American Voice 2004: Should Catholic bishops deny Communion to politicians?

Date: 1 Jun 2004 | posted in: From the Desk of David Morris, The Public Good | 0 Facebooktwitterredditmail

Q. Several Catholic bishops have declared they will deny Communion to politicians who support policies that allow abortions. Do they have the right to do this? Why are they singling out pro-choice candidates? What about those who support preemptive wars or capital punishment?


There’s no question the bishops have the right to do this. The devil, if I might use that term, is in the details.

For non-Christian readers, and there are some 40 million non-Christians in the United States at the moment[1], let’s begin with the basics.

Communion is the partaking of communally shared bread and wine in commemoration of the last supper of Christ. For the nation’s 50 million Catholics, the largest single Christian denomination, Communion is called the Eucharist. It is one of the religion’s seven sacraments, the holiest of rites.[2] In Catholicism the wafer and wine are literally transformed into the flesh and blood of Christ, a process known as transubstantiation. Other Christian denominations view the sharing of the wafer and wine as symbolic acts.

In the Catholic Church, access to the Eucharist is a privilege, not a right, available only to those who are in a state of grace. Catholics who have remarried, for example, are ineligible for Communion unless their first marriage was annulled by the Church.[3] Protestants, whose churches practice a slightly different Christian theology, cannot be given Communion in a Catholic Church, even if they are married to Catholics.[4]

Church doctrine clearly and consistently 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. Indeed, as St. Paul observed, those who do would compound their sins. “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.”(1 Cor 11:27)

Church law (Canon 915) codifies St. Paul’s admonition. “Those who have been excommunicated or interdicted after the imposition or the declaration of a penalty as well as others who obstinately persist in manifestly grave sin are not to be admitted to Communion.” In April 2004 the Vatican reaffirmed the principle that “anyone who is conscious of grave sin should not celebrate or receive the Body of the Lord without prior sacramental confession…”[5]

In mid June 2004 the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) overwhelmingly affirmed not only the right but also the obligation of its members to aggressively educate their parishioners that those who seek Communion must maintain a moral life and be in a state of grace.[6]

The USCCB also affirmed the sovereignty of bishops in their dioceses(there are 195 dioceses in the United States).[7] Bishops decide how to conduct their services. However, their conduct must be informed and guided by Church doctrine as explicated by Canonical Law, the Catechism and pronouncements from the Vatican.

In recent months, several U.S. bishops have declared their intention to actively deny Communion to Catholics whose behavior violates Church doctrine. This triggered widespread debate both inside and outside the Catholic community for, as Reverend Thomas Reese, editor for America, a Catholic Magazine observed, this “is a new and really, a very unusual development.”[8]

The debate involves several issues. One is whether bishops should assume an active, interventionist role. In recent decades the Church has rarely denied Communion to a Catholic who wants it. [9] Church leaders have left it up to the conscience of the individual parishioner as to whether to participate. Cardinal William H. Keeler of Baltimore sums up the traditional position, “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.”[10]

Some bishops have publicly asked individuals not to present themselves for Communion but indicated that if they did the bishop would provide it. Others prefer to privately counsel offenders and try to persuade them to change their behavior. They note that Communion is the only sacrament where recipients do not present themselves beforehand. They simply step forward. Thus there’s little or no time to question them on their values or beliefs. Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington, D.C. has said, “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.”[11]

Those who favor a more active intervention argue that, in the case of politicians their voting records on positions related to Church doctrines are known beforehand. And if the Church does not sanction violators it, in effect, condones their behavior and undermines the integrity and moral authority of the Church.

For those who decide that a public denial of the Eucharist is acceptable another and more complicated question arises: for what sins (absent confession and repentance) and on what criteria should this sanction be invoked?

The Vatican-based Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith has affirmed, “a well-formed Christian conscience does not permit one to vote for a political program or an individual law which contradicts the fundamental contents of faith and morals.”[12] But what are these “fundamental tenets”? Are some more fundamental than others? Is a person to be judged on the totality of his or her behavior or on individual actions?

This year U.S. bishops have denied Communion for a variety of reasons. Bishop Joseph Galante of Camden denied Communion to New Jersey Governor James McGreevey because McGreevey had remarried without receiving a church annulment of his first marriage. Bishop Raymond Burke, newly appointed archbishop of St. Louis, in January 2004 ordered priests within his diocese to refuse Communion to Catholic politicians who support a woman’s right to abortion. Colorado Springs Bishop Michael Sheridan has declared his intention to deny Communion for, “Any Catholic politicians who advocate for abortion, for illicit stem cell research or any form of euthanasia…” Moreover, he will apply the sanction to, “Any Catholics who vote for candidates that stand for abortion, stem cell research or euthanasia…”[13]

After Archbishop John Myers of Newark declared he would deny Communion for politicians supporting abortion, he was asked if he would apply similar sanctions on those who supported the death penalty. The death penalty, he responded is “of a somewhat different order” because its use is not always wrong. Abortion, however, is always wrong. But, he noted, so are other behaviors. “We have abortion, which is always wrong. We have racism and euthanasia and trafficking in human beings, always wrong.”[14]

