Copyright (c) 2004 First Things 147 (November 2004): 63-80.
Episcopal Straight Talk
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Episcopal Straight Talk
Last month I discussed the signs of an emerging new leadership within the conference of Catholic bishops. Such signs were evident in the June meeting of the bishops, where efforts to evade or delay taking a clear position on pro-abortion Catholics in public life were decisively turned back.
The statement issued by the June meeting, “Catholics in Political Life,” was not as clear or as firm as the guidelines sent to the bishops for their consideration by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Because of maneuverings by some conference leaders, the bishops were not permitted to take Cardinal Ratzinger’s communication fully into account. Nonetheless, the June statement strongly challenged every bishop to address the grave scandal of Catholic public officials who publicly and persistently defy moral principle and Catholic teaching with respect to the protection of innocent human life.
Since June, many bishops have addressed this question with statements of their own or statements issued jointly with other bishops. Among the more noteworthy statements is that published by Archbishop John Donoghue of Atlanta, Georgia; Bishop Robert Baker of Charleston, South Carolina; and Bishop Peter Jugis of Charlotte, North Carolina. Herewith the full text, entitled “A Manifest Lack of Proper Disposition for Holy Communion,” followed by an observation or three:
As bishops, we have the obligation to teach and guide the Catholic faithful whom we shepherd in the body of Christ. A fundamental teaching of our Church is respect for the sacred gift of life. This teaching flows from the natural law and from divine revelation.
Life is a gift bestowed upon us by God, a truth underscored by the commandment: “You shall not kill” (Deuteronomy 5:17). The Old Testament also teaches us that human life in the womb is precious to God: “I formed you in the womb” (Jeremiah 1:5). The right to life is a value “which no individual, no majority, and no state can ever create, modify, or destroy but must only acknowledge, respect, and promote” (Pope John Paul II, Evangelium Vitae, 71a). A law, therefore, which legitimizes the direct killing of innocent human beings through abortion is intrinsically unjust, since it is directly opposed to the natural law, to God’s revealed commandments, and to the consequent right of every individual to possess life from the moment of conception to the moment of natural death.
Catholics in political life have the responsibility to exemplify in their public service this teaching of the Church and to work for the protection of all innocent life. There can be no contradiction between the values bestowed by baptism and the Catholic faith, and the public expression of those values. Catholic public officials who consistently support abortion on demand are cooperating with evil in a public manner. By supporting pro-abortion legislation they participate in manifest grave sin, a condition which excludes them from admission to Holy Communion as long as they persist in the pro-abortion stance (cf. Canon 915).
Holy Communion is where Catholics meet as a family in Christ, united by a common faith. Every Catholic is responsible for being properly prepared for this profound union with Christ. Participation in Holy Communion requires certain dispositions on the part of the communicant, namely, perseverance in the life of grace and communion in the faith of the Church, in the sacraments and in the hierarchical order of the Church (Pope John Paul II, Ecclesia de Eucharistia, 35-38).
The Church also recognizes that there is a manifest lack of a proper disposition for Holy Communion in those whose outward conduct is “seriously, clearly, and steadfastly contrary” to the Church’s moral teaching (Ecclesia de Eucharistia, 37b). A manifest lack of proper disposition for Holy Communion is found to be present in those who consistently support pro-abortion legislation. Because support for pro-abortion legislation is gravely sinful, such persons should not be admitted to Holy Communion.
We also take this opportunity to address all Catholics whose beliefs and conduct do not correspond to the Gospel and to Church teaching. To receive the great gift of God—the body, blood, soul, and divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ—we must approach Holy Communion free from mortal sin. Those who are conscious of being in a state of grave sin should avail themselves of the sacrament of reconciliation before coming to Holy Communion. To partake of the Eucharist is to partake of Christ himself, and to enter into sacramental communion with our Lord we must all be properly disposed.
Because of the influence that Catholics in public life have on the conduct of our daily lives and on the formation of our nation’s future, we declare that Catholics serving in public life espousing positions contrary to the teaching of the Church on the sanctity and inviolability of human life, especially those running for or elected to public office, are not to be admitted to Holy Communion in any Catholic Church within our jurisdictions: the Archdiocese of Atlanta, the dioceses of Charleston and Charlotte. Only after reconciliation with the Church has occurred, with the knowledge and consent of the local bishop, and public disavowal of former support for procured abortion, will the individual be permitted to approach the sacrament of the Holy Eucharist.
We undertake this action to safeguard the sacred dignity of the most Holy Sacrament of the altar, to reassure the faithful and to save sinners.
