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In and Out of Communion
A sacramental moment in politics.


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Beginning yesterday, the U.S. Catholic bishops are gathering in Colorado for a private early summer retreat. It is not likely to be as private as they had hoped. For years the bishops have allowed a political/moral problem to fester–that of Catholic legislators supporting abortion in law and culture.

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This year, the press is hot in pursuit of bishops, and is focused on one particular dilemma: Will the bishops dare to demand that Catholic legislators who receive Communion show publicly in their actions that they are in communion with the Church’s teaching on life? Or will they punt? And will the pope soon intervene, if the U.S. bishops do not live up to their responsibilities?

Freedom of Choice

In Catholic thought, political leaders have an unusually high and noble vocation. They are stewards over the common good of the whole society. The model the Church sets before them is very high, the life and death of St. Thomas More. To maintain his fidelity to the communion of all Catholics, that good man was obliged to give up not only his chancellorship, but his head. That is a pretty sobering model, both for legislators–and for their pastors. The stakes are pretty high.

A good many of today’s legislators, including many Democrats but also a good number of prominent Republicans (Pataki and Giuliani in New York, for instance) would like matters to be a little different. They would like to go along with the prevalent opinions in their own electoral world, even when that course implicates them in support for abortion. They would like to do that, and still hold themselves free to approach the Table of the Lord to partake of the Body and Blood and Christ.

Now, of course, in Catholic teaching every person must follow the verdict of his or her own conscience, even if that means breaking communion with the teaching of the Church. The Church is for free women and men, not for slaves. But this freedom, in those few matters that are as important as the taking of innocent life in abortion, does confront the legislator with a choice: either to remain in communion or to leave.

But many legislators today have grown accustomed to a much more cuddly world than that. Even legislators who almost never vote to extend the protections of life, but almost always to defend the reign of abortion, go to church and receive Communion at the Table of the Lord. And they do so without being challenged in the least, as though that is a perfectly acceptable witness.

Sacramental Responsibilities

In other words, even though such pro-abortion Catholic legislators are OUT OF COMMUNION with the Church in the abortion project, they really do like appearing to remain IN COMMUNION with the rest of the Church at the most sacred Table of the Lord. Some have even persuaded themselves that abortion is a perfectly acceptable option for Catholics to support. The silence and indirection of the bishops during the past 20 years convinces them that this is so. Although in recent years the bishops have been tightening their focus on abortion, they have tended to list abortion with just war, capital punishment, higher welfare spending for the poor, and many other issues. Just one among many issues for prudential judgment.

It is true that Church leaders–in the particular case, their local bishop–might have a good reason to allow the self-deception of legislators to continue, lest greater harm be caused by open confrontation. But when matters snowball until it is no longer a case of the single political leader, but 20, then 30, then 60, Catholic teaching on abortion as in intrinsic evil appears vacuous. The people in the pews start to believe that the bishops are not serious about “old” Catholic teaching. Faithful Catholics who know better see that the courage of their bishops is on empty.

The reason for the existence of the Catholic Church is to be faithful to the teachings of Christ, and to administer seriously the sacraments that bring everyday union with Him, much as the Eucharist is like daily bread.

To misuse these sacraments of union–to make them signs of disunion–is to destroy that fidelity, or at a minimum to do it grave injury.

If the bishops allow those political leaders who help make abortion a major institution of American law, politics, and culture to make a show of being faithful to the teaching and sacraments of Jesus Christ, they have emptied the Catholic Church of moral seriousness.

By not confronting the powerful of this world, they will have weakened the resistance of the weak. They will have failed in all three of their essential duties as bishops–to teach, to sanctify, and to oversee. They will have made the institution of the Church seem pointless. They will have made bishops seem to be vain flatterers of public passions.

I don’t think Pope John Paul II is going to allow American bishops to continue to cave in as they have done for the last 30 years. Or to pretend that abortion belongs on the same level as other issues. The Church in the U.S. is too important to Catholicism. It is in many ways the Church’s intellectual leader and its leader in energy and drive. The American Church cannot be allowed to lose its sole reason for being. If current bishops cannot do the job, better must eventually be found.

If you doubt me about the pope, look at his recent encyclicals and discourses–including, for instance, paragraphs 82 and 90 of The Gospel of Life. The pope is a fighter, and he believes bishops ought to be, too. And Catholic legislators, too. He was the one who assigned Thomas More as their model.

Examination of Conscience

Some questions recur every time this issue comes up. (1) Can’t a Catholic legislator say, “I am opposed to abortion, but in favor of choice, even if the choice is the ‘right’ to an abortion?” Not if they hold that killing an innocent human individual is against natural rights. No individual has the right to kill another human individual, under the natural rights contract. There is nothing specifically Catholic about arguments against abortion, because abortion kills innocent life. That violates both reason and natural rights. Not Catholic “dogma” but natural law is here in play.

