communion and catholic politicians
Last week we had a roundtable discussion at La Salle on the practice in some Roman Catholic dioceses of denying communion to Catholic politicians who consistently vote against restrictions and limitations on abortion. The participants were four Catholic faculty members, one each from the philosophy, religion, political science, and mathematics departments, two of whom favored the practice of denying communion in these circumstances and two of whom found it problematic.
This is not an issue, by the way, that is limited to Catholic Democrats and so one shouldn't assume that it is politicized simply along party lines. After all, there are a number prominent Catholic Republican politicians who have also maintained a legally permissive stance on abortion, even if in some cases they might be personally opposed to it (e.g., George Pataki, Rudolph Guiliani, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Tom Ridge).
This is also not an issue that is necessarily limited to Roman Catholics. There is a more general question here about the relation between the authority of the church in relation to its members, the disciplinary function of the eucharist, and the church as a public institution in its own right, alongside the civil order.
Part of the roundtable discussion was focused upon differing interpretations of the Code of Canon Law, statements issued by the American Bishops, and the views expressed by Cardinal Ratzinger who, as the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, has a prominent voice in these issues.
With regard to Canon Law, there is, on the whole, it seems, a presumption in favor of giving the eucharist to the baptized, a presumption only overriden under certain conditions, such as a person known to be excommunicate. Thus, Canon 912 states, "Any baptized person who is not prohibited by law, can and must be admitted to holy communion."
On the other hand, Canon 915 states the following:
Those upon whom the penalty of excommunication or interdict has been imposed or declared, and others who obstinately persist in manifest grave sin, are not to be admitted to holy communion.
This canon distinguishes between two categories: [a] those who have been barred from communion as a result of a formal penal process and sanction and [b] others "who obstinately persist in manifest grave sin." In the case of Catholic politicans who have supported abortion rights, the discussion centers upon the question of whether they are rightly included in the latter category. If so, then such politicians would fall into the category of those prohibited from receiving communion.
Whether or not an individual is seen as obstinately persisting in manifest grave sin is, of course, a matter for prudential judgment on the part of a bishop. The canon seems to require that several criteria be met in order for a bishop to make such a judgment: [a] that the sin in question be "grave," [b] that it be "manifest" (what the 1917 Code called "public and notorious"), and [c] that it be "obstinately persisted in."
If consistently voting in favor of abortion rights is, in fact, a grave sin (more on that below), then in the case of a politician it would almost necessarily fall into the category of "manifest" sin given that it would be a matter of public record and even more so if the politician were to regularly campaign on a platform of abortion rights.
If it is a grave sin, if the church has attempted to instruct Catholic politicians on this matter, and if a politician persists in his or her actions (at least, perhaps, apart from attempts at reformation, conscientious explanation of dissent, or private confession), then the sin would appear to be one that is "obstinately persisted in."
So, in the roundtable discussion, while some expressed reservations about Canon 915 itself, much of the issue came down to the question of whether or not a voting record favoring abortion rights in itself constitutes grave sin and, thus, whether a bishop could rightly make the pastoral judgment to withhold communion from Catholic politicians who vote in this way.
Part of the question here turns on notion within Catholic moral theology that human law cannot always prohibit all intrinsically evil acts without causing greater harm to the public order (a notion with which I concur). For instance, there are forms of expression that are intrinsically evil (e.g., certain kinds of hate language rooted in racial or ethnic bigoty), the prohibition of which, at least within our current circumstances, would arguably cause greater harm than permitting such expression (e.g., harms resulting from intrusive survellience, ambiguous criteria of what qualifies as "hateful," etc.).
While the government has the general obligation to promote the common good, sometimes the need for public order requires permitting actions which would not exist in a society where the common good was fully pursued by the populace. And some Catholic politicians would argue that restrictions on abortion fall into this category, suggesting that greater harm would be caused, in the long run, by prohibitting abortion in a wide range of cases, than by allowing it to be permitted while working to make it rare by other means.
I can see how such an argument might apply to certain specific pieces of legislation (e.g., those that prohibit abortion in a way that makes no provision for the life of the mother), but it is difficult for me to see how it could be generalized into a wider stance in favor of abortion rights. Even allowing that the Supreme Court would likely strike down any law that was overly restrictive, a Catholic politician, it would seem, should still want to work at least towards restrictions that would pass Constitutional tests or perhaps even a Constitutional Amendment defining what persons are protected under law, inclusive of the unborn.
