Communion Wars, Again

Communion Wars, Again April 29, 2008

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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