Communion Wars, Again

I guess this should have been predictable. While those of us lucky enough to attend a papal Mass will always treasure that wonderful and unique experience, a small embittered group immediately starting jumping up and down and waving their fists– first about how they didn’t like the liturgy (yes, it’s about them, isn’t it) and second, how certain abortion-supporting politicians had the gall to receive communion. Actually, that really encapsulates the priority of this loud group of fringe Catholics: traditional liturgical piety and banning politicians they don’t like from the Eucharist. These are the two topics that generate the most heat, but little light, the most venom, but little charity. MZ has already ably picked apart the flawed logic of Robert Novak.

If Mr. Novak and his compatriots had only bothered to listen what the pope had actually said, as opposed to what they wanted him to say (again, all about them), maybe he would have noticed the following:”At the same time [the Church] senses, often painfully, the presence of division and polarization in her midst, as well as the troubling realization that many of the baptized, rather than acting as a spiritual leaven in the world, are inclined to embrace attitudes contrary to the truth of the Gospel.”

I’ve talked about this topic before, but feel the need to address it again. The issue at stake is receiving communion when engaged in formal cooperation with evil, which means either directly participating in an evil act or sharing in the immoral intention of the person committing it. In the case of abortion, this is often understood to mean “consistently campaigning and voting for permissive abortion laws”.  So is an American politician who supports abortion guilty of formal cooperation in evil? Quite possibly, but actually quite difficult to prove.

Certainly, a politician who believes abortion to be a “right” and sees no problem with it seems to be indicted. But remember, unlike in other countries, American politicians are not in a position to vote for a law in parliament that legalizes or liberalizes abortion. The “right” does not emanate from the legislature, it derives from the Supreme Court. The proximity is automatically lessened. And, within such an environment, it is within the bounds of Catholic thought to believe that abortion is evil, and yet think that the legal strategy is not the way to deal with it– either because a repeal of Roe v. Wadewould have little impact on abortion incidence, or because they are skeptical about the effects of criminalization at all. Reluctance to criminalize abortion under certain circumstances and in specific conditions does not necessarily constitute approval of or support for abortion. There is a keen difference between advocacy and criminalization.

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. Aside from Supreme Court nominations, the closest American politicians get to abortion is probably through funding bills. But even here, as Cardinal Dulles noted a few years ago, voting for an appropriations bill that includes some provisions for funding abortions “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 what about, say, providing legislative support to lobbyist Jack Abramoff, knowing well that his clients in the Northern Mariana islands were engaged in forced abortions? Arguably, his Republican backers are far closer to the evil act in question that the typical blowhard Democrat who knows that talk is cheap and devoid of real consequences.

To sum up so far: legislative action in support of abortion implies formal cooperation in evil, which means the person should not receive communion. But, sorry, case “not proven”.

And remember, we are singling out abortion here because it is a clear and pertinent case of an intrinsically evil act, one that can never be supported regardless of circumstance. But there are other intrinsically evil acts, including– as the US bishops make clear in their Faithful Citizenship guide– torture. Everything you can say about abortion and the Eucharist applies equally to torture. 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.

In other words, every single politician who campaigned for, voted for, and publicly supported Bush’s “enhanced interrogation techniques” have stepped outside the pale, and should also be denied communion– if you follow the logic of Novak and friends. How many Catholic legislators would fall under that net? Where exactly did people like Rick Santorum stand on the issue? And, if we really want to follow this reasoning to its logical conclusion, non-political Catholic commentators in the public sphere like NRO’s Kathryn Jean Lopez also needs to be denied communion, for she shares in the evil intent of waterboarding beyond a shadow of a doubt. Sure, she is not directly involved in torturing people, but neither is Nancy Pelosi in the habit of driving women to abortion clinics.

No– I am not in favor of banning all who support torture from the communion rail. I believe they should not receive communion (much as I believe that many pro-abortion politicians should not receive either) but it would be pointless and counterproductive for the Church to impose eucharistic litmus tests– especially if it wanted to be consistent. Because once you open Pandora’s box, you will find it hard to shut. I’ve already talked of torture. Should the US church also ban all those who support the use of nuclear weapons in war? That would constitute a non-trivial segment of Catholic opinion, and yet it is also intrinsically evil. And what about beyond these shores? 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. But you get the point.

