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Posted June 15, 2004

U.S. Debate on Catholic Politicians Echoes in Vatican

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- The debate in the United States over Communion and Catholic politicians is echoing loud and clear in the Vatican this summer, raising concerns about episcopal unity.

But despite the divergent policies adopted by several U.S. bishops, the Vatican has been slow to intervene, and it may choose not to do so publicly. One reason is that the Vatican does not want to be seen as telling the U.S. bishops what to do.

Another is that Vatican officials do not have easy answers to the questions raised by the debate.

Many at the Vatican would agree that a Catholic politician who supports legal abortion could be denied Communion under church law. But on the question of whether this should be done, Vatican opinion is far from uniform.

And while some say the more aggressive stand by some bishops is a necessary tactic, others draw a different lesson.

"Some of the people at the highest levels (of the Vatican) are quick to point out that this points to the failure on the part of the church to convince people of the truth. Some of them see it almost as an embarrassment that you need to do this," said one Vatican official.

As groups of U.S. bishops have come to Rome on their "ad limina" visits this spring, they have briefed Vatican officials on the Communion issue. Sources said that during his visit in late May Cardinal Francis E. George of Chicago offered an incisive analysis that highlighted some of the complexities involved.

A week later, meeting with a separate group of U.S. bishops ("ad limina" visits are required of all heads of dioceses every five years), Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was asked to provide some guidance or clarification. He gave a nuanced response that came down on the side of caution, according to sources, and then suggested that his doctrinal congregation meet with members of a U.S. bishops' task force studying these questions.

As of June 10, however, no such meeting had been set up, and sources in Rome said not everyone was convinced such an encounter would be useful.

The main reason is that, while the Vatican could spell out the principles involved in the Communion issue, in the end it's up to the bishop to weigh the circumstances and make the judgment. The problem is not the rules, but their application. That involves theological, pastoral and canonical elements, and no Vatican office has sat down and put together a playbook that covers all that.

What the Vatican's doctrinal congregation did do, in late 2002, was issue a "doctrinal note" that, among other things, emphasized the moral duty of Catholic politicians to oppose legislation that allows legal abortion and euthanasia.

But the document didn't speak of sanctions like denying Communion. It didn't speak of sanctions at all -- and that's a point Vatican officials have recently been emphasizing to visiting U.S. bishops.

A main argument of the Vatican's "doctrinal note" was that the church has a right to be heard in the public forum on these important moral issues, and that this should not be considered an intrusion by religion.

But some believe the recent focus on denial of Communion undoes that argument: It seems to suggest that issues like abortion are, in fact, primarily religious or internal church matters -- sacramental rather than moral questions. That point has been raised by at least one bishop in Vatican meetings.

It's a given that the Vatican favors church unity, and prefers that bishops speak with a harmonious voice on public matters as grave as these. But the current debate has also raised the question: What price unity?

In recent years, in fact, the Vatican has sometimes reminded bishops that their duty to speak out boldly and "prophetically" should not be curbed by the consensus-building efforts of bishops' conferences and other assemblies.

Some bishops have felt emboldened by that. Now that a few have spoken out -- courageously or incautiously, depending on one's point of view -- the Vatican is reluctant to stifle them.

"There's probably some hesitancy (at the Vatican) to undercut somebody who may be taking a prophetic stance, even if it's a little bit imperfect or not terribly nuanced," said one Vatican official.

Media coverage of the bishop's pronouncements has added a wild card element to the issue. These days, a bishop's pronouncement reaches far beyond the borders of his diocese; within minutes, it may show up on the TV headline crawl. And if two bishops take different approaches, it's quickly portrayed as a division among church leaders.

Media tend to focus on the harshest statements, too. That may help explain why, although only a handful of U.S. bishops have said Catholic politicians in disagreement on abortion cannot receive Communion, they have received a lot of attention.

Speaking privately, Vatican officials often draw a lot of distinctions in this discussion. They note that there's a difference between denying Communion and asking people to refrain from the sacrament; between threatening excommunication and quietly urging individuals to examine their conscience; or between rejecting the pro-abortion agenda and realizing that a politician's position may not be easily discerned in a single vote.

They are also aware that the church may not gain politically from this debate. According to one recent poll, 71 percent of U.S. voters said the bishops should not pressure Catholic lawmakers on abortion.

"I don't think this is changing the minds of politicians, and I don't know that it's going to sway voters, either. But in terms of prompting Catholics to think about these things, I think it's probably been helpful," said one church official in Rome.