The great Lincoln-Douglas debates regarding slavery were mostly about the right to choose. How, Lincoln argued, can there be a right to choose to bind another man over into slavery? No one has a right to choose that. And we add today, no one has a right to choose to abort another human individual’s life.

(2) How can a Catholic legislator impose Catholic teaching on non-Catholics? As we have just seen, abortion is not a matter of Catholic teaching but of reason and natural law. And it is normal for wise leaders to lead. That is, to make arguments for views that their constituents do not now share, but might well come to.

(3) Is the communion rail the best place to draw the line? A far better tack would be for bishops to present clearer, more public, more insistent teaching on the duties the Church expects of any politician who uses the label “Catholic,” and especially if that person is publicly seen at Catholic worship. A high standard of “truth in advertising” must be met. Any man or woman is free to follow conscience as it directs, but no one is free to support the deliberate taking of innocent life in abortion and then call that “Catholic.” To be complicit in the law and culture that encourages abortion is to step out of communion with the Catholic faith.

(4) Don’t the practicalities of electoral politics sometimes make it necessary for a legislator to support the convictions of his constituents, even if he is “personally opposed” to them? Generally, the public respects legislators who explain their own conscience on a particular point and follow it, even if it goes against the public. There are other issues on which the public can count on their representative’s agreement with them.

Besides, specious rationalizations must be said publicly to be specious. No Catholic politician can honestly say “I am personally opposed to abortion, but…,” unless she shows evidence of her own public efforts on behalf of pro-life causes, and makes public arguments against abortion. Otherwise, what does “personally opposed” mean? Political leaders have an obligation to lead, to argue, to teach, even when they cannot just now gain a majority.

Governor Mario Cuomo, for instance, when the New York assembly and senate voted for capital punishment in New York State, not only argued against their position on largely moral grounds (“bad and unfair,” “debasing,” “degenerate,” “kills innocent people”), but vetoed the bill. He went against the public. He taught, he laid out arguments, he led. He deserves credit for that, even if you don’t think he led in the correct direction.

This is what bishops have a right to expect Catholic political leaders to do in opposition to abortion. Politicians cannot say that they are merely against abortion “personally,” they have an obligation to make in public the arguments that convince them personally. They must lead the people toward the eventual extinction of this dreadful and disgusting practice. Perhaps the time is not now ripe for success in this venture, but that time is certainly coming. If Catholic legislators cannot convince a majority, perhaps they can at least advance the debate a notch or two.

(5) But why do the bishops seem to differ among themselves? America is a large country, and a rural diocese in Nebraska may differ greatly from those in the New York metropolitan area. The demographics of Seattle are quite different from those of Albuquerque. So individual bishops will have to use prudence in deciding how best to teach, and give good example, and prevent scandal, in their own particular dioceses. This may allow for considerable variation in the public discipline exercised in American dioceses. Variation is normal, and as it should be. For all, however, the aim is full communion with the Church, and for each the test is: By your fruits, you will be known.

(6) Why is this question arising only now? Since about a decade after Roe v. Wade, when the Democratic party began centering its own rules of “full communion” more and more on full support for abortion, a great many Catholic bishops have been asleep on the watch. The moral tide was rising up their legs, and they did not block it, or try to redirect it, or even raise insistent warnings about its dangerous challenge to the Church. They allowed many Catholic political leaders (of both parties) to drift into accommodation with evil.

Necessity of Leadership

Of course, intelligent political leaders should have known on their own what was happening around them. They shouldn’t need bishops to tell them what was blowing in the wind. Their own faith–their own mental dissonance–should have awakened them. But self-deception is always more comfortable in the beginning than facing a hard choice. The bishops allowed them to drift undisturbed, so they did.

As a matter of principle, it would be far better if lay Catholics had the discipline to police themselves by mutual argument, by joshing each other, by barbed riposte, without needing bishops to awaken them to their own responsibilities. In a much better world than this, bishops would have little or no prodding to do, and people would be on their own toes all the time all by themselves. In that kind of world, we wouldn’t need checks and balances in government, exams in school, cops, or even soldiers. The world, alas, has never seemed to work that way. At times, we all seem to need a nudge from outside.

It is true that some Catholic Republicans in the Congress are complicit with abortion, but most are pro-life, whereas most Catholic Democrats in the Congress at this time vote pro-abortion. The current difficulty for the Catholic Church is not partisan, but it must be said that most of the rub is coming on one side. The Democratic party need not have brought this crisis upon one of its largest and most faithful constituencies. By being pushovers the bishops have for 30 years allowed them to do so.

That time has now passed. The bishops, it appears, are going to be bishops.

Michael Novak is the winner of the 1994 Templeton Prize for progress in religion and the George Frederick Jewett Scholar in Religion, Philosophy, and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute. Novak’s own website is www.michaelnovak.net.



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