To conclude, let me ask the question: why is this blown out of all proportion in the US but is barely an issue in other Catholic countries– including ones where the legality of abortion stems from the legislature itself, not the judiciary? I will posit an answer: because many US Catholics are overly-influenced by the take-no-prisoners “us vs them” mentality that is not uncommon on the evangelical right, which comes out of their theology. Out theology, on the other hand, emphasizes unity. It emphasizes the role of Church as teacher– even on the controversial topics– but it does not become embroiled in partisan political fighting. And make no mistake, that is the real agenda. Do you think Robert Novak is really interested in the fine points of Catholic moral theology? No, he wants a weapon with which to bludgeon his political opponents. We should not oblige him.

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  • Mark

    So Cardinal Egan was wrong?

    Archbishop Burke is wrong?

    How do you decide which bishops you declare that we must, in order to be faithful Catholics, obey? Those who do say that pro-abort politicians shouldn’t receive Communion or those who give it to them publicly?

    Forget Novak. What about the bishops?

  • Blackadder

    The politicians in question have all expressed support for abortion as a right. So whether some hypothetical politician could support legislation favoring abortion without formally cooperating with evil is a moot point.

  • Katherine

    On the question of public policy on abortion, I concur with Senator McCain, President Bush and the Republican National Platform. The four of us (though we don’t meet together to discuss this) call for neither federal legislation banning abortion nor state legislation than would make it illegal for a woman to have an abortion. The four of us do hope for the overruling of Roe so that states may enact laws that make it illegal for a doctor (or other person) to perform an abortion.

    This does not seem to meet the right wing communion test but I beleive it effective advances our cause. Of course, once one gives way to this flexibility, charity requires some deference to others whose judgment brings them to different legislative responses.

  • M.Z. Forrest

    but it would be pointless and counterproductive for the Church to impose eucharistic litmus tests– especially if it wanted to be consistent.

    I think there is a bit of a tendency to cede too much territory to the fairness side of the question. Doing nothing of course is always option and is often the most prudent one. This is what I think you are basically arguing.

    I guess I see more analgously to the situation of the child living in sin. I can certainly understand the parent keeping their mouth shut about it at the family get togethers as long as the child doesn’t flout the matter. Some will even go through the elaborate ritual of the two lovers sleeping in seperate rooms even though the parent knows they will be heading back to the one-bedroom apartment together once they leave the parent’s house.

    However, once the parent says something, outside observers should really tell the child it is their fault and they are the one’s who need to reform. In the case of the politicians often listed or even Gerry Adams as you note, we aren’t talking about feats of intellectual prowess to come up with reasons why they shouldn’t receive communion. We are even willing to say that they shouldn’t seek it. So when we come to cases where it happens, I think we should just say this can happen when you choose this.

  • Policraticus


    If I understand you, I love your point. I think perhaps those Catholics who want pro-choice politicians banned from the Eucharist may want to be careful what they wish for when then begin to ascribe to legal questions supernatual consequences for individuals.

  • OD DC

    First of all it is the responsibility of a Catholic to know if they should or should not receive communion, politician or not. They know what sins they have admitted in confession and if they are worthy or not to receive communion. The Catholic Church is very clear on it’s beliefs and rules, there is not political wiggle room or more than one interpretation. I believe that if we start picking out people who are pro choice or pro torture then we start heading down a slippery slope of who can or can’t receive communion. After singling out people in America who knows how many people would be left.

  • Jen

    Yeah, you pegged Novak just right “he wants a weapon with which to bludgeon his political opponents”. They don’t call him the Prince of Darkness for nothing. But apart from the theocon glitterati like Novak, Santorum and other stalwarts of the White House Prayer Breakfast circuit, what I find amusing is the average John and Jane disgruntled self appointed moralists at the parish level. Once they’ve grown bored with trashing “liberals, bad catholics, bad priests, bad bishops” etc, they turn on themselves! Are you with Nellie and Edna, McCain backers who think we can progress incrementally toward ending abortion? Or are you in Marge and Fred’s camp who back(ed) Brownback and demand an all out war on “the Culture of Death”. Be warned that if you’re with Nellie and Edna, you will be deemed insufficiently prolife by Marge and Fred’s people who will cut you dead at the the fish fry. Life used to be so dull before the church became politicized.

  • SB

    But remember, unlike in other countries, American politicians are not in a position to vote for a law in parliament that legalizes or liberalizes abortion.

    1. Indisputably inaccurate. Google the “Freedom of Choice Act.” That act would purport to guarantee abortion rights via a federal statute. Obama is a co-sponsor and has promised that it would be his first priority if elected President.

    2. Politicians in America are certainly in a position to vote a law that FUNDS abortion — which is even more direct involvement than a law that merely “legalizes” abortion, Obama has voted for public financing of abortion, and opposes the Hyde Amendment, which is what prevents the federal government from funding abortion via Medicaid.

