Politics & Policy

Rites and Wrongs

The politics of communion.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This piece appeared 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.

In January 2003, however, the Vatican issued a “doctrinal note” reiterating the obligation of Catholic politicians to oppose abortion. Days later, the bishop of Sacramento–not the same one as in 1989–told California governor Gray Davis not to receive communion. (A Davis spokesman chided the bishop for “telling the faithful how to practice their faith.”)

This time, other bishops are following. Sean O’Malley, the archbishop of Boston, says that John Kerry should not present himself for communion in his archdiocese. Raymond Burke, archbishop of St. Louis, says the same. New Jersey governor Jim McGreevey agreed not to receive communion after the bishops of Camden, Trenton, and Newark said he shouldn’t. Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver has suggested that Ken Salazar, a candidate for the Senate, is wrong to receive communion while supporting abortion.

The bishops are not of one mind. Cardinal George of Chicago does not favor the denial of communion. Cardinal McCarrick of Washington, D.C., who is heading a task force of American bishops to determine what to do about pro-abortion Catholic politicians, says he is reluctant to use the Eucharist as a “sanction.” The task force will report after the elections.

The argument for denying communion is straightforward. Canon law prohibits communion for anyone who “obstinately persists in manifest grave sin.” Church teaching could not be clearer that taking unborn human life is a grave sin, as is exposing unborn human beings to killing by denying them legal protection. A Catholic politician who votes to allow abortion is acting unjustly, and his priest should explain this to him.

If the politician persists, then he is either deliberately flouting the requirements of justice or denying the authority of the church to outline those requirements. In either case, he is risking his soul and breaking the church’s unity, of which the sacrament of communion is the sign. He is also, by his example, teaching other people, both Catholics and non-Catholics, that a Catholic does not compromise his faithfulness by so voting. He is, in Catholic argot, “giving scandal.” To deny communion is not, pace McCarrick, to use it as a political weapon. The point of the denial is not to punish the politician or even to change his behavior (however welcome that would be). Maintaining the integrity of the sacrament of communion is an important goal in its own right for the church, not a means to an end.

Not everyone sees it this way. Kerry says that church officials should not be telling politicians how to vote. Liberals, including Catholic liberals who themselves favor legal protection for the unborn, wonder why the church is not denying communion to politicians who have voted for the death penalty, or the Iraq war. The left-wing National Catholic Reporter suggests that a pro-choice Kerry who spent money on social programs could reduce abortion more than a nominally pro-life Bush.

The communion-denying bishops have an answer on each point. The church cannot force legislators to vote one way or another, but can say what the spiritual consequences of their votes are. While the church generally opposes the death penalty, it does not believe its imposition to be gravely unjust, as abortion is. It proposes norms to govern the decisions of statesmen regarding war and poverty, but it leaves to them the prudential judgments about what those norms should dictate. The Pope has never said that faithful Catholics may not fight in Iraq, or implement the death penalty. He has said that Catholic doctors may not participate in abortion. And even if some mix of welfare policies brought the abortion rate to zero–a doubtful proposition–the church would still hold the legality of abortion to be an injustice.

Politicians have a special responsibility to promote justice for the unborn. But in principle, any Catholic who lends public support to the cause of legal abortion–a journalist, for example–is giving scandal as well. Nor is abortion the only sin that can, in church teaching, endanger a politician’s soul. In 1962, Archbishop Rummel of New Orleans excommunicated segregationist politicians who had tried to block the integration of church schools.

But communion can be denied to sinning politicians only in clear-cut cases. The bishops support the Federal Marriage Amendment. But they recognize that Catholic politicians can object to that amendment for legitimate reasons. If a politician objects to the amendment because he rejects church teachings on sexual morality and the family, and says so in public, that would be a different matter. But even such a politician would not be committing the kind of injustice involved in legal abortion.

Liberals trying to prove the folly of having the bishops deny communion based on abortion politics have pointed to the example of Sen. Rick Santorum. He is a strong pro-lifer himself, but supported his pro-choice colleague Arlen Specter against a pro-life primary challenger. The liberals ask: Should Santorum not receive communion? A few conservatives, upset by his actions in that race, respond: No, he shouldn’t.

Both sides are overlooking distinctions. Santorum’s responsibilities were very similar to those of the ordinary voter. He was obligated, in choosing his candidate, to take the moral claims of the unborn seriously. If he thought, after serious reflection, that Specter’s primary victory was necessary to keep pro-lifers in control of the Senate, then he could support Specter without committing any sin at all. (I think his judgment was incorrect, as it happens.) The moral obligation is to the unborn, not to particular politicians. Santorum’s conservative critics are arguing themselves into a corner: On their principles, the bishops will have to deny communion to themselves for not denying it to others. The liberals, meanwhile, are sliding toward the view that communion cannot rightly be denied to anyone. Most of their defenses of Kerry on this question would entail the conclusion that Archbishop Rummel was wrong.

Pro-lifers, whether Catholic or not, should be cheered that the church wants its members to take the demands of justice more seriously. But the bishops’ actions are bound to be misunderstood. For one thing, the bishops have been lax in teaching the flock that all grave sins must be repented before communion can be received–so the denial of communion looks more extraordinary than it should. For another, the sex-abuse scandal has made many people less willing to listen to the bishops’ moral pronouncements, even when they are right.

The bishops will also get tagged, unfairly, for partisanship. This year they have criticized only Democratic politicians. That’s not a church policy; it’s a consequence of the decentralization of the church. If the bishop of Albany does not deny communion to the pro-choice Republican governor of New York, George Pataki, other bishops can’t make him.

A formally neutral policy will cause more Democrats than Republicans to be denied communion, of course. But the bishops have to tend the Democrats’ souls, not their careers. For the same reason, the bishops must not be dissuaded by fear of a public backlash to their actions. The bishops have no responsibility to make sure that one candidate or another wins the election. Even if they knew to a certainty that denying communion to Kerry would help his campaign–even if Bush were pleading with them to leave Kerry alone–they would still have to tell Kerry that he is out of communion with the church.

What effect will any of this have on Kerry’s campaign? Catholic swing voters do not tend to be churchgoers, so the bishops may not sway many votes. There may not be much of a backlash, either. Partly that’s because no uniform policy has been announced. Also, the instinctive response of politicians has been to argue with their bishops about what Catholicism does and does not teach. The exchange rarely works in the politician’s favor.

There’s a special problem for John Kerry. As he campaigns around the country, it will always be possible for his aides to find churches where he can receive communion. But each time, it will also be possible for journalists to write stories about the controversy. Kerry is already suffering from the perception that there is a slipperiness to his basic identity. Is he a supporter of the Iraq war or an opponent? Is he a proud Vietnam veteran or a self-confessed war criminal? Now there’s another question: Is he a Catholic or not? That can’t be helpful.

Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor for National Review, a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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