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Posted June 15, 2004

America, Catholic Magazine,
Focuses on Communion Debate

Should Support for Abortion Be Used
to Determine Worthiness For Communion?

NEW YORK (CNS) -- In its June 21-28 issue, the Catholic magazine America focused on the debate over withholding Communion from politicians who regularly vote against any abortion restrictions. It featured three articles from different perspectives.

Archbishop Raymond L. Burke of St. Louis argued that a bishop is simply living up to his responsibilities if he denies Communion to a Catholic politician who "has publicly violated the moral law in a grave matter" but does not recognize on his own that he does not have "the proper disposition to receive Communion."

In such cases "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," he said.

Father John P. Beal argued that the church law provision at issue -- Canon 915's declaration that Catholics "obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin are not to be admitted to holy Communion" -- must be interpreted strictly, meaning that all elements must be clearly present before Communion can be denied.

Father Beal, an associate professor of canon law at The Catholic University of America in Washington, said that in the complexities of politics, "a legislator's voting record ... reflects only a fraction of his or her legislative activity" and floor votes "leave opaque the motives, without which a moral assessment of a legislator's public actions is hazardous."

In the third article, "Caught Between God and Caesar," Joseph A. Califano Jr., President Lyndon B. Johnson's top aide for domestic affairs and President Jimmy Carter's secretary for health, education and welfare, reinforced Father Beal's argument with stories of conflicts he faced trying to balance his Catholic moral convictions with the demands of setting or carrying out public policy.

"As a citizen I consider it preposterous and wrong for the political parties to impose an abortion litmus test on eligibility for their party's presidential nomination: pro-choice for Democrats, pro-life for Republicans," Califano wrote. "But that is no reason for the bishops to make the same mistake by imposing a similar litmus test on the right to receive Communion."

America, based in New York, is a Jesuit-run national magazine for Catholics.

In January Archbishop Burke was the first member of the hierarchy to weigh in on the election-year controversy over withholding Communion from politicians whose public policy votes contradict church teaching on fundamental moral issues. In a notice released Jan. 8 but dated the previous Nov. 23, when he was still bishop of La Crosse, Wis., he said any legislators in his diocese "who continue to support procured abortion or euthanasia may not present themselves to receive holy Communion."

Installed as archbishop of St. Louis Jan. 26, he said in an interview there that if Democratic presidential hopeful John Kerry were to present himself for Communion while campaigning in St. Louis he would give Kerry a blessing, not Communion.

Since then a small number of other bishops have taken that same stance. Several others have said politicians who consistently vote in support of legal abortion should not present themselves for Communion but did not say they would withhold it from someone who approached for Communion. Most bishops have not addressed the issue in public or have said they do not favor denying the Eucharist in that way.

In his America article Archbishop Burke cited a 1998 statement by the U.S. bishops that said, "No public official, especially one claiming to be a faithful and serious Catholic, can responsibly advocate for or actively support direct attacks on innocent human life. ... No appeal to policy, procedure, majority will or pluralism ever excuses a public official from defending life to the greatest extent possible."

He also quoted a 2002 Vatican doctrinal note that said legislators have "a 'grave and clear obligation to oppose' any law that attacks human life."

"For the Catholic politician to receive Communion when he or she has publicly violated the moral law (by supporting permissive legislation) in a grave matter like procured abortion risks leading others into thinking that they can accept procured abortion with a right conscience," he said.

Archbishop Burke -- who before he was made a bishop served on the Roman Rota, the church's central appeals court -- said that excluding such a person from Communion is not a "harsh sanction ... it is merely the recognition that one is involved in objectively grave sin."

Father Beal said that in the complex world of legislation or policy-making in a pluralistic society "the binding force of church teaching diminishes as it descends from the mountaintop of moral principles to the dark valley of practical applications."

"Thus it is hard to say, when the views of politicians on public policy issues clash with those of church authorities, that the politicians' dissenting views are, per se, sinful," he said. "They may be open to criticism, wrong-headed, inconsistent, pusillanimous or even stupid, but they are not unambiguously sinful."

"Even if a politician's views or votes can be fairly characterized as sinful, they do not qualify as 'manifest' grave sin, as that word has been used in canonical tradition," he said. "For a sin to be manifest, it is not enough that it be public or even notorious; it must also be so habitual that it constitutes an objectively sinful lifestyle or occupation."

He said commentators have traditionally cited pimping and prostitution among the kinds of professions that would qualify. Among states or conditions of life, the best known example is the exclusion from Communion of those who have divorced and remarried outside the church -- they are regarded by the church as living in a public state of sin.

Father Beal noted that in the 1940s the Vatican said Communion should be denied to members of the Communist Party in Italy because they adhered to an anti-Catholic society and were presumed apostates. "But it requires a stretch to find an analogy between the Communist Party in Italy in the late 1940s and any mainstream American political party today," he said. "If there were such an analogy, the refusal of holy Communion would have to be extended beyond politicians to those who support and vote for them, as it once was in Italy."

He said obstinate persistence in the sin is another requisite before Communion can be withheld under canon law. But that assumes the church official refusing politicians Communion "has engaged in a serious effort to teach them to see the truth of the church's teaching and the error of their ways," he said. Resorting to disciplinary measures is an "implicit acknowledgment" that the church authorities "have failed as teachers" to make a convincing case, he said.

He added that before the new code was adopted in 1983 some consultants objected that Canon 915 made it too hard to discipline errant Catholics. The commission's response, he said, "was not to lower the bar for refusing holy Communion but, if anything, to raise it."

Califano said President Johnson "considered family planning services for the poor an essential part of his antipoverty program." He said Johnson enlisted him to negotiate a form of peaceful coexistence with the bishops, who backed most elements of Johnson's "war on poverty" but drew a sharp line at government funding for artificial contraception.

"Those were the days you could sit down with the bishops," he said.

"We crafted an uneasy truce: If the president used the term 'population problem' -- which also allowed for solutions like increasing available food -- rather than 'birth control' or 'population control,' the bishops would stay silent," Califano said. "Johnson kept his part of the bargain. So did the bishops."

Califano cited similar balancing acts he had to reach as Carter's head of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare trying to deal with congressionally enacted Medicaid funding for abortions, guidelines for federally funded sterilization and the question of federal policy on in vitro fertilization research after the first artificially conceived baby was born in England.

"The moral theology of the Catholic Church was an invaluable moral compass for me, but balancing my Catholic convictions with my obligations as a public servant was a wrenching intellectual, spiritual and emotional experience," Califano wrote.

He said, "I found no automatic answers in Christian theology and the teachings of the church . . . to the perplexing and controversial questions of public policy on abortion, sterilization, aging, in vitro fertilization, fetal research, extending or cutting off the final days of terminally ill patients and recombinant DNA and cloning."