I’m being blasted every which way in my inbox and on the Internet today for being a nutty cafeteria Catholic bitch who loves war and torture and the death penalty. I am told that I should be denied Communion at Catholic Mass for supporting the death penalty and for causing the deaths of innocent Iraqis.
I happen to be opposed to the death penalty — though some horrific cases certainly pose a challenge for me — but that’s not even remotely close to the point here. The point is: Abortion — the assault on the most innocent, on human life and dignity itself – is different.
Ramesh had a good explanation in a piece on John Kerry and the Catholic Church back in the day:
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.
While I’m accused of trying to co-opt religion to fit whatever talking points Karl Rove, or Ed Gillespie, or whomever is handing them out these days sends me, I’m actually doing something quite dramatically different: The Catholic is challenged to take the precepts he (hopefully) learns – on Sunday, in Catholic school, and from the Holy Father speaking on matters of faith and doctrine – and make them a part of his daily life. If he is a religious, teacher, politician, journalist, or otherwise in public life, there’s a special challenge to avoid scandal. If he is a voter, he is to be guided by his faith. Many issues are up to prudential judgments. Some aren’t. Abortion is not up for negotiation. And that’s not simply reading my crazy right-wing fetus-love into my Church.