U.S. Bishops' statement regarding Communion is inevitably political

Catholic Courier    |    12.20.2009
Category: Columns

The U.S. Catholic bishops had intended to issue no formal statement until after the November election on the current controversy regarding Catholic politicians and the reception of Holy Communion. But the discussion in the media became so widespread and so intense in the run-up to their semi-annual meeting in June in Colorado that it became practically impossible for them to say nothing at all.

So they issued a statement, “Catholics in Political Life,” that depended in large part on “an extensive interim report” from the Task Force on Catholic Bishops and Catholic Politicians, headed by Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, archbishop of Washington, D.C. The full report will be released, as originally planned, sometime after the election.

The recent statement highlighted five points from the interim report:

First, the bishops “need to continue to teach clearly and to help other Catholic leaders to teach clearly on [the Church’s] unequivocal commitment to the legal protection of human life from the moment of conception until natural death.”

Second, the bishops “need to do more to persuade all people that human life is precious and human dignity must be defended.” This requires “more effective dialogue and engagement,” especially with Catholic public officials. The bishops indicate that they “welcome” such dialogue, even if initiated by political leaders themselves.

Third, although Catholic laity need to act in support of these principles and policies in public life, the bishops themselves “do not endorse or oppose candidates” for political office. They urge Catholic voters to “examine the positions of candidates and make choices based on Catholic moral and social teaching.”

Fourth, the bishops insist that the “Catholic community and Catholic institutions should not honor those who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles. They should not be given awards, honors or platforms which would suggest support for their actions.”

And, fifth, the bishops committed themselves “to maintain communication with public officials who make decisions every day that touch issues of human life and dignity.”

On the question of denying Communion to pro-choice Catholic politicians, the bishops acknowledge that this is a matter of prudential judgment and that such decisions “rest with the individual bishop in accord with the established canonical and pastoral principles.”

“The polarizing tendencies of election-year politics,” the bishops conclude, “can lead to circumstances in which Catholic teaching and sacramental practice can be misused for political ends.”

What can be said about the statement as a whole?

First, it is the type of statement that Catholics on either side of the controversy can embrace as leaning in their direction.

Those for whom abortion is the issue that “trumps” all others -- including even war and peace -- can point to the statement’s emphasis on the intrinsically evil nature of abortion, its insistence on the obligation of legislators to work to change laws that fail to protect innocent human life, its claim that the separation of church and state “does not require division between ... moral principles and political choices,” and its concession that individual bishops have the pastoral right to deny Communion to pro-choice Catholic politicians in their respective dioceses.

Those who continue to follow the bishops’ consistent-ethic-of-life approach to moral issues -- a position re-stated every four years since 1980 -- can note that the statement’s concern for the protection of life does not begin and end with abortion, that the statement recognizes the bishops’ obligation to teach by persuasion, not by threats, that it encourages dialogue with Catholic politicians rather than warfare through the media and that, while individual bishops have the right to make decisions for their own dioceses, all bishops have to be mindful of the inevitable political implications of their actions in a presidential election year.

Some of the bishops, including the late cardinal-archbishop of New York, John O’Connor, crossed that line in 1984 by publicly attacking the Democratic vice presidential candidate, Congresswoman Geraldine Ferraro, for her pro-choice views and then engaging in a protracted public argument with New York’s Gov. Mario Cuomo over the issue.

It became clear to many people that, whatever the bishops’ actual intentions, the Catholic hierarchy was indirectly endorsing the re-election of President Reagan by publicly criticizing only the Democrats.

And that is why, in their next quadrennial statement, the words “or opposing” were added after the word “endorsing.” The experience of the 1984 campaign taught the bishops that they could implicitly “endorse” candidates by “opposing” their opponents.

And that is also why the current controversy over Communion is so delicate. The most outspoken bishops and their supporters on the right insist that they have no political agenda whatever, but the consequences are inevitably political.

Republicans are delighted.

Father McBrien is a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame.

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