Given the divisions among American bishops on the issue of denying communion to pro-abortion political celebrities, it is no surprise that the Catholic News Service is reporting that the Vatican, through Cardinal Ratzinger, is seeking to address the issue with American bishops ("Vatican wants to meet with U.S. task force on Catholic politicians," June 3, 2004, by John Thavis).
Unfortunately, the Catholic News Service article is, in my opinion, biased in favor of those bishops who tremble at the thought of denying communion, but apparently not at the sacrilege of giving it. How can you easily spot the bias? Notice the end of an article and ask yourself what is the last word, the last quote, the last thought with which the reader is left. In the article, the last quote is from a New Mexico bishop who appears very anxious about the possibility of having to deny communion to a pro-abortion crusader.
This particular bishop ends with a reference to the late Jesuit theologian John Courtney Murray who is famous for his work on religious freedom. What the bishop does not mention, at least in the article, is that Murray's death in 1968 occurred five years before Roe v. Wade. In other words, we don't have the benefit of Murray's insights on the spectacle of abortion on demand being aggressively promoted by Catholic politicians for the last thirty years. Murray did not live to see one of the major national political parties make a abortion a non-negotiable civil rights issue. He did not live to see that the party taking this huge step would be the party that had traditionally benefited from Catholic voter loyalty.
The article quotes Murray to the effect that the legislator does not have to prohibit all that morality prohibits, or promote all that morality demands. As a very general statement, that is surely true, as Aquinas would also agree. In fact, Aquinas states the matter with the needed precision:
Human law does not forbid all vicious acts, by the obligation of a precept, as neither does it prescribe all acts of virtue. But it forbids certain acts of each vice, just as it prescribes some acts of each virtue.
Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, Pt. I-II, Q. 96, Art. 4 (Reply to Obj. 1).
So the real issue is whether the direct taking of innocent life in abortion should be prohibited. Aquinas, in my view, answers the question with this passage:
Human laws do not forbid all vices, from which the virtuous abstain, but only the more grievous vices, from which it is possible for the majority to abstain; and chiefly those that are to the hurt of others, without the prohibition of which human society could not be maintained: thus human law prohibits murder, theft and such-like.
Summa, Pat. I-II, Q. 96, Art. 2 (body of the article).
The direct, voluntary killing of the innocent is murder. The majority can abstain from it. The right to life is fundamental to the maintenance of human society because, without life, we obviously cannot participate in any aspect of human society. Surely, abortion is to the hurt of another. That is undeniable Catholic teaching.
The non-controversial truism that laws do not enact the entire moral code cannot mean that the law can promote denial of the right to life of the innocent. Aquinas would say that such a law would in fact be no law:
[E]very human law has just so much of the nature of law, as it is derived from the law of nature. But if in any point it deflects from the law of nature, it is no longer a law but a perversion of law.
Summa Theologiae, Pt. I-II, Q. 95, Art. 2 (body of article).
Yet, the journalist does not blink at leaving the bishop's unenlightening statement unchallenged.
But what will the Vatican do? At least three possibilities come to mind. Either the Vatican position will seek to prohibit denying communion to pro-abortion politicians, or it will promote a policy of caution with specific guidelines on when denial should take place, or it will, in the end, contribute nothing specific to the debate. I find it hard to believe that if the Vatican is showing serious concern with the issue that it will fail to take a position on the issue. So that leaves the other two options. Will the Vatican stop bishops from denying communion to pro-abortion politicians? I certainly hope not. I do not think that they will given the clear authorization to do so in the Code of Canon Law (Canon 915). In addition, the Vatican itself recently issued a document on the obligations of Catholic politicians and voters that lays the foundation for the action taken by a few brave bishops. Finally, the theology of the Eucharist articulated by the Vatican, recently the subject of a papal encyclical and a disciplinary document from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, shows the urgency with which Rome views the abuses of the Eucharist.
Moreover, Ratzinger's own writings on the Eucharist show that the Eucharist is the "sacrament of the reconciled, to which the Lord invites all those who have become one with him; who certainly still remain weak sinners, but yet have given their hand to him and have become part of his family" (Ratzinger, God is Near Us [Ignatius Press, 1993], p. 60). The argument made by some who oppose denial of the Eucharist is that the Eucharist is not a "reward" for our good behavior but a sacrament for the "journey" of sinful people and therefore should not be denied (see Oregon's Mail Tribune, "Rites and wrongs," June 4, 2004, by John Darling). What this misleading argument leaves out is that the Eucharist is indeed a blessing and gift that arises from our reconciliation with God, and that the "journey" requires continual conversion and reconciliation through the sacrament of penance for grave sin. To use the term "reward" is a rhetorical ploy that seeks to give a false commercial tinge to the great truth that once we reconcile through the sacrament of penance we enjoy the great gift and privilege of the Eucharist. Without that prior reconciliation, the Eucharist is not a blessing, but a source of condemnation, as St. Paul clearly teaches.
The talk about a "journey" also tends to reflect our culture's lack of a sense of sin by implying in certain contexts, such as this one, that dramatic conversion on a continual basis is not part of the journey. The sacrament of penance is called in the Catechism the "sacrament of conversion," and the Pope emphasizes in his writings the dramatic quality of the Christian life, particularly when the Christian approaches the sacrament of penance. Our Christian life is not a comfortable suburban journey with smooth highways or first-class seats. The Christian life is one of real danger that requires dramatic decisions, trust, and continual conversion. That continual conversion takes place through the sacrament of penance.
But, in the end, what position will the Vatican take on this issue? My guess is that the Vatican will push for caution and guidelines for denying the Eucharist to pro-abortion politicians, as is fitting for such a serious penalty. And surely we can hope to get from Ratzinger a better and deeper explanation of the issue than the repetition of bland New Age jargon about "rewards" or the "journey" that merely mirrors our morally bankrupt culture.
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.