Originally Published in Crisis September 2008
The statements made by Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Sen. Joseph Biden on Meet the Press have provided a wonderful, even providential, opportunity to present the Church’s teaching on abortion and explain its foundational importance to Catholic moral and political teaching in general. Already many bishops have issued clear and courageous statements correcting Speaker Pelosi and Senator Biden’s mistakes, and certainly more will do the same in the coming days. They have succinctly presented the core of the Church’s teaching for the benefit of Catholics and non-Catholics alike, and for this we are all sincerely grateful.
The question of how to deal effectively with Catholic politicians who support abortion — and whether they should be admitted to receive Communion — has been debated prominently since the last presidential election; now these latest occurrences demand that the issue be settled once and for all.
Despite all the discussion that surrounded the question of whether “pro-choice” Catholic politicians should receive Communion in 2004, the USCCB’s “Happy Are Those Who Are Called to His Supper” did not resolve the matter. As a result, further incidents of public scandal have occurred, including the present ones. This situation cannot continue. Due to the bishops’ clear articulations of the Church’s teaching these last few weeks, the truth can no longer be ignored by politicians who claim to be “personally opposed” to abortion yet vote to legislate and finance the legal slaughter of innocents. They cannot spin the issue any further: They must choose between God and Mammon.
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Yet it is likely that, if the bishops’ latest teachings are ignored, a new scandal will develop: The faithful will perceive that there is no governing authority behind the bishops’ teachings, and pro-choice politicians will continue both to cause scandal and to eat and drink judgment upon themselves (cf. 1 Cor 11:29).
In no way do I wish to reproach our bishops; however, some people will not obey laws or follow teachings unless an external factor exists to “convince” them. Although this may not be the most pious way to motivate, it is not a case of coercing belief. The Church in her wisdom has long honored imperfect contrition from penitents because they “dread the loss of Heaven and the pains of Hell.” Imperfect motivation may be the only factor left to change the minds and hearts of certain Catholic politicians who have voted in favor of abortion for decades and still receive Communion each Sunday.
In light of this situation, there are two courses of action that, although controversial, may well contribute to the conversion of wayward Catholic politicians and an abatement of the abortion tragedy in our country.
First, each bishop in his own diocese should issue a clear statement that all Catholic politicians who support abortion should not present themselves for Communion. The bishops have made clear that such politicians, by their votes and public support of abortion, are not in communion with the Church; therefore, they must not partake of the Sacrament of Communion. Should anyone persist, then it seems there is no choice but to deny him or her Communion, as a few bishops have said they would do already.
This does not make the Eucharist a political issue; rather it places the Eucharist above politics by emphasizing both its sacred character and the proper disposition in which one should receive such a sacred gift. At the altar, politics fade into the periphery as each individual soul approaches to receive the Body and Blood of Christ. What is at stake there is not an election; it is the fulfillment of our salvation. If certain members of the Church jeopardize that salvation, either for themselves or for others, by approaching the Eucharist unworthily, they must be corrected with due charity, whether their sins involve the political realm or otherwise. Few would accuse St. John the Baptist of interfering in politics when he denounced King Herod’s illicit marriage as sinful.
Moreover, we need unity among the bishops on this issue. We accept as given that all our bishops oppose abortion wholeheartedly; what we need to consider is how to address practically this blatant rejection of the Church’s teaching by certain public representatives. Many bishops understandably desire to avoid what could become a very public encounter — after all, they have just admonished again these wayward politicians. Unfortunately, these politicians continue to place their shepherds in a very difficult position by insisting on their good standing within the Church. With this claim, they undermine not only episcopal authority but the authority and integrity of the Church.
The Catechism describes the bishops’ sanctifying office as guarding the Eucharist within their dioceses (cf. 893), which includes, although it cannot be the most joyous of tasks, “the responsibility to make sure that the Sacrament is distributed only to those who are properly disposed,” as Archbishop Raymond Burke explained in a recent interview. Since the bishops have been charged by God with this sacred responsibility, and since the Eucharist is threatened equally in each of their dioceses, their unified actions will sanctify the whole Church and the faithful who strive with all their hearts to follow God’s laws. Of course, we must recognize that these decisions to withhold Communion are, above all, ones of charity for the persons involved and for the Church, not of vengeance or anger, as some may charge.
Second, in the next two months leading up to the election, I invite the bishops to consider asking the faithful not to vote for a single candidate who supports abortion. I am not suggesting that bishops and priests should tell the faithful whom they should vote for, but rather that they urge Catholics to become single-issue voters this November.
Certainly, this is a difficult request: There are many worthy issues, dear to many Catholics, that touch on human life and human dignity. Nevertheless, as the bishops made clear in their “Statement on Responsibilities of Catholics in Public Life,” “abortion is a grave violation of the most fundamental human right — the right to life that is inherent in all human beings, and that grounds every other right we possess.”
The right to life encompasses all other aspects of human dignity that they list in the same document, namely, “priority for the poor, the protection of family life, the pursuit of justice and the promotion of peace.” Candidates, Catholic or otherwise, cannot honestly champion these core elements of human dignity while promising to uphold legal abortion, for abortion directly contradicts each of these elements for the poorest and most helpless members of our society. In his statement last week, Edward Cardinal Egan made this same point about such candidates:
Anyone who dares to defend that they [the unborn] may be legitimately killed because another human being “chooses” to do so or for any other equally ridiculous reason should not be providing leadership in a civilized democracy worthy of the name.
This suggestion is not an exhortation to collude with the Republican Party. Rather, it invites the bishops to ask the faithful to place their Catholic faith above their party loyalties, and to vote primarily on the one issue that is the very foundation of human dignity and of Christian morality. There is no shame in Catholics voting on a single issue when the issue is life itself: Every other issue depends on it.
On November 4, in a case where both candidates favor abortion, or the voter does not like the one pro-life candidate, let the voter choose no one, or write in a candidate, rather than vote for one who supports the legal killing of unborn children. If every Catholic in America were to vote this way, candidates across the board would have to rethink their tragic commitment to this most heinous practice. As Supreme Knight Carl Anderson told the Knights of Columbus in August, “It’s time we stop accommodating pro-abortion politicians, and it’s time we start demanding that they accommodate us.”
In light of this teachable moment, we have an opportunity to clear up the chaos and confusion that have overrun Catholic politics. I pray that our bishops will recognize this opportunity and hasten an end to abortion with their leadership.