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Rites and Wrongs
Understanding the communion flap.


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Ramesh Ponnuru

EDITOR’S NOTE: This article appears in the May 31, 2004, issue of National Review.

In one of Abraham Lincoln’s 1860 speeches there is a passage that pours cool scorn on those who claim to think that slavery is wrong, but “denounce all attempts to restrain it”: “You will not let us do a single thing as if it was wrong; there is no place where you will allow it to be even called wrong! . . . We must not call it wrong in politics because that is bringing morality into politics, and we must not call it wrong in the pulpit because that is bringing politics into religion.”

The abortion debate has followed a similar pattern. Anti-abortion politicians are called theocrats. Now Catholic bishops who insist on maintaining the church’s teaching about abortion are being accused of meddling in politics.

Conservative Catholics have long argued that the bishops should deny communion to politicians who support the legality of abortion. But matters are now coming to a head as the Democrats prepare to nominate a presidential candidate who identifies himself as a Catholic but disagrees with his church about the sanctity of human life in its early stages.

The bishops have had time to consider what to do about pro-choice Catholic politicians. It has been 20 years since Mario Cuomo gave a famous speech attempting to legitimate a pro-choice Catholic position. In 1989, the bishop of San Diego attempted to deny communion to a pro-choice legislative candidate, Lucy Killea. But the bishop of Sacramento offered her communion, Killea won her race, and the San Diego example was not followed again. In 1996, Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz of Lincoln, Neb., said that he would excommunicate members of Catholics for a Free Choice. (Excommunication involves not only a denial of communion but sanctions such as the denial of burial on church grounds.) None of his fellow bishops supported him.

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