Michael Gaynor
May 20, 2007
The Pope, pro-abortion politicians, Holy Communion, and self-excommunication
By Michael Gaynor

Pope Benedict XVI on pro-abortion Mexican legislators:

"[E]xcommunication...is allowed by Canon (church) law which says that the killing of an innocent child is incompatible with receiving communion, which is receiving the body of Christ.

"'They (Mexican Church leaders) did nothing new, surprising or arbitrary. They simply announced publicly what is contained in the law of the Church...which expresses our appreciation for life and that human individuality, human personality is present from the first moment (of life)."

Like a pro-abortion "Catholic" politician presenting himself or herself for Holy Communion, knowingly giving Holy Communion to a pro-abortion politician is a public scandal, not a reasonable political favor, even if the pro-abortion politician considers the receipt of Holy Communion a great photo opportunity and is willing to receive Holy Communion with impunity. With most of the self-described Catholics running for President supporting abortion, the sooner America's Catholic bishops all enforce canon law, the better.

In May of 2004, Catholic theologian and Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center George Weigel, in an article entitled "The Kerry challenge," addressed the problem of a prominent politician publicly posing as a faithful Catholic while public flouting fundamental Catholic teaching.

Mr. Weigel explained what then Democrat presidential hopeful John Kerry was doing and why it was deceptive political advertising as well as a public scandal in the eyes of the Catholic Church:

"During his campaign for the presidency, Senator John Kerry has tried in various ways to square his self-description as a 'believing and practicing Catholic' with his unalloyed record of support for abortion-on-demand, including partial birth abortion. Perhaps the senator's most succinct statement of his case came in St. Louis this past January: 'What I believe personally as a Catholic as an article of faith is an article of faith...(But it is not) appropriate in the United States for a legislator to legislate personal religious beliefs for the rest of the country.'

"In other words, Senator Kerry believes that the Catholic Church's pro-life position is a sectarian position, whose imposition on a pluralistic society would be constitutionally unwarranted something like the Catholic Church trying to force all Americans to abstain from hot dogs on Fridays during Lent.

"This is simply not true. For the past thirty-one years, the Catholic bishops of the United States have made public arguments that can be engaged by any serious person on behalf of the right to life. You don't have to believe in Petrine primacy, seven sacraments, or the two natures of Christ to engage the Catholic pro-life argument; you don't even have to believe in God. You simply have to be willing to take elementary embryology and elementary logic seriously. For the senator to suggest that the Church's position is sectarian is either woefully ignorant or deliberately mendacious."

Mr. Weigel appealed to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops:

"The bishops of the United States must address this sorry misrepresentation of their teaching soon, crisply, and preferably as a united body.

"Leaving this distortion of the nature of the Church's pro-life position unchallenged would have several serious consequences. It would further corrupt the public debate, which would decay into a non-argument between mis-named 'sectarians' and misguided 'pluralists.' The bishops have done the entire country a great service these past thirty years by using a vocabulary in defense of the dignity of life that everyone, irrespective of religious convictions, can understand. If that genuinely ecumenical, public approach is successfully labeled 'sectarian' and by a Catholic, no less lasting damage will be done to our political culture."

Mr. Weigel professed concerned for the Democrat Party:

"The future of the Democratic Party is also at stake. If Senator Kerry's misrepresentation of the Church's pro-life position as sectarian is allowed to go unchallenged, the bishops will further marginalize pro-life Democrats like Michigan Congressman Bart Stupak, who will be de facto sectarians in their own party. What slim hopes there are for transforming the Democratic Party into a party where pro-lifers can be comfortable will be dashed, perhaps for good."

Mr. Weigel also worried about the fate of America's judiciary in general and Catholic judicial nominees in particular:

"Leaving Kerry's misrepresentation unclarified and unchallenged will put Catholic judicial nominees of both parties in jeopardy. It was precisely the spurious charge of sectarianism that Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY) tried to hang on pro-life Alabama attorney general Bill Pryor last year in order to stall Pryor's nomination to the federal appellate bench. Unless the bishops publicly correct Kerry's misrepresentations, more of this sort of Catholic-bashing is inevitable."

