Devil in the Details

Date: 30 Jun 2004 | posted in: From the Desk of David Morris, The Public Good | 0 Facebooktwitterredditmail

Devil in the Details

by David Morris

Originally published in Alternet, June 30, 2004

In mid June, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) weighed in on the growing controversy about whether bishops should deny Communion, one of the Church’s holiest rites, to politicians.

“The question has been raised as to whether the denial of Holy Communion to some Catholics in political life is necessary because of their public support for abortion on demand. Given the wide range of circumstances involved in arriving at a prudential judgment on a matter of this seriousness, we recognize that such decisions rest with the individual bishop in accord with the established canonical and pastoral principles.”

Translation? Each Bishop has the right to deny Communion. The devil, if I may use that word, is in the details.

Church doctrine clearly states that those who have committed morally grave (mortal) sins and who have not confessed and repented for those sins should not participate in Communion. In April 2004 the Vatican reaffirmed that principle, “anyone who is conscious of grave sin should not celebrate or receive the Body of the Lord without prior sacramental confession…”

However, the active denial of Communion is very rare in modern times. As Reverend Thomas Reese, editor for America, a Catholic Magazine commented, this “is a new and really, a very unusual development.”

Traditionally, Church leaders have left the decision to participate to the individual. As Cardinal William H. Keeler of Baltimore recently observed, “Catholics have a responsibility to examine their own conscience and see if they are in a state that is appropriate for the reception of the sacrament.” Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington, D.C. adds, “As a priest and bishop, I do not favor a confrontation at the altar rail with the Sacred Body of the Lord Jesus in my hand.”

Those who favor a more active intervention argue that if the Church does not sanction violators it, in effect, condones their behavior. This undermines the integrity and moral authority of the Church. For them the question is not whether to sanction, but when and for what type of behavior. And here the details become much more devilish.

In 2004, U.S. bishops have denied Communion for a wide variety of sins. Bishop Joseph Galante of Camden denied Communion to New Jersey Governor James McGreevey because McGreevey had been divorced and remarried without receiving a church annulment of his first marriage. In the eyes of the Church, he is committing adultery. The newly appointed archbishop of St. Louis, Raymond Burke ordered priests within his diocese to refuse Communion to Catholic politicians who support a woman’s right to abortion. Colorado Springs Bishop Michael Sheridan went further by declaring his intention to deny Communion to, “Any Catholic politicians who advocate for abortion, for illicit stem cell research or any form of euthanasia…”, and to extend the sanction to, “Any Catholics who vote for candidates that stand for abortion, stem cell research or euthanasia…”

How do we weigh the comparative gravity of mortal sins? For example, preemptive war clearly violates Church doctrine and often results in the death of thousands of innocents. If a politician opposes preemptive war but supports early term abortions, should sanctions be applied? Should they be applied if the reverse were true?

Much of the current activism in the Catholic Church focuses on sins that violate Church doctrine regarding the sanctity of life. In his 1995 encyclical, Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life), Pope John Paul II laid out the Church’s definition of “pro-life” behavior. His starting point was the Didache, the most ancient non-biblical Christian writing. The Didache explores the differences between “a way of life and a way of death.” “The way of death is this…they show no compassion for the poor, they do not suffer with the suffering, they do not acknowledge their Creator, they kill their children and cause God’s creatures to perish; they drive away the needy, oppress the suffering, they are advocates of the rich and unjust judges of the poor; they are filled with every sin.” Thus the Didache teaches us that to evaluate whether an individual is pro-life depends on far more than his or her position on abortion.

The Pope maintains that life must be protected “from the moment of conception to one’s natural end.” The Church opposes abortion, stem cell research and physician assisted suicide. It also opposes contraception and views its practice as inherently linked to these other mortal sins. “(D)espite their differences of nature and moral gravity, contraception and abortion are often closely connected, as fruits of the same tree,” Pope John Paul II observes, “the negative values inherent in the ‘contraceptive mentality’ are such that they in fact strengthen this temptation when an unwanted life is conceived. Indeed, the pro-abortion culture is especially strong precisely where the Church’s teaching on contraception is rejected.”

The Pope maintains that abortion at any time constitutes murder. However, he concedes that “the texts of Sacred Scripture never address the question of deliberate abortion and so do not directly and specifically condemn it.” Indeed, although he doesn’t discuss this, for more than 1500 years the position of the Catholic Church on abortion was very close to that of the U.S. Supreme Court in Roe v. Wade: Early term abortion is not a mortal sin.

St. Augustine, Bishop of Hippo (ca. 415 AD), one of the most influential of all Catholic theologians, persuaded early Church leaders that abortion should not be regarded “as homicide, for there cannot be a living soul in a body that lacks sensation due to its not yet being formed.” He, and Thomas Aquinas after him, taught that the embryo does not acquire a human soul until the end of the first trimester. At the beginning of the 13th century Pope Innocent II proposed that “quickening”(the time when the woman first feels the fetus move within her) should be the moment at which abortion becomes homicide. Abortions occurring prior to that moment constituted a less serious sin. Pope Gregory XIV’s declaration in 1591 that early abortion was not grounds for excommunication guided Church policy until 1869. In that year, Pope Pius IX eliminated the distinction between the animated and non-animated fetus and insisted on excommunication for anyone having or providing an abortion at any stage of pregnancy. That instruction was written into the Canon Law in 1917.

Aside from the question of which sins should result in the denial of Communion is the question of how broadly the sanctions should be applied. Pope John Paul II has declared that the mortal sin attached to the woman who has an abortion and the doctor who provides it must be borne equally by those who encouraged the woman to have the abortion and the medical administration that enabled the operation. The current discussion focuses largely on whether sanctions should extend to politicians at the local, state or national level who support policies that allow access to abortion. Denver Bishop Sheridan would extend sanctions to those who vote for such politicians. Given recent election results and public opinion polls, this would result in the majority of practicing Catholics being denied Communion.

In their June resolution, the U.S. Bishops warned, “the polarizing tendencies of election-year politics can lead to circumstances in which Catholic teaching and sacramental practice can be misused for political ends.” The denial of Communion must be applied even-handedly or it will be viewed as a political rather than a moral act, a way to influence elections, not behavior.

So far sanctions have been applied in a decidedly partisan manner. While Catholic Democratic Governor McGreevey was sanctioned, in part for his support for abortions, Catholic Republican Governor Pataki of New York, who holds similar views on abortion, was not. Sacramento Bishop Wiegand chastised Catholic Democratic Governor Gray Davis for supporting abortion rights and recommended that he refrain from taking Communion. But he has issued no warning to Catholic Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who also supports abortion rights.

The Pope has clearly and consistently spoken out against abortion. But as Reverend Reese has noted, in a private Mass in 2003, the Pope himself gave Communion to Tony Blair, a pro-abortion Episcopalian. U.S. Catholic bishops would be well-served if they were to emulate the example of the head of their Church.

David Morris is vice-president of the Minneapolis and Washington, D.C., based Institute for Local Self-Reliance (

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David Morris is co-founder of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and currently ILSR's distinguished fellow. His five non-fiction books range from an analysis of Chilean development to the future of electric power to the transformation of cities and neighborhoods.  For 14 years he was a regular columnist for the Saint Paul Pioneer Press. His essays on public policy have appeared in the New York TimesWall Street Journal, Washington PostSalonAlternetCommon Dreams, and the Huffington Post.