sinner the gravity of the matter. However, if only communion is denied without teaching to complement the act, then it is as good as nothing. I'm not a pastor and I'm not in the group who always thinks that "if they would be bishops, they would do a better job." I think that these are matters that need to be talked in private with the sinner, if you will, and the pastor. Of course, the same people that advocate denial of communion to these politicians and minimize Archbishops Wuerl's stance on the importance of teaching are the same ones that support the deacon for calling out the other politician during the homily. Is the pulpit the right place to fall to the same level of politics or a place to break open God's words and teach the sacredness of human life? Perhaps some want to politicize the pulpit, but that is very far from what pastors of souls (which many forget this title) in the Church have done throughout centuries.

I'm very much frustrated with Catholics who are in the business of criticizing Bishops for everything they do or don't do. At the same times they tend to only focus on single issues separating abortion from all of the other life issues that should matter to us as well. It seems that the pro-life and pro-choice wars have taken primacy over the actual attacks on the human person that we are trying to prevent to the point that we have forgotten what we mean by "pro-life." These Catholics who criticize the Cardinals and the Bishops are the same ones who question the magisterium's position on immigration, war, and death penalty, even though they are very much aligned with centuries of Church teaching on life, especially the 20th century.

Someone in our blog was upset because we quoted the General Instruction of the Roman Missal on the day of penance for the "violation of the human dignity through acts of abortion," because according to this person, abortion is more than that. Yes, it's murder, but perhaps if we look at abortion as a sin committed to the human person, it would be easier to understand other life issues that are not as clear-cut as abortion is.

By the way, I read your comments on Amy's blog and I think on one of your posts where you quoted the holy father on his insistence in not separating all life issues. Where did you get that from? Those are very much needed words.

Thanks for the post.

Morning's Minion said...

Fr, O'Leary and Katarina-- thank you for your kind words.

Katarina-- the quote comes from an address to the Swiss bishops last November. I picked it up from Rocco Palmo. My take is here:

Pertinacious Papist said...

A brilliant whitewash. The decontextualized moralism of the Catholic left feeds right into the hands of the gross immoralities perpetrated by the self-congratulatory liberal consumerist, abortion holocaust-promoting estalishment.

Morning's Minion said...

Interesting comment, given that the purpose of the post is to defend the actions of the US bishops against the nutty and nasty Catholic right. Therefore I assume your complaints apply to the bishops too.

Fr Joseph O'Leary said...

"The decontextualized moralism of the Catholic left"?

I find more of it in the Catholic right -- which holds lofty discussions on just war ethics (the Pope's views are prudential not dogmatic) and torture (not intrinsically evil if you parse Vatican documents closely enough) while carefully avoiding allusion to the real-life context of an obscene and immoral war started by the US in Iraq and the enthusiastic practice and advocacy of torture by the current indecent US Administration.

In its attitude to abortion, the Catholic right is equally decontextualized, since it never refers at all to the concrete problems that a legal ban on abortion would entail. It is irresponsible to scream about "baby-killers" in this wildly decontextualized way.