In sharp contrast to the above statement by Archbishop Donoghue, et al., some episcopal statements issued since the June meeting have shied away from or categorically rejected the discipline of nonadmission to Holy Communion. These statements typically contain three arguments: 1) The Church cannot judge the state of the soul of anyone coming to the altar; 2) Refusing Communion has the appearance and probable effect of being politically partisan; 3) Refusing Communion undermines the episcopal dialogue with offending politicians for which the June statement rightly calls. These arguments cannot bear close examination.
Regarding the first, the above statement and Cardinal Ratzinger’s guidelines underscore that the question is not about the private state of one’s soul, where decisions must be made in conscience by each person, but is about public and objective sin. For instance, a person may in conscience—albeit a wrongly formed conscience—support racial segregation or the cloning of human beings.
Such a person may be, to use a traditional phrase, invincibly ignorant, suffering from a serious impairment of intellect or will. We should have sympathy for such a person, but that does not change the fact that his position is objectively wrong and sinful. The person who knowingly, publicly, and persistently supports the unlimited abortion license has objectively violated his communio with the Church and excluded himself from the Communion in which that communio is sacramentally enacted. The duty of the ministry of the Church is simply to alert a person to what he has done to himself with respect to the communio of the Church. As for the state of the inner sanctum of his soul, that is for God alone to judge. The decision for the ministers of the Church is about, as the title of the above text puts it, “a manifest lack of proper disposition for Holy Communion.”
The second argument offered by some bishops has an element of truth. Refusing Communion to offending politicians may have the appearance and effect of being politically partisan. But are not bishops who offer this argument the ones who are surrendering the Church’s witness to political partisanship? After all, it is the Democratic Party that has made don’t-give-an-inch support for the abortion license the litmus test for party leadership. Is the Church impotent to protest a great evil because a major political party has embraced that great evil? Moreover, there are more than enough pro-abortion Catholics who are Republican and in urgent need of disciplinary attention from their bishops. The integrity of the Church, her faith, and her sacraments is the proper business of bishops. Attending to political perceptions and consequences, while not unimportant, is nowhere to be found in the rite of episcopal ordination.
The Purpose of Dialogue
Third, there is the matter of dialogue. Dialogue most certainly, but dialogue about what? Dialogue about whether or how moral truth and the Church’s teaching will be changed? Dialogue about whether knowing, public, and persistent rejection of the Church’s teaching is compatible with being in full communion with the Church? These questions have been settled for centuries. One might as usefully dialogue about whether Proust can posthumously be elected pope. (You can no doubt supply your own analogy.) Of course there can be dialogue about why the Church teaches what she does, about why many people, including Catholics, have problems with her teaching, about the exigencies and pressures entailed in the political life, and about much else.
But in this dialogue the bishops are not conducting a free-floating and open-ended seminar. The dialogue is to lead to decision, in the hope of repentance, reconciliation, and amendment of life. It is finally the decision of the public figure, not that of the bishop, that matters. The bishop only acknowledges the decision made and acts accordingly. As Archbishop Donoghue and company put it, “We undertake this action to safeguard the sacred dignity of the most Holy Sacrament of the altar, to reassure the faithful and to save sinners.”
There is a fourth argument that is not made explicitly but is insinuated in some episcopal statements; namely, that abortion is but one of many questions to be taken into account in making political decisions. Presumably, the June statement of the bishops precluded that argument by saying: “It is the teaching of the Catholic Church from the very beginning, founded on her understanding of her Lord’s own witness to the sacredness of human life, that the killing of an unborn child is always intrinsically evil and can never be justified. If those who perform an abortion and those who cooperate willingly in the action are fully aware of the objective evil of what they do, they are guilty of grave sin and thereby separate themselves from God’s grace.
This is the constant and received teaching of the Church. It is, as well, the conviction of many other people of good will.” What is said of abortion cannot be said of other questions currently in dispute in mainstream politics. Yet some bishops persist in suggesting that abortion is but one issue among others. Usually they add that it is the issue that has priority, but then undercut that claim with stringent warnings against “one-issue politics.” No other question currently in dispute in mainstream politics has a comparable bearing on one’s communio with Christ and his Church.
The June statement of the bishops conference, the statement by Donoghue, Baker, and Jugis, plus similar statements by other bishops may denote a historic moment in the American Catholic experience. Battered, bruised, and bloodied by vociferous criticism—deserved and undeserved, but mainly deserved—during the years of the sex-abuse crisis, a majority of bishops are, when faced with another unwelcome test of their leadership, neither cowed nor casting about for clever escapes. They have turned with new resolve to the tasks for which they were ordained. The above statement puts it tersely: “As bishops, we have the obligation to teach and guide the Catholic faithful whom we shepherd in the body of Christ.” With that premise in place, the duties that follow are obvious, if not easy.