Illinois has eliminated protections for unborn human beings, even late in pregnancy, and mandated insurance coverage of abortion. Some of the officials who voted for the law are Catholics, and Bishop Thomas Paprocki of Springfield has argued that they should not receive communion. Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago agrees with Paprocki that the law is gravely unjust: “It says that human life is cheap,” he told the Catholic News Agency. But he disagrees about communion.
“I think it would be counterproductive to impose sanctions, simply because they don’t change anybody’s minds, but it also takes away from the fact that an elected official has to deal with the judgment seat of God, not just the judgment seat of a bishop. I think that’s much more powerful,” Cupich told CNA.
“I have always approached the issue saying that the bishop’s primary responsibility is to teach, and I will continue to do that.”
I think the cardinal has erred, falling prey to certain misconceptions that have plagued the long-running debate about communion for Catholics who support legal (and often subsidized) abortion.
He errs because canon law does not appear to make the denial of communion a matter of discretion. It says that no one who obstinately persists in manifest grave sin may receive communion. Unrepented grave sin breaks the unity of the Church, of which communion is the sign. Typically a priest will not know if a parishioner in the communion line at Mass has committed a grave sin for which he has not repented. Voting in the legislature to expose unborn children to lethal violence is, however, a highly public sin, and a priest should at the very least advise someone who has committed it not to present himself for communion.
Cupich errs because he seems to be thinking of the denial of communion as a punishment designed to induce certain behavior on the part of those on whom it is inflicted. This is the wrong way to think about it. The point of withholding communion is not to punish the sinner nor to get him to change his ways — even though change on his part is of course desirable, most importantly for the sake of his own soul. The point, rather, is to protect the integrity of the Eucharist.
A Catholic bishop or cardinal might apply his own judgment to go further, as Archbishop Joseph Rummel of New Orleans did in 1962, excommunicating three public figures who were resisting the desegregation of parochial schools. (The three were forbidden to receive sacraments and even to be buried on Church grounds until they recanted.) But the withholding of communion in cases of obstinate persistence in manifold grave sin appears to be mandatory.
He errs because the goal of protecting the Eucharist is not subject to calculations about political consequences. Even if the denial of communion were absolutely guaranteed to be “counterproductive” – to cause the politician to harden his heart against the Church and its teaching, to make voters sympathetic to his stance — it would still be obligatory.
The cardinal errs, finally, because he takes too narrow a view of his teaching role. He teaches through his words, including his very welcome words of condemnation of the unjust Illinois law. But priests also teach — about the seriousness of the sins that law involves and about the Church’s understanding of communion — through their actions, especially their sacramental actions.
As politically fraught and personally wrenching though it may be to insist that politicians — and others who have in public joined their will to the denial of ordinary legal protections against homicide for subcategories of people – may not receive communion, Cardinal Cupich should carefully consider that it is, as it seems to me inarguably to be, his duty.