The Catholic Church teaches that those who "formally cooperate in evil"--that is, those who enable evil to occur, whether they do it themselves or not--are guilty of sin. It also teaches that people who knowingly insist on sinning should be refused Communion. Because the Catholic Church believes abortion is sinful, many Church leaders think that politicians who support abortion rights in their political life (even if they say they are personally opposed to the procedure) should not receive Communion.
Why is Communion a big deal?
Catholics believe Jesus' body and blood are present in the Eucharistic bread and wine. By partaking of it, Catholics are sharing in the "Mystical Body of Christ," an expression of the worldwide Christian community. Unlike many Protestant services, in which Communion may or may not be offered, every Catholic Mass always culminates with the Eucharist.
Attendance at Mass every Sunday (and on certain holy days) is considered an obligation for all Catholics. Catholics are not required to receive Communion at every Mass, but in the U.S., most churchgoing Catholics do.
To be told one is unfit for Communion is similar, in spiritual terms, to being called unfit to be in a family or another close-knit group.
Does this mean pro-choice politicians are officially excommunicated?
No. Officially excommunicating a Catholic is different from simply denying a Catholic person Communion. Formal excommunication may involve special proceedings and an official pronouncement from the Vatican. It occurs very rarely.
Why would the bishops deny Communion to Catholic politicians based on abortion opinions, but not deny it to Catholics who support birth control, divorce or the Iraq war (even though Pope John Paul II opposed the war)? Are some sins worse than others?
Abortion trumps most other issues when it comes to what the church refers to as a 'well-formed Catholic conscience.' In 2004, when Pope Benedict was a cardinal and was head of the Vatican's doctrinal department, he wrote a letter to the U.S. Catholic bishops saying:
"Not all moral issues have the same moral weight as abortion and euthanasia. For example, if a Catholic were to be at odds with the Holy Father on the application of capital punishment or on the decision to wage war, he would not for that reason be considered unworthy to present himself to receive Holy Communion. While the Church exhorts civil authorities to seek peace, not war, and to exercise discretion and mercy in imposing punishment on criminals, it may still be permissible to take up arms to repel an aggressor or to have recourse to capital punishment. There may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about waging war and applying the death penalty, but not however with regard to abortion and euthanasia."What exactly is the position of the American bishops on this?
While a handful of outspoken bishops feel pro-choice Catholic politicians should be denied Communion, the majority have not taken a strong stance. In June 2004, the U.S. bishops' meeting in Colorado decided to leave the question of Communion for pro-choice politicians up to individual bishops.
Why are some bishops not in favor of withholding Communion?
Many feel uncomfortable with using the Eucharist--the highest expression of Jesus' sacrifice for humanity--as a tool for enforcing political views. Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, former archbishop of the Washington D.C. archdiocese, once wrote, "I do not favor a confrontation at the altar rail with the sacred body of the Lord Jesus in my hand." They may also feel the Eucharist is too necessary to one's spiritual well-being to be withheld.
Many bishops and conservative Catholics would prefer that pro-choice politicians simply did not present himself for Communion.
Is John Kerry the only U.S. politician who has run into this trouble?
No. For example, New Jersey Gov. Jim McGreevey has responded to his bishop's criticism by not receiving Communion.
Has the church always taken this position on Catholic politicians? The church has always held that abortion is an "abominable crime" (read official teaching), but in general the U.S. church has not taken a hard line with pro-choice politicians since Roe v. Wade. In late 2002, however, the Vatican wrote a "doctrinal note" that criticized, among other things, pro-choice politicians. Since early 2003, U.S. bishops have been confronting the issue more directly.