About America's bishops themselves, Mr. Weigel worried too:

"Finally, there is the question of the bishops' own credibility. The last two and a half years have taught us that faithful Catholics want clear episcopal leadership and courageous episcopal teaching. If the bishops fail to challenge Kerry's misrepresentation of a position in which the bishops' conference has invested thirty years of hard and effective work, the damage to the conference's already eroded credibility will be very bad indeed."

Mr. Weigel'srecommendation: "The bishops must insist, publicly, that descriptions of the Church's pro-life position as sectarian are false and unacceptable; so must the bishops' staff. And sooner rather than later, please."

On June 14, 2004, Marc Balestrieri, a young canon lawyer, did more that urge. He boldly filed a Denunciation for Heresy and a complaint for reparation of harm in the Ecclesiastical Court of the Archdiocese of Boston against Senator Kerry in an effort to protect the faithful from the soul and life-threatening harm caused by the public violation of Canon 750, par. 1 of the Code of Canon Law. This canon, in essence, forbids every Catholic from publicly denying a core tenet of the Catholic Faith. When a Catholic publicly supports the right to choose abortion, Mr. Balestrieri asserted, he adheres to the Right-to-Murder Heresy, more commonly known as the "Right to Choose" error. (The proceeding is pending, and on September 11, 2004, Mr. Balestrieri initiated proceedings against Senator Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts, former Governor Mario Cuomo of New York, Senator Thomas Harkin of Iowa and Senator Susan Collins of Maine, also pending.)

In June of 2004, in "A Primer on the Holy Communion Controversy," Mr. Weigel lamented that "[t]he debate over the reception of Holy Communion by Catholic politicians who persistently support permissive abortion laws continues" and set forth four questions and suggested answers:

"1. Who should examine their conscience during this debate?

"We all should.

"As the U.S. bishops said in their recent statement, '...like every Catholic generation before us, we must be guided by the words of St. Paul: "Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the Body and Blood of the Lord" (1 Cor 11:27). This means that all must examine their consciences as to their worthiness to receive the Body and Blood of Christ. This examination includes fidelity to the moral teaching of the Church in personal and public life.'

"It is an ancient (if frequently forgotten) teaching of the Church that we ought not receive Holy Communion simply because we are present at Mass. If we are not 'properly disposed,' if we are not in communion with Christ and with his Body, the Church, we should refrain from receiving Holy Communion. Our own integrity requires that.

"2. Does supporting permissive abortion laws damage one's communion with the Church?

"Yes, it does.

"The encyclical Evangelium Vitae teaches that 'there is a grave and clear obligation to oppose' intrinsically unjust laws, including laws that make abortion (and euthanasia) possible. No Catholic can simply say, 'The Supreme Court has decided the issue.' The Supreme Court got it wrong in Dred Scott, when it declared Americans of African descent legal non-persons. The Supreme Court got it wrong again in Roe v. Wade and Casey v. Planned Parenthood, when it left an entire class of human beings vulnerable to lethal violence by denying them basic legal protection. As Evangelium Vitae states, 'cooperation' with the grave evil of abortion for example, by voting to uphold permissive abortion laws, or by supporting candidates who favor permissive abortion laws precisely because the candidate in question takes that position 'can never be justified, either by invoking respect for the freedom of others or by appealing to the fact that civil law permits it or requires it.'

"And, to repeat, if one is in a state of damaged communion with the Church, one's own integrity requires that one refrain from receiving Holy Communion. Anything else is a dishonest presentation of self before Christ and the Church.

"3. What are the local bishop's responsibilities toward Catholic politicians who support permissive abortion laws?

"As the bishops said in June, their first responsibility is to teach the truth of Catholic faith fully and unambiguously. This requires, they continue, 'more effective ... engagement with all public officials, especially Catholic public officials.' Translated into plain English, 'engagement' means that every local bishop has a solemn obligation to inform Catholic politicians of the settled nature of the Church's teaching on abortion; to challenge any suggestion by politicians that this teaching is 'sectarian;' and to urge public officials to conversion of heart, mind, and behavior, if they are acting contrary to the truth that innocent human life is inviolable. If obstinate resistance continues, each local bishop has other remedies available.

"4. What about the many other issues involving the sanctity of life?

