On Giving Communion to Pro-Abortion Politicians

It is curious in a non-Catholic country like ours that the question of who should or shouldn’t be allowed to receive communion has become such a hot topic. Seemingly, this kind of question would be considered inside baseball, simply an intra-church matter. Yet, our secular media is dominated by headlines about what this or that bishop (or Synod of bishops) has to say about whether the Church should deny the Eucharist to the divorced and remarried or pro-abortion politicians.

In his interview with Face the Nation’s Norah O’Donnell, Chicago archbishop Blase Cupich was asked to comment on the following issue:

When you say we cannot politicize the communion rail, you would give communion to politicians, for instance, who support abortion rights.

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Before I give the archbishop’s response and my take on it, I want to acknowledge how easy it is for public figures to misspeak—especially in the contentious arena of the major Sunday talk shows. It happens all the time. Additionally, I understand it must be a challenge to effectively address such a hot-button issue in the space of a sound bite. Thus, while I believe Archbishop Cupich’s answer potentially runs the risk of causing scandal to the faithful, I equally believe such was certainly not his intention.

With that said, Archbishop Cupich answered O’Donnell’s question in the following manner, which I believe to be an unintentional misstatement on his part:

I would not use the Eucharist or as they call it the communion rail as the place to have those discussions or a way in which people would be either [sic] excluded from the life of the church. The Eucharist is an opportunity of grace and conversion. It’s also a time of forgiveness of sins. So my hope would be that that grace would be instrumental in bringing people to the truth.

To examine the archbishop’s response, I believe it is helpful to follow the lead of Cardinal Bergoglio (Pope Francis) and Cardinal Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI) on the question of whether Catholic politicians who support abortion should be permitted to receive the Eucharist.

Cardinal Bergoglio is acknowledged as one of the primary authors of the Aparecida Document (the concluding document of the 2007 General Conference of the Bishops of Latin America and the Caribbean). Moreover, after being elected pope, Francis wrote a letter to the Argentine Assembly of Bishops directing them to implement the Aparecida Document, saying: “These are the guidelines we need for this time in history.”

Here is what the Aparecida Document—approved by Pope Benedict XVI and reaffirmed by Pope Francis—teaches concerning the matter at hand:

We hope that legislators [and] heads of government … will defend and protect [the dignity of human life] from the abominable crimes of abortion and euthanasia; that is their responsibility…. We must adhere to “eucharistic coherence,” that is, be conscious that they cannot receive Holy Communion and at the same time act with deeds or words against the commandments, particularly when abortion, euthanasia, and other grave crimes against life and family are encouraged. This responsibility weighs particularly over legislators, heads of governments, and health professionals.

Cardinal Ratzinger—in his official capacity as the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith—sent a memorandum (July 2004) to Cardinal McCarrick, archbishop of Washington, regarding the worthy reception of the Eucharist. He writes:

Regarding the grave sin of abortion or euthanasia, when a person’s formal cooperation becomes manifest (understood, in the case of a Catholic politician, as his consistently campaigning and voting for permissive abortion and euthanasia laws), his Pastor should meet with him, instructing him about the Church’s teaching, informing him that he is not to present himself for Holy Communion until he brings to an end the objective situation of sin, and warning him that he will otherwise be denied the Eucharist.

Citing a declaration from the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, Cardinal Ratzinger continues:

When “these precautionary measures have not had their effect or in which they were not possible,” and the person in question, with obstinate persistence, still presents himself to receive the Holy Eucharist, “the minister of Holy Communion must refuse to distribute it….” This decision, properly speaking, is not a sanction or a penalty. Nor is the minister of Holy Communion passing judgment on the person’s subjective guilt, but rather is reacting to the person’s public unworthiness to receive Holy Communion due to an objective situation of sin.

In light of these teachings, it is likely that Archbishop Cupich either misspoke or was not sufficiently aware of Cardinal Ratzinger and Bergoglio’s teaching.

First, it is clear Catholic politicians who support abortion “cannot receive holy communion” due to their “objective situation of sin.” Moreover, the minister of Holy Communion “must refuse to distribute it” to them (emphasis added).

Second, while Archbishop Cupich is correct in saying the communion rail is not the place to discuss a person’s worthiness to receive Holy Communion, this is not what the Church in fact proposes. Rather, the Church instructs pastors to meet privately with the politician, instruct him on the Church’s teaching, and warn him that he will be denied the Eucharist unless “he brings to an end the objective situation of sin.” Thus, while the communion rail is not the place to have conversations, it is the place to refuse communion to Catholic politicians who support abortion.

It is not difficult to understand and even admire Archbishop Cupich’s desire to welcome and embrace people who are in an objective situation of sin. From what has been said so far, however, it is at least reasonable to conclude that his statement—in spite of sincere intentions—runs the potential risk of causing scandal.

