The Corner

What Victoria Reggie Kennedy Doesn’t Get

She has an op-ed in the Washington Post on communion that displays a very common misunderstanding, one relevant to non-Catholics as well as Catholics. (That is to say: This specific mistake comes in her thinking about abortion, not her thinking about communion.) She writes, “Essentially, proponents of this harsh penalty make the flawed and intellectually dishonest argument that a vote not to criminalize abortion is the moral and church law equivalent of the act of abortion itself. Then, building on that mischaracterization, they erroneously conclude that pro-choice politicians are ‘obstinately persevering’ in the ‘manifest grave sin’ of abortion and must therefore be denied the Eucharist.”

Leave aside the question of whether the denial of communion is properly understood as a “harsh penalty.” Kennedy seems to think that the communion-deniers are acting as though a legislator who votes to legalize adultery is himself guilty of adultery. But abortion presents a different kind of issue. The act of abortion is wrong. But so is the act of withholding justice from the unborn by denying them a right to life. It is, so to speak, a separate injustice. Even if there were no abortions in America, the legality of abortion would remain an injustice. A legislator who votes to reduce legal protections for the unborn (or votes against efforts to provide them with protections) is himself guilty of an injustice even if he himself is “personally opposed” to abortion. If he voted to make it legal to kill Italians, he would be guilty of injustice even if he himself did not go on to kill any Italians himself. These things are true, obviously, for non-Catholics as well as Catholics.

Kennedy makes the same dumb death-penalty argument that everyone else on her side of the communion argument is making. But in her case, the aforementioned misunderstanding does the key work. It is held to be worse for legislators to vote for the death penalty than for them to vote for legal abortion because their responsibility is more direct in the former case. But their responsibility for the denial of justice to the unborn is direct when they vote to deny it. Add in the fact that the church does not teach that the death penalty is gravely unjust, as abortion is, and her argument collapses. I won’t bother to go into her take on canon law, which isn’t worth anyone’s time.

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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