From reading some of the more popular Catholic blogs, one would think that the two most important issues in the life of the Church today were the restoration of the tridentine Mass and denying communion to politicians who support abortion. I want to address the second issue in some detail. During the last election, many on the right hounded the Church to chase John Kerry from the altar rails, and a small but vocal minority of bishops said they would deny him communion. Now the issue has been re-opened as Archbishop Burke of St. Louis declared he would deny communion to Rudy Giuliani. I believe this coercive approach is not only bound to backfire, but is on shaky ground to start with.
Abortion and Politicians
The argument put forth by those favoring the coercive approach is plain, and not without merit. Since directly-procured abortion is an intrinsically evil act that can never be justified by appealing to intent or consequence, and is an attack on human life itself, any law making abortion legal or declaring it a right is an intrinsically unjust law. In the words of Pope John Paul II, “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” (Evangelium Vitae, 73). It can never be morally licit to cooperate formally in evil, defined as “direct participation in an act against innocent human life or a sharing in the immoral intention of the person committing it” (Evangelium Vitae, 74). If you cooperate formally in evil with no desire to repent, then you can be denied the Eucharist. So far so good.
But what does it mean to cooperate formally with evil in the case of a pro-abortion politician? It is often understood to mean “consistently campaigning and voting for permissive abortion laws”. Cooperation in evil refers to proximity to the evil act in question– that is the basic principle. If you vote for a law in parliament that legalizes or liberalizes abortion, and the impact on abortion is evident, then the formal cooperation seems clear. But the “right” to abortion in the United States does not emanate from the legislature, it derives from the Supreme Court. Members of Congress do not typically vote for permissive abortion laws. The proximity is automatically lessened. If anything, legislators are indicted by their rhetoric, if inappropriate. It is therefore really difficult to discern the true intent of a politician in voting for or against a piece of legislation. Often, the legislature deals with items that will have a tangential effect on abortion at best. Cardinal Dulles discussed the notion of an appropriations bill that includes some provisions for funding abortions, arguing that it “might arguably be licit if the funding for abortion were only incidental and could not be removed from a bill that was otherwise very desirable.” And of course, it is perfectly licit to vote against a Supreme Court nominee that might well vote to overturn Roe v. Wade (but who knows if they actually will?) for other compelling reasons.
So you could have a politician who wholeheartedly shares the intention of Roe v. Wade that abortion is a “right” and hence something good. Or they could be cowardly, publicly advocating abortion to garner votes, knowing full well anything they say and do will have no impact on any single act on abortion. Of course, one can legitimately argue that persistently talking about the “right” to abortion in itself creates a public scandal, but this is a different thing from formal cooperation in evil.
This point becomes quite pellucid when considering the case of Rudy Giuliani. His most important elected office to date was mayor of New York City. As mayor, he defended abortion, but his ability to direct affect abortion rates (as opposed to indirectly through social and economic conditions) was heavily circumscribed. Of course, his ability to effect abortion as a president would be greater, and this is grounds for refusing to vote for him. But surely what matters for receiving communion is actual sins committed, not hypothetical future sins? (Note: I write this not to defend Giuliani. I happen to believe Giuliani is the single worst candidate running for president in 2008).
Go After the Supreme Court?
And what about the Supreme Court? If we are going to deny communion on the grounds of introducing permissive abortion laws, should we not take this body to task? And yet we rarely hear calls for Anthony Kennedy to be sanctioned; after all, he is a Catholic who has voted for abortion, most notably when he upheld Roe v. Wade in Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992). Since permissive abortion laws in the US originate with the Supreme Court, should we not start here? Why are we sanctioning a blowhard mayor instead of one of the architects of “abortion rights”? And what about John Roberts? He has not, as yet, voted to support the principle underlying Roe v. Wade on the Supreme Court, but he did declare that this case was the “settled law of the land” and that nothing in his personal views would prevent him from “fully and faithfully” applying that precedent (nothing? not even his Catholicism?). Should Roberts not therefore be sanctioned for supporting permissive abortion laws? He is also quoted as saying that Roe v. Wade was wrongfully decided, but is this much different from the tried-and-tested politician’s response of being personally opposed to abortion, but willing to support it as a public policy position?
So far, I’ve only spoken about abortion, but it is also true that there are other intrinsically evil acts that directly attack human life and dignity. Take torture, a key example. Giuliani, as a backer of torture, could also be disciplined for this reason, but Archbishop Burke and others are strangely silent. Indeed, the proximity of an average member of the executive or legislature who votes for torture, or implements a policy of torture, is closer to the evil act than that of the equivalent public figure who supports abortion. In the case of torture, the evil act emanated not from the Supreme Court, but from an executive (backed up by a pliant legislature) steeped in consequentialist reasoning. Are the bishops willing to deny communion to all Catholic legislators who support “enhanced interrogation techniques”? If they do so for abortion, they should likewise do so for torture.
Charges of Hypocrisy
Focusing on the intrinsic evil of abortion and completely ignoring the intrinsic evil of torture opens the door to accusations of politicizing the Eucharist. I use these as examples only. Whenever a bishop threatens to deny communion over issue A, somebody will wonder why the person supporting issue B can receive communion with impunity. Examples are legion. In Northern Ireland, would it have been correct to ban Sinn Fein and their supporters from communion, at a time when they supported terrorism to achieve their ends? Should the Italian church discipline known mafia members and enablers? Should the Church in Latin America give communion to the likes of Pinochet, and to the extremely wealthy owners of latifundia who deny justice to their tenants? I could go on all night. But these “gotcha” wars do little to build up the body of Christ, and should be avoided. Instead, the bishops should focus on the non-coercive approach, the teaching approach– and they should do so consistently and loudly, addressing all of the issues.
The Tendency to Backfire…
For these reasons, the coercive approach is bound to backfire. Cardinal Dulles puts it well:
“[T]he imposition of penalties involves at least three risks. In the first place, the bishop may be accused, however unfairly, of trying to coerce the politician’s conscience. Secondly, people can easily accuse the Church of trying to meddle in the political process, which in this country depends on the free consent of the governed. And finally, the Church incurs a danger of alienating judges, legislators and public administrators whose good will is needed for other good programs, such as the support of Catholic education and the care of the poor. For all these reasons, the Church is reluctant to discipline politicians in a public way, even when it is clear that their positions are morally indefensible. The Church’s prime responsibility is to teach and to persuade. She tries to convince citizens to engage in the political process with a well-informed conscience.”
Cardinal George had similar thoughts recently. Recognizing the problem of politicians who don’t seem to care about the respecting the dignity of the Eucharist, he nonetheless wonders if it is wise to “use a sacramental moment … and risk politicizing the sacrament.” For “the very sacrament that speaks about our unity becomes the occasion for this kind of fracas and disunity”. As a textbook case in how the coercive approach can backfire, consider Cardinal Pell’s intervention in the politics of embryonic stem cell research in Australia. After he declared that voting for this legislation would have “consequences” for the place of Catholic politicians in life of the Church, he was attacked by all sides– including those who supported his position on the issue. Indeed, a case can be made that Pell’s thoughtless approach increased the chances of this legislation being implemented. No, we need to focus more on teaching– which is the approach of Pope Benedict and Archbishop Wuerl in Washington (who, by the way, was appointed to Washington by the author of the “Ratzinger letter” after he came out against the coercive approach). And yet, these arguments seem to have little impact on a certain aspect of the Catholic blogosphere which seeks to wield the Eucharist as yet another weapon in the tired and tedious culture wars.