After all, a recent Washington Post/ABC News poll reported that 50 percent of Catholics believe abortion should be legal in all or most cases. Thus, the archbishop’s statement, as it stands, will not persuade these Catholics that it is necessary for them to repent: for them to go to Confession, change their position and oppose legal abortion. Whether he intended them to or not, it is safe to assume they will conclude the precise opposite: they don’t need to repent and are in good standing with the Church while continuing to support legal abortion.

Abortion should, however, shock us. It is difficult to imagine a more horrific evil than intentionally dismembering and killing innocent and defenseless children. It should be obvious to every person of good will that supporting the legal sanction of such barbaric acts is an objective grave evil.

In a culture where abortion has become so commonplace, though, we are easily desensitized. And bishops are not immune from this. Unless we make a conscious effort to remind ourselves about the grave evil of abortion, we will no longer be shocked that so many Catholics—while “personally opposed to abortion”—nevertheless believe it should be legal.

Defending the dignity of the human person—and thus opposing the intentional killing of innocent human beings (God’s image)—is intrinsic to our basic Christian vocation: to love God with our whole heart, soul, mind and strength; and to love our neighbor as ourselves. All Christians, including Church leaders, must therefore be careful to avoid giving even the slightest impression that supporting abortion is morally permissible and compatible with the Christian vocation to love.

To highlight just how seriously we must take our responsibility to unambiguously oppose abortion, I suggest we add two simple words to the question Norah O’Donnell posed to Archbishop Cupich:

When you say we cannot politicize the communion rail, you would give communion to politicians, for instance, who support ‘after-birth’ abortion rights.

The term “after-birth abortion” was coined by Alberto Giubilini and Francesca Minerva, two philosophers whose proposal to legalize “after-birth abortion” was published in the Journal of Medical Ethics. They write:

[W]hen circumstances occur after birth such that they would have justified abortion, what we call after-birth abortion should be permissible…. [W]e propose to call this practice ‘after-birth abortion’, rather than ‘infanticide,’ to emphasize that the moral status of the individual killed is comparable with that of a fetus … rather than to that of a child. Therefore, we claim that killing a newborn could be ethically permissible in all the circumstances where abortion would be. Such circumstances include cases where the newborn has the potential to have an (at least) acceptable life, but the well-being of the family is at risk.

Giubilini and Minerva confirm what pro-lifers have correctly said for years: there is no significant difference between the moral status of unborn and born babies. And the arguments used to sanction legal abortion can be used just as easily to sanction legal “after-birth abortions.” (Contrary to what Giubilini and Minerva claim, however, “after-birth abortion” is in reality simply a euphemism for infanticide).

Many who believe abortion should be legal—especially those in the “personally opposed but can’t impose my morality on others” camp—will initially react to the proposal for legalizing “after-birth abortion” with genuine shock and even disgust. They are outraged when someone suggests the logic that underpins their support for legal abortion is the very same logic that underpins support for legal “after-birth abortion” (i.e., infanticide). In fact, they may strenuously oppose legalizing such barbaric acts.

When pushed to move beyond their initial outrage and emotional repulsion, however, they are hard pressed to provide a principled and rational case for their belief that killing unborn babies should be legal but killing born babies should not. Illustrative of this difficulty is abortion-supporter William Saletan’s article “After-Birth Abortion: The pro-choice case for infanticide,” published by Slate.

If pro-lifers are correct—i.e., there is no significant difference between the moral status of unborn and born babies, and the arguments that support legal abortion can be used equally to support legal “after-birth abortion” (infanticide)—Archbishop Cupich would have to permit the reception of Holy Communion both to Catholic politicians who support legal abortion and those who support legal “after-birth abortion.” Put in its most trenchant terms, then, the archbishop would have to permit Catholic politicians who support legal infanticide to receive the Eucharist.

The relevant question, then, becomes: Are there any actions sufficiently evil to prevent the Catholic politicians who support them from receiving Holy Communion?

I can’t imagine Archbishop Cupich would allow Catholic politicians who support legal infanticide to receive Holy Communion. However, because there is no significant moral difference between “pre-birth abortion” and “after-birth abortion” in Catholic theology, I can’t imagine the archbishop would advocate allowing Catholic politicians who support “pre-birth abortion” to receive Holy Communion either.

As I began this article, it is likely that Archbishop Cupich simply misspoke when answering Norah O’Donnell’s question. Thus, I would suggest that the faithful of the Archdiocese of Chicago—lay, priests and religious alike—respectfully write the archbishop, requesting that he issue a public statement that clarifies his agreement with the Church’s teaching affirmed by Pope Francis as recently as April 2013:

Catholic politicians who support legal abortion should not present themselves for Holy Communion until they bring an end to their objective sinful situation—failing this, they cannot receive the Eucharist and the minister of Holy Communion must refuse to distribute it to them.



  • Bill Maguire

    Bill Maguire earned his masters in theological studies from the Pontifical John Paul II Institute in Washington, D.C. With nearly two decades of experience in youth and young adult ministry, he currently writes from Naples, FL.

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