Any decision by Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kerry to receive Communion at Mass is likely to be a controversial action, a line drawn in the sand of conflict between the presumptive Democratic nominee for president and his church over its teachings on the contentious issue of abortion.
That is because over the past few months, several prominent U.S. Catholic bishops, including Sean O'Malley, archbishop of Kerry's hometown of Boston, have decided finally to take a stand against Catholic politicians who support abortion rights. Like many Catholic politicians in this age when the majority of Americans support legal abortion to some degree -- and when the backing of abortion-rights groups can be critical to a candidate's electoral success -- Kerry distinguishes between what he calls his personal opposition to abortion and his legislative support of unrestricted abortion.
What a mistaken article this is, especially to say that the majority of Americans now support legal abortion. Those were the trends of old and the polls now show the majority of people being apposed to abortion. When in the world did hypocrisy become distinguishing? If a politician said they were personally opposed to racism but supported segregation because his constituents did I truly doubt if anyone would call it distinguishing. This Jekyll and Hyde view of personally held views and public life is a contradiction that too many people are willing to swallow whole.
The bishops want to make clear that Catholic politicians like Kerry who defy the church's teachings on grave moral issues such as abortion are not in good standing as Catholics and are thus ineligible for Communion. For a Catholic, being barred from the Eucharist is tantamount to excommunication.
In fact, it is excommunication: the denial of the church's central sacrament and hence full participation in the Catholic community.
This is only half true. Excommunication goes farther than just denying access to the Eucharist it also denies access to public worship until such time as they are penitent.
So far, only one U.S. Catholic bishop, Raymond Burke, the newly installed archbishop of St. Louis, has said explicitly that he would refuse to give Communion to Kerry on the basis of the senator's stance on abortion. Burke warned the candidate a few days before the Missouri primary election on Feb. 3 "not to present himself for Communion" in St. Louis-area churches while campaigning. (Kerry finessed the issue by attending a Sunday service at a Baptist church in St. Louis.) O'Malley, replacing Cardinal Bernard F. Law, who resigned last year amid the Boston archdiocese's sexual abuse scandal, hasn't named Kerry specifically, but has been quoted as saying that Catholic politicians whose political views contradict Catholic teaching "shouldn't dare come to Communion." Ironically, Kerry and Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts's other Catholic Democratic senator and also a supporter of abortion rights, received the sacrament at the archbishop's installation Mass last July.
How do you become a reporter and find yourself competent to write on a subject and you haven't even fact checked your research. Bishop Fabian W. Bruskewitz has also said that he would deny Mr. Kerry Communion. Her mentioning of the fact that Archbishop O'Malley has given Communion to these Catholic politicians is a prime reason why Bishops need to stop this scandal. Even secular reporters can see the hypocrisy in Bishop's generalizing about who should receive Communion and then giving Communion to those in league with the culture of death. Unfortunately most of them don't seem to understand the grave scandal caused by these actions to the faithful. The other side effect is that those who are not currently in communion with the beliefs of the Church can justify to themselves that it is excusable to be in opposition to Church teachings.
O'Malley's stance marks a major departure from the passivity and confusion with which most American Catholic bishops have approached -- and in many cases still approach -- the conundrum of the Catholic politician who declares that he or she is "personally opposed" to abortion but then, like Kerry, votes to support abortion rights.
This is not only about the issue of abortion. Mr. Kerry is also in favor of same sex unions. The recent Vatican document specifically says that Catholic politicians have a moral duty to oppose same sex unions.
...Pope John Paul II had made it clear in a 1995 encyclical, Evangelium vitae, that Catholic citizens of democracies have an obligation to oppose laws that conflict with Catholic moral teaching on such issues as abortion and euthanasia. But the newer doctrinal note was unprecedented in its specific repudiation of the "personally opposed, but ... " option for Catholic politicians. The statement declared that Catholic teaching on abortion and the sanctity of marriage are not "confessional values" unique to Catholicism but are "ethical precepts ... rooted in human nature itself." Catholic lawmakers, the document stated, have a duty not to enact laws "which ignore the principles of natural ethics and yield to ephemeral cultural and moral trends."
Nonetheless, most bishops are still reluctant to respond publicly to Catholic politicians whose views contradict church teaching -- for all kinds of reasons. One is that Canon 915 of church law makes clear that public denial of Communion is a punishment of last resort, to be invoked only against those who "obstinately persist in manifest grave sin." Those words suggest that the bishop should contact the offender privately first. Moreover, the word "manifest" implies that such a form of ostracism is an inappropriate sanction against mere private citizens who disobey church teachings in their private lives. Then there is the perception that the recent sex scandals have robbed U.S. bishops of their moral authority. Another reason may be that many politicians who support abortion rights are politically liberal on other issues, such as welfare and the death penalty, and thus perhaps acceptable to an episcopate whose members tend to be politically liberal themselves.
