The Deacon's Bench

While the hand-wringing continues over the planned meeting between Nancy Pelosi and Pope Benedict, I thought it might be instructive to look at an item that John Allen posted in the pages of NCR five years ago:

In January 2001, Rome’s outgoing mayor, Francesco Rutelli, was the candidate of Italy’s center-left “Olive Tree” coalition to be the country’s next Prime Minister. (Rutelli went on to lose to Silvio Berlusconi). Rutelli’s political background was in the Radical Party, which had led the battle for legalized abortion in Italy. As he moved into the mainstream, Rutelli took the classic position of left-leaning Catholics in public life: personally opposed to abortion, but not willing to impose his stance through law.

On Jan. 6, Rutelli and his wife Barbara, who are regular Mass-goers, attended the final act of the Catholic Church’s Jubilee Year: the closing of the Holy Door at St. Peter’s Basilica. Despite what in the United States would be termed his “pro-choice” stance, Rutelli came forward for Communion and received it from Pope John Paul II himself.

By itself, the episode does little to indicate the right answer to the communion controversy currently raging in the United States. But it does reflect a striking aspect of the debate, which is that so far it is an exclusively American phenomenon.

Across Europe, there are many Catholic politicians who differ from church teaching on issues such as abortion, gay rights, euthanasia, and stem cell research. One clear example comes in Germany, where Christa Nickels is a deputy in the Bundestäg with the leftist Green Party, which favors marriage rights for homosexuals. Yet Nickels is also a practicing Catholic and the spokesperson for environmental and bio-ethical questions for the Central Committee of German Catholics, a state-sponsored body. To date, no German bishop has suggested denying her communion.

Similar examples can be found in every European parliament. In Austria, the Social Democratic Party supports abortion rights, and features a number of practicing Catholics. In Belgium, the Christian Democratic Party includes Catholics who clash with the church on homosexual marriage and euthanasia.

So why is it just the Americans talking about sanctions?

I put this to Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, who was in Rome May 25 for his ad limina visit to the Holy See. He and I sat down for an interview at the North American College.

“That’s a very good question, and we’ve raised it ourselves, even with the Roman Curia,” George said.

“Of course they’re not going to talk about another conference, that’s not their job, anymore than they would talk about us to the Belgians or the Spaniards. But they listened, and they noted the fact,” he said.

How does George explain it?

“First of all, we’re the only country that has said there is a constitutional right [to abortion],” he said. “Other countries have passed it as a matter of legislative procedure, and therefore they can work with it more easily.

“[Attempts to limit abortion are seen as] against the freedom of women, and freedom is our most important value. We’ll kill for freedom, we do it all the time. That’s a peculiar cultural situation in our country.

“We also have a political situation that changes culture and laws by crusades. You have ideological movements that are much more single-minded in some ways. Given that, you also have groups eager to capture whatever authority they can from the church, and so you have a politicization of the internal conversation in the church herself that you wouldn’t have elsewhere. Not about doctrine, but about pastoral practice.

“For all those reasons, I think we have a unique situation in America, for good or for ill, and you can’t easily make the comparison to other places,” George said.

I asked if Europe’s experience of anti-clericalism also played a role. Perhaps European bishops are more sensitive than Americans to the risk of backlash if the church is perceived as too explicitly political.

“That’s an interesting idea. I’d have to think about that, but it makes sense,” he said. “I’m somewhat aware of the history of anti-clericalism in France, in Italy, and in Spain, and while I’m not sure what you say is true, it might well be.”

You can read the full text of the 2004 interview with Cardinal George for more.

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