  • DarwinCatholic

    I think MM has made a good case against trying to have some sort of all encompassing policy which ban everyone publically doing anything evil in the political realm from the Eucharist. Who knows, perhaps a few people are even so misguided as to hold the position that he seeks to refute. And although I doubt that they seek the sort of comprehensive evil-banning which MM argues against, I pretty much agree with him that those who run around running newspaper advertisements and columns about whom the bishops should deny communion to are stepping out of line in regards to both manners and due respect to our spiritual shepherds.

    However, the whole approach taken in this post strikes me as a little bit odd, since it seems to imagine (at least for the purposes of refuting) a Church in which all things must be accomplished by rigidly evenhanded policies.

    I get very little of a sense of the relationship between bishop and flock being that of shepherd and sheep, or father and children, and I also get very little sense of a communal sense of sin.

    And that, really, is what I think a number of Catholics are asking for (even if in a critique-able way) when they call for “pro-choice” politicians to be banned from communion. On the one hand, we used to be told (and still are, if we listen carefully) that we should not receive communion unless we are free from grave sin. Additionally, we are told that some things are gravely wrong. Abortion, we believe, is one of those gravely wrong thing. Torture is another. Abandoning one’s family is another. And surely we could list off many more.

    Many of the flock these days feel rather un-led. If these things really are gravely wrong, is our spiritual father ever going to ever hand out any discipline? Is he going to tell people that they are in grave sin and sound mend their ways before receiving? Or are these things perhaps not really gravely wrong? Or have we succumbed to a Protestant “snow on the dungheap” version on sin, and decided that it really doesn’t matter if one is in grave sin or not when one approaches to receive communion?

    Now, when this hunger to see firm leadership results in people disrespecting our bishops and trying to fill in for them, then clearly we have even more of a breakdown. That’s a problem, and I don’t think it’s inappropriate for people like MM to call them out on that.

    However, I think in the process we must not miss the real need which is causing people to complain about this: a need for strong moral leadership and a renewed sense of what a sacred thing the Eucharist is.

    The danger of using authority is, of course, that it will be mis-used. Certainly, if our episcopal culture was currently one of firm leadership, I’m sure that some bishops would be disciplining people for publicly supporting the War in Iraq or publicly supporting capital punishment or what have you. I might think that was unjust. But I’m almost inclined to think it would be better overall for the flock if we had an overall use of authority which sometimes resulted in perceived injustice (whether it was liberals wanting pro-choice politicians to get a walk or conservatives feeling that a bishop was basing discipline on his prudential judgements about capital punishment and the war) on occasion than have a situation in which such authority was seldom ever exercised at all.

  • jh

    I wonder if many Louisiana African Americans considered Archbishop Rummel of New ORleans ” and the people who backed him in far more difficult times “fringe Catholics” when he ordered that arch racist and Jim Crow people like Judge Perez could not take communion or for all practical purposes excommunicated them. Thankfully the Chruch stood up against evil and Catholic schools as well as public were integrated among other things

    I can very much understand the diffuculties here and how it works. However I might add that many of these pro abortion politicians are doing more than just casting a vote. THey are often in the forefront in making people that oppose them , often Catholics, as some threat to the Republic that wishes to put their religion on other

    LEt us recall that these “Catholics” did not have to take communion in such a public manner. They knew darn well the controversy that would be coming down the pike after they did it.

    Smehow I am wondering why the people that asking questions as to this are seen as the problem and not them

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  • Katherine

    “I wonder if many Louisiana African Americans considered Archbishop Rummel of New ORleans ” and the people who backed him in far more difficult times “fringe Catholics” when he ordered that arch racist and Jim Crow people like Judge Perez could not take communion ”

    I’m not a Louisiana African American. I was an officer of the National Catholic Council for Interracial Justice around that time and was a supporter of Archbishop Rummel. Archbishop Rummel would not have denied Nancy Pelosi communion.

  • MarkB

    There was a feminist slogan back in the day: If men got pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament.” A remarkable slogan indeed, seeing that they – and you – made a sacrament out of abortion themselves. So you twist yourself into curlicues of logic to protect your greatest priority. Not the will of God, but the convenience of women.

    Legislatures can and do limit abortion, as you well know. Your pathetic attemp to get them off the moral hook is an embarrassment. When legislators announce themselves in support of abortion, and vote to allow abortion, they bloody their hands. You can choose to say they are right – don’t attempt to say they are not culpable. There is a moral argument to be made for legal abortion – there is no Catholic argument.

  • Katherine

    Legislatures can and do limit abortion, as you well know.

    I know that legislatures have been most effective at limiting abortion by programs of social assistance. Should we explore banning from communion politicans who vote against these programs?