"Issues like capital punishment and war-and-peace certainly do touch on grave questions of the sanctity of life. The abortion question is different, however. Evangelium Vitae, the U.S. bishops' 1998 statement on 'Living the Gospel of Life,' and the 2002 'Doctrinal Note' from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith all plainly teach that there is no legitimate diversity of opinion on abortion and euthanasia within the communion of the Catholic Church, because these acts always involve the willful taking of innocent human life, which is always a grave evil. Thus neither citizens nor politicians get a pass on abortion because they oppose capital punishment and support non-military solutions to international conflict."

In his brief article, Mr. Weigel did not "translate into English" the "other remedies available" to bishops dealing with obstinate people who profess to be Catholic (including prominent politicians."

Fortunately, it WAS done by now Pope Benedict XVI, then Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, in a memorandum to Cardinal McCarrick and Bishop Wilton Gregory, then president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, on the "General Principles" with respect to "Worthiness to Receive Holy Communion."

In that memorandum, delivered as guidance for the meeting of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in June pf 2004, then Cardinal Ratzinger, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith since 1981, stated succinctly, emphatically and unambiguously as follows:

"4. Apart from an individual's judgement about his worthiness to present himself to receive the Holy Eucharist, the minister of Holy Communion may find himself in the situation where he must refuse to distribute Holy Communion to someone, such as in cases of a declared excommunication, a declared interdict, or an obstinate persistence in manifest grave sin (cf. can. 915).

"5. Regarding the grave sin of abortion or euthanasia, when a person's formal cooperation becomes manifest (understood, in the case of a Catholic politician, as his consistently campaigning and voting for permissive abortion and euthanasia laws), his Pastor should meet with him, instructing him about the Church's teaching, informing him that he is not to present himself for Holy Communion until he brings to an end the objective situation of sin, and warning him that he will otherwise be denied the Eucharist.

"6. When 'these precautionary measures have not had their effect or in which they were not possible,' and the person in question, with obstinate persistence, still presents himself to receive the Holy Eucharist, 'the minister of Holy Communion must refuse to distribute it' (cf. Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts Declaration 'Holy Communion and Divorced, Civilly Remarried Catholics' [2002], nos. 3-4). This decision, properly speaking, is not a sanction or a penalty. Nor is the minister of Holy Communion passing judgement on the person's subjective guilt, but rather is reacting to the person's public unworthiness to receive Holy Communion due to an objective situation of sin."

The Conference instead voted for an "each bishop decides for his diocese" approach, with 183 of 189 voting in favor.

But that is NOT consistent with what now Pope Benedict XVI said or canon law, much less suitable for a universal church. Whether a prominent "Catholic" politician who supports abortion as a permissible choice instead of the fundamental tenets of the Catholic faith should be permitted to receive Holy Communion is not supposed to depend upon geography, whim or the personal political preferences of individual bishops. Denial of Holy Communion is obligatory "regarding the grave sin of abortion or euthanasia," regardless of whether it is politically palatable or personally comfortable for the person distributing Holy Communion.

America's Catholic clergy need to follow Christ and canon law, not to coddle, cooperate with or kowtow to powerful nominally Catholic pro-abortion politicians.

As Archbishop Raymond L. Burke put it in his statement on Catholic Politicians and Bishops made on June 17, 2004: "Right reason...tells us that a bishop, if he truly cares for the flock, must admonish Catholic politicians 'who choose to depart from church teaching on the inviolability of human life in their public life' regarding 'the consequences for their own spiritual well being, as well as the scandal they risk by leading others into serious sin' (Living the Gospel of Life, No. 32)." In addition, "if the Catholic politician does not recognize the lack of the proper disposition to receive Communion, then the church herself must refuse the sacrament, in order to safeguard the worthy reception of the sacrament and to prevent a serious scandal among the faithful."

Because, in the words of Archbishop Burke: "For a bishop or any pastor to exclude someone from Communion is always a source of great sorrow....What would be profoundly more sorrowful would be the failure of a bishop to call a soul to conversion, the failure to protect the flock from scandal and the failure to safeguard the worthy reception of Communion."

© Michael Gaynor

 

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Michael Gaynor

Michael J. Gaynor has been practicing law in New York since 1973. A former partner at Fulton, Duncombe & Rowe and Gaynor & Bass, he is a solo practitioner admitted to practice in New York state and federal courts and an Association of the Bar of the City of New York member... (more)

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