Canon 915 specifically says "Those who have been excommunicated or interdicted after the imposition or the declaration of a penalty as well as others who obstinately persist in manifest grave sin are not to be admitted to communion." Excommunication itself would be the punishment of last resort. Denying Communion itself is a step in that direction but is not the last resort. She says that the canon means that the offender should be contacted first. This is not part of the canon but is part of scripture. Matthew 18:15 gives us the template for how we correct our brother and what to do if he refuses to listen to the Church. This is the very basis for excommunication.
If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.
But the most likely reason is that excommunication so far has proved to be a two-edged sword. In 1989, Bishop Leo T. Maher of San Diego, Calif., forbade Lucy Killea, a former California Democratic assembly member who was a Catholic and was running for the state Senate, to receive Communion in Maher's diocese because of her opposition to abortion restrictions. Killea cast herself as a martyr of conscience and flew to Sacramento, whose ultraliberal bishop at the time, Francis A. Quinn, assured her that she would not be denied the Eucharist in his diocese.
Killea won that election -- and after the trouncing of Maher, few bishops until recently have considered following his example. Indeed, Kerry may be counting on a Killea-style national reaction should a Catholic priest ever turn him away in the Communion line. In a recent New York Times interview, Kerry declared with evident irritation that "our Constitution separates church and state," and that the Catholic Church's Second Vatican Council of the 1960s had allowed for "freedom of conscience" for Catholics with respect to choices concerning issues such as abortion rights and same-sex marriage.
This is the scare story often brought up to show that we should not deny Communion to politicians. It is a story to show what happens when our Bishops are not united in how these situations are to be treated. The truth must always be spoken and it does not matter what the results of the election were. As Blessed Teresa of Calcutta said "we are not called to be successful but to be faithful." Again if a reporter is going to write about the Catholic Church it should be their duty to mention that Kerry's statement was fictitious nonsense and that this teaching on "freedom of conscience" is just about as real as the words "separation of church and state" in our constitution.
Kerry has openly defied the Vatican on other issues (by supporting gay unions, for example). But truth be told, he probably has little to worry about in terms of lost votes from all but the most faithful Catholics. Even among the 45 percent of Catholics who attend Mass weekly or more often, fewer than one-third said in a 1999 poll conducted by the National Catholic Reporter that they thought church leaders should have the final say on the abortion issue. "People just don't like the idea of bishops telling them how to vote," says Philip Lawler, editor of Catholic World Report, a conservative Catholic magazine.
Undoubtedly for this reason, even Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, a prominent church conservative, has stated that he was not ready to deny Communion to Catholic politicians who take positions on abortion rights that are contrary to church law.
Most other U.S. Catholic bishops are so far imitating George's caution -- and his discretion. But the very fact that some are speaking out is evidence of a shift that may well lead to a time when Catholic politicians have to be concerned not only about the political consequences of their votes, but also the religious consequences. Which is as it should be.
One of the major problems I have with the Bishops not drawing a line in the sand on this issue is that it seems to minimize the true meaning of Communion. Saint Paul in 1st Cor 11: 28 says:
Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a man examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For any one who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died. But if we judged ourselves truly, we should not be judged. But when we are judged by the Lord, we are chastened so that we may not be condemned along with the world.
The Catholic Encyclopedia in an article about excommunication says:
Excommunication (Lat. ex, out of, and communio or communicatio, communion -- exclusion from the communion), the principal and severest censure, is a medicinal, spiritual penalty that deprives the guilty Christian of all participation in the common blessings of ecclesiastical society. Being a penalty, it supposes guilt; and being the most serious penalty that the Church can inflict, it naturally supposes a very grave offense. It is also a medicinal rather than a vindictive penalty, being intended, not so much to punish the culprit, as to correct him and bring him back to the path of righteousness. It necessarily, therefore, contemplates the future, either to prevent the recurrence of certain culpable acts that have grievous external consequences, or, more especially, to induce the delinquent to satisfy the obligations incurred by his offense.
When someone holds opinions that are already not in conformance of Church teaching they are already out of communion with the Church. Denial of Communion and finally excommunication only brings church action against something that is already evident. To try to prevent a sacrilege against the Body and Blood of our lord is not mean-spiritedness but true charity. This is one reason I don't understand the current deliberations by the seven member task force headed by Bishop McCarrick, created last year by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, to study what steps to take against Catholic politicians who vote and support positions at odds with church teachings. What exactly can take so long and just how many options are there? On one side you can continue to do nothing or on the other side you could specify denial of Communion or Excommunication. There are really not many options in between to deliberate about. You could have each Bishop personally and privately write to each Catholic politician in their diocese whose voting records are at odd with natural law and Church teaching. But you would also require followup if this is ignored. Too many times when you really don't want to do anything on a subject you appoint some kind of committee. Hopefully my pessimism on this subject is misplaced.
Any action taken is meant to bring a person back into communion with the Church. Our deepest hope is not that Mr. Kerry and other Catholic politicians are excommunicated, but that they come to the truth and repent of their past positions. Please pray for our Catholic politicians and especially for Mr. Kerry that this might be the case.
Ongoing commentary by the editors of CatholicKerryWatch
Sen. John Kerry stands with Kate Michelman (right) President of NARAL Pro-Choice America.
Since 1995, Michelman's group has given Kerry a 100% rating for his voting record to defend abortion.