The American Catholic Bishops, however, have not taken a decisive position on the issue of denying communion to politicians who seem to favor abortion rights, leaving it up the judgment of individual bishops. In July of this year they do issue a statement entitled "Catholics in Political Life
" in which they say:
The question has been raised as to whether the denial of Holy Communion to some Catholics in political life is necessary because of their public support for abortion on demand. Given the wide range of circumstances involved in arriving at a prudential judgment on a matter of this seriousness, we recognize that such decisions rest with the individual bishop in accord with the established canonical and pastoral principles. Bishops can legitimately make different judgments on the most prudent course of pastoral action.
Of course, in this very same statement they also make the following observations:
It is the teaching of the Catholic Church from the very beginning, founded on her understanding of her Lord’s own witness to the sacredness of human life, that the killing of an unborn child is always intrinsically evil and can never be justified...To make such intrinsically evil actions legal is itself wrong...Those who formulate law therefore have an obligation in conscience to work toward correcting morally defective laws, lest they be guilty of cooperating in evil and in sinning against the common good.
The teaching of the bishops, therefore, would seem to run against the argument that abortion should be permitted for the sake of public order and avoiding greater harm.
Moreover, in their 2003 statement on "Living the Gospel of Life: A Challenge to American Catholics
" the American Bishops also strongly rejected any political arguments advanced on the premise of a pluralism that makes opposition to abortion a merely "personal opposition" that does not have implications for political order. The bishops state:
We urge those Catholic officials who choose to depart from Church teaching on the inviolability of human life in their public life to consider the consequences for their own spiritual well being, as well as the scandal they risk by leading others into serious sin. We call on them to reflect on the grave contradiction of assuming public roles and presenting themselves as credible Catholics when their actions on fundamental issues of human life are not in agreement with Church teaching. 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.
Now some at the La Salle roundtable insisted that Catholic politicians who favor abortion rights are not, in fact, "advocat[ing] for or actively support[ing] direct attacks on innocent human life." Rather, it was suggested, they are merely permitting others to engage in such attacks, while personally opposing abortion, even though they might refrain, for prudential reasons of public order, from legislative restrictions on it.
The bishops' statement also says, however, that "the failure to protect and defend life in its most vulnerable stages renders suspect any claims to the 'rightness' of positions in other matters affecting the poorest and least powerful of the human community" and that "no appeal to policy, procedure, majority will, or pluralism ever excuses a public official from defending life to the greatest extent possible." Both these statements would seem to undercut the claim that a Catholic politician might favor abortion rights, even for the sake of wider issues of public order, and remain faithful to the ordinary magisterium of the church.
All of this is consistent with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith's 1974 "Declaration on Procured Abortion
," which was issued in the face of liberalization of abortion laws in America and Europe. In this declaration the Congregation states, "It must in any case be clearly understood that whatever may be laid down by civil law in this matter, man can never obey a law which is in itself immoral, and such is the case of a law which would admit in principle the licentiate of abortion. Nor can he take part in a propaganda campaign in favor of such a law, or vote for it."
Part of what is at work in these statements is Catholic moral teaching concerning formal and material cooperation with wrongdoing. Obviously, these Catholic politicians--especially the ones that personally oppose abortion--are not themselves directly participating in abortion procedures. Thus it is not a matter of explicit formal cooperation with evil (i.e., freely participating in an act as a principal agent). It is the case, however, that Catholic politicians favoring abortion rights are, nonetheless, materially cooperating with abortion in an illicit way.
Catholic moral theology has traditionally distinguished not only betweem formal and material cooperation, but also among various forms of material cooperation. In general, material cooperation with evil occurs when an agent acts in such a manner that his or her actions contribute in some way to the commission of an evil.
In the case of immediate
material cooperation, the agent acts in a way that is essential to the commission of an action such that the action would not occur without his or her cooperation. Such immediate material cooperation with intrinsically evil acts is held to be morally wrong.
In the case of mediate
material cooperation, the agent acts in a way that is not essential to the commission of an action such that the action would occur without his or her cooperation. Such mediate material cooperation with intrinsically evil acts can be justified under some circumstances within Catholic moral theology (cf. Paul's discussion of meat sacrificed to idols). In particular, such cooperation could be permitted when [a] it would avoid a greater evil or protect a greater good, [b] it could be done while avoiding the possibility of scandal (such as leading others to do wrong), and [c] the proximity of the cooperation to the evil action is proportionate to the importance of the reason for cooperating.
