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Posted July 8, 2004

Cardinal Ratzinger lays out principles
on denying Communion, voting

By John Thavis
Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- In a recent memorandum, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger laid out the principles under which bishops or other ministers may deny Communion to Catholic politicians who consistently promote legal abortion.

At the same time, he said it is not necessarily sinful for Catholics to vote for politicians who support abortion, as long as they are voting for that candidate for other reasons.

Cardinal Ratzinger, head of the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, sent the six-point memorandum to Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick of Washington, who heads an episcopal task force on Catholic politicians. It was designed to offer guidance to the U.S. bishops when they discussed the Communion/abortion issue at their mid-June meeting near Denver.

The text of Cardinal Ratzinger's memorandum was published online July 3 by the Italian magazine L'Espresso, and a Vatican official said it was authentic. But it apparently was accompanied by a cover letter that has not been published.

Cardinal McCarrick said in a statement July 6 that L'Espresso's story was the result of an "incomplete and partial leak" that did not reflect Cardinal Ratzinger's full advice to the U.S. bishops.

The cardinal said he would not release Cardinal Ratzinger's "written materials" because the cardinal asked him not to.

"Through this continuing process, the Holy See has constantly emphasized it is up to our bishops' conference to discuss and determine how best to apply the relevant principles and for individual bishops to make prudent pastoral judgments in our own circumstance," Cardinal McCarrick said.

Cardinal Ratzinger's comments on Catholic voters -- in private communication briefly outlining principles for consideration rather than exploring them in depth -- came at the end of the memorandum. It touched on an evolving issue that is important to many Catholics during the 2004 presidential election campaign: The presumptive Democratic candidate, John Kerry, is a Catholic who supports legal abortion.

Two U.S. bishops -- Archbishop Raymond L. Burke of St. Louis and Bishop Michael J. Sheridan of Colorado Springs -- recently said that Catholics who knowingly vote for pro-abortion politicians would be committing a grave sin.

Cardinal Ratzinger's note underlined the principles involved for the Catholic voter.

"A Catholic would be guilty of formal cooperation in evil, and so unworthy to present himself for holy Communion, if he were to deliberately vote for a candidate precisely because of the candidate's permissive stand on abortion and/or euthanasia," Cardinal Ratzinger wrote.

"When a Catholic does not share a candidate's stand in favor of abortion and/or euthanasia, but votes for that candidate for other reasons, it is considered remote material cooperation, which can be permitted in the presence of proportionate reasons," he said.

In other words, if a Catholic thinks a candidate's positions on other issues outweigh the difference on abortion, a vote for that candidate would not be considered sinful.

On the question of Communion for Catholic politicians, Cardinal Ratzinger outlined a process of pastoral guidance and correction for politicians who consistently promote legal abortion and euthanasia. That process could extend to a warning against taking Communion, and in the case of "obstinate persistence" by the politician, the minister "must refuse to distribute" Communion, he said.

After discussing the issue in Colorado, U.S. bishops overwhelmingly passed a statement that sharply criticized Catholic politicians who support legal abortion. The bishops also said denying Communion to those politicians is a complex question involving "prudential judgment" in each case.

The report in L'Espresso and some other media have characterized that as a rejection of Cardinal Ratzinger's advice. But Vatican sources said the Vatican was generally pleased with the U.S. bishops' statement, and that Cardinal Ratzinger was not trying to dictate a policy to the bishops.

"It is right to leave a margin for prudential judgment in these cases," said one Vatican source.

"Cardinal Ratzinger's point was not that bishops have to use (denial of Communion) in every circumstance, but that there are principles that would allow for this to happen," the source said.

In his memorandum, Cardinal Ratzinger began by noting that, for any Catholic, the practice of going to Communion simply because one attends Mass is "an abuse that must be corrected."

He said that in judging their own worthiness to receive Communion Catholics should recognize that abortion and euthanasia are grave sins, and that it is never permitted to cooperate in them in a formal way.

Whatever the individual decides about his or her worthiness to receive Communion, sometimes the minister of Communion "may find himself in the situation where he must refuse to distribute holy Communion to someone," Cardinal Ratzinger said.

Citing church law, he said those cases include people whom the church has declared excommunicated, as well as those who show "obstinate persistence in manifest grave sin."

In the case of abortion or euthanasia, Cardinal Ratzinger said a Catholic politician manifests "formal cooperation" in those grave sins by "consistently campaigning and voting for permissive abortion and euthanasia laws."

In that case, the cardinal said, the politician's 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."

Cardinal Ratzinger then cited a principle of church law that is used to justify the denial of Communion to divorced and civilly remarried Catholics.

"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,'" he said, quoting from a 2002 ruling on divorced-and-remarried Catholics issued by the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts.

His apparent implication was that the same principle applies to Catholic politicians who consistently campaign for and vote for legal abortion or euthanasia: that, like Catholics who have divorced and remarried, the public nature of their situation makes possible an objective judgment on their unworthiness to receive Communion.

Cardinal Ratzinger said that denial of Communion in these circumstances is not, properly speaking, a sanction or penalty.

"Nor is the minister of holy Communion passing judgment 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," he said.

The 2002 Vatican ruling on divorced Catholics has been a topic of discussion in Rome, in view of the Communion issue in the United States. Some canon law experts think it is more difficult to apply it in a categorical way to Catholic politicians on the abortion issue. They note that the politician's situation may be much more complex than that of divorced Catholics who because of remarriage are considered to be living in a state of sin.