Why are some Catholic bishops talking about denying Communion to pro-choice politicians?

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.

Why now? Abortion's been legal for 30 years.

Catholic bishops may feel that a laissez-faire attitude towards politicians has contributed, over the past three decades, to a casual attitude about politicians' and voters' moral responsibilities. They may fear that over time it has become socially acceptable to be a pro-choice Catholic.

Is this just about Democratic Catholic politicians? I don't hear anything about denying Communion to Republican Rudy Guiliani, the former mayor of New York, or Arnold Schwarzenegger, pro-choice Republican governor of California.

It appears there have been no loud calls for pro-choice Republican Catholics to stay away from Communion. In the dioceses where bishops have been most critical of pro-choice leaders, Republican politicians tend to be pro-life.

Judie Brown of the American Life League has accused California bishops of giving Arnold Schwarzenegger "special treatment." Cardinal Roger Mahony of the Los Angeles diocese, where Schwarzenegger attends church, has indicated that he does not believe in denying Communion to people.

Is this just about pro-choice politicians or also about voters?

Two Catholic bishops, Archbishop Raymond L. Burke of St. Louis and Bishop Michael J. Sheridan of Colorado Springs, have written that Catholics voting for pro-choice politicians should also not receive Communion. In general, though, the U.S. bishops have not addressed pro-choice voters. Before he became pope, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger said that voters face difficult choices:

"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. 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."

How can a Catholic church "police" who gets Communion?

With lower-visibility people, they can't. Many Catholic Masses are crowded; the priest or lay minister distributing Eucharistic wafers does not always recognize congregants or know them personally. But high-profile politicians' church attendance would, of course, be noticed.

How would a Communion ban against a politician work?

If a bishop wanted to implement a ban, he might send out a letter to all the parishes in his diocese, instructing parish priests not to give a politician Communion.

In 2004, the archdiocese of Boston, where John Kerry often attends Mass, indicated to its individual parishes that Communion should not be withheld. In 2003, Boston archbishop Sean O'Malley stated that Catholic politicians who hold "a public, pro-choice position should not be receiving Communion" and should refrain from doing so. But O'Malley also said, "It is not our policy to deny Communion. It is up to the individual." O'Malley thus put the onus on the politician, not the priest distributing Communion.

Should pro-choice Catholic politicians just not go to church?

This would create its own set of Catholic issues. Unlike Protestants, Catholics are required to attend Mass every Sunday (and on about 8 holy days a year). Before Vatican II, a watershed church council in the 1960s, not attending Mass was considered a mortal sin. Though many U.S. Catholics are more relaxed about Mass attendance these days, a Catholic politician skipping church entirely would be frowned on.

So what could these politicians do, other than stop being Catholic or change their position on abortion?

Oddly enough, an acceptable solution would be for the politicians to attend Mass weekly but not receive Communion. However, bishops could find this distasteful, as it might have the appearance of a protest in the pews. Political campaigns might object, as it could seem to be "giving in" to the bishops. And pro-choice Catholics might find this problematic, because it might imply that all pro-choice Catholics should refrain from Communion.

Before Vatican II, many churchgoing Catholics would voluntarily refrain from receiving Communion, sometimes because they believed an unconfessed sin was on their conscience and they were not spiritually fit to receive the Eucharist. Since the late 1960s, however, most American Massgoers receive the Eucharist. It would be noticeable if a high-profile person did not.

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