The conscientious Catholic politician who votes against restrictions on abortion on the grounds the it is permissible mediate material cooperation with evil would, therefore, have to maintain several claims: that these abortions would occur even without his or her cooperation, that lack of restrictions on abortion are only a very remote cause of abortion and that the decision to abort is almost purely private, that greater harm would occur through restricting abortion, and that the politician is not leading others into sin or causing moral confusion by his or her position.
While I can just about see how such an argument would go, it seems to me a significant stretch given the very concrete harm that occurs to the fetuses who are actually aborted, not to mention other difficulties with the argument (e.g. the public confusion and example set by such a leader who identifies as a Catholic). Moreover, the Catholic church has been clear that its position on legal issues related to abortion do not fall into the same category as, for instance, the Pope's teachings on the death penalty or the war in Iraq. While there might be room for conscientious dissent on these latter issues, the Catholic church seems to place its teaching on abortion in a different category.
In his encyclical The Gospel of Life
, John Paul II writes:
Abortion and euthanasia are thus crimes which no human law can claim to legitimize. There is no obligation in conscience to obey such laws; instead there is a grave and clear obligation to oppose them by conscientious objection...In the case of an intrinsically unjust law, such as a law permitting abortion or euthanasia, it is therefore never licit to obey it, or to 'take part in a propaganda campaign in favour of such a law, or vote for it.'
In light of this kind of Catholic Church teaching, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger has recently stated in a memorandum to the American Catholic Bishops:
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.
Ratzinger's focus here, of course, is whether a person who dissents with the church's teaching should come forward to receive communion in the Catholic church. But he does go on to address the question of denying communion to Catholic politicians who "consistently campaign and vote for permissive abortion and euthanasia laws."
The Cardinal suggests that proper procedure should involve the politician's pastor meeting with him or her privately in order to give instruction on the church's teaching and that he or she should voluntarily refrain from coming forward to receive communion until the sitaution of sin is brought to an end. Apart from such remedy and in the face of "obstinate persistence" in sin, the individual may then be denied communion.
Given all of these observations, it is difficult for me to see what room there is for a Catholic politician to favor abortion rights without being seen as committing grave sin in the eyes of the church. Even if his position were held as a matter of public order and licit mediate material cooperation with wrongdoing, it would, in any case, put such a politician in a position of, at the very least, conscientious dissent from church teaching.
A number of people at the roundtable, nevertheless, were not comfortable with the notion of using the eucharist as a political tool and seemed to think the church should stay out of any kind of direct involvement with politics. And this kind of thinking about the relation between the church and the civil order has implications well beyond the boundaries of the Roman Catholic Church.
I haven't the time or space to provide any in depth reflections on these sorts of views, so I will limit myself to two observations.
First, if there are public officials who are also members of the church, I don't see how the church can carry out its pastoral oversight of the faithful without sometimes doing so in relation to politicians. On occasions this oversight may have to go beyond merely the teaching ministry of the church, speaking with Christ's authority and bearing witness to what is true and good, and include the exercise of further discipline against those--even politicians--who fall into grave sin and refuse to hear her call for repentance. This is not an attempt on the part of the church to "intrude" into the civil sphere, but to exercise its own proper authority over its members with regard to their public actions, out of love and concern for their spiritual well-being and witness.
Second, and more importantly, I am troubled by the notion that such exercise of church oversight is an "intrusion" into the political or public sphere or that denying the eucharist to those public officials who are in grave sin with regard to matters of civil order is to "politicize" the Lord's Supper. The church already
is a public institution, with its own story, culture, language, government, discipline, and rites, and the eucharist already
has political dimensions inasmuch as it is an enactment of the reign of God within new kind of human community, the true republic of which human governments, at their best, are only an approximation.
Of course, the church often fails at her calling. And she may exercise her authority imprudently or inconsistently, to which recent scandals, dissensions, and difficulties in the church bear testimony. But the solution, I think, is not for the church to retreat from her responsibilites and vocation, but to ever more heed the call of the Gospel and, in faith and hope, strive to be that new humanity to which we have been called in Christ.