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

In his 1995 encyclical, popularly known as the Gospel of Life, Pope John Paul II set out Church doctrine. He defined what a pro-life Christian is and decried the “culture of death” that is infecting modern industrialized societies. He begins by referring readers to the Didache, the most ancient non-biblical Christian writing and its discussion about 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.”[15]

To Pope Paul II, life must be protected “from the moment of conception to one’s natural end”. Thus the Church opposes abortion, stem cell research and physician assisted suicide. The Church also opposes contraception. The Pope recognizes that contraception and abortion are “specifically different evils” from “the moral point of view”. But he concludes that they are closely linked and that the former foments the latter. “(D)espite their differences of nature and moral gravity, contraception and abortion are often closely connected, as fruits of the same tree…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.”

Any behavior that creates a situation in which abortion becomes a serious option is similarly morally suspect. “Special attention must be given to evaluating the morality of prenatal diagnostic techniques which enable the early detection of possible anomalies in the unborn child…”, the Pope observed. Prenatal monitoring is acceptable, when it leads to early medical intervention that can help the embryo survive. But “since the possibilities of prenatal therapy are today still limited, it not infrequently happens that these techniques are used with a eugenic intention….Such an attitude is shameful and utterly reprehensible…”

As for abortion itself, the Pope notes that “the texts of Sacred Scripture never address the question of deliberate abortion and so do not directly and specifically condemn it.”[16] He doesn’t, however, discuss the evolution of the Church’s position on abortion. For more than 1500 years the position of the Catholic Church on abortion was close to the current U.S. law on abortion: early term abortion was not a mortal sin.

St. Augustine, Bishop of Hippo (ca. 415 AD), one of the most influential of all Catholic theologians, and a resource cited by the Pope in the Gospel of Life, 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.”[17] 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) was the moment at which abortion became homicide. Abortions occurring prior to that moment constituted a less serious sin. In 1591, Pope Gregory XIV proclaimed that quickening occurred after 116 days. His declaration that early abortion was not grounds for excommunication guided Church policy until 1869, when Pope Pius IX eliminated the distinction between the animated and non-animated fetus and required excommunication for abortions at any stage of pregnancy. That instruction was written into the Code of Canon Law in 1917.

Aside from the question of which sins should be the target of sanctions is the question of how broadly the sanctions should be applied.

In the case of abortion, for example, since 1869 the Church has automatically excommunicated anyone who has had or performed an abortion. Pope 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 largely focuses on whether to extend sanctions to politicians at the local, state or national level, who support policies that allow access to abortion, no matter how restricted. Denver Bishop Sheridan has extended the sanctions to those who vote for politicians who support abortion, stem cell research or euthanasia. Given recent election results and public opinion polls, this would result in the majority of practicing Catholics being denied Communion.[18]

The final issue concerning the denial of Communion as a sanction is whether it is even-handedly applied. 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.”

Some observers note that the way the sanction has been applied so far leads one to surmise a political rather than a moral objective. While Catholic Democratic Governor McGreevey was sanctioned, in part for his support of access to 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.[19] Indeed, Reverend Reese has noted that in a private Mass in 2003, the Pope himself gave Communion to Tony Blair, a pro-abortion Episcopalian.[20]

[2] The other six are: Baptism, Confirmation, Penance(Confession), Extreme Unction(Last Rites), Orders(ordination of priests) and Matrimony.

[3] Recently Catholics in Germany and the U.S. asked the Vatican to soften its stance on Communion for those remarried. Some 21 percent of American Catholics are divorced and 53 percent of them are remarried. The Vatican rejected the request, reaffirming its stance that divorce and remarriage means the couple is “living in a public state of adultery”. Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts. June 24, 2000.

[4] “If anyone denieth that, in the sacrament of the most holy Eucharist, are contained truly, really and substantially, the body and blood together with the soul and divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ, and consequently the whole Christ; but saith that He is only therein as a sign, or in figure, or virtue: let him be anathema”(cursed and damned to hell). Council of Trent. 1545, The 1983 Code of Canon Law reaffirms the prohibition on a Catholic priest’s giving Eucharist to Protestants(although it happens).

[5] Atlanta Journal Constitution. May 22, 2004.

[6] Catholics in Political Life. June 18, 2004

[7] Within these 195 dioceses are about 19,000 parishes headed by priests.

[8] Carol Eisenberg, “Bishop’s Order is Debated”. Newsday. May 25, 2004

[9] In 2001 a parish priest in Sicily declared he would withhold Communion to parishioners who refused to rent available housing to migrant Tunisian workers. Agence France Presse. October 31, 2001. Earlier in 2001, two Irish priests said they would refuse Communion to unmarried live-in couples. The Sun. March 17, 2001. In 1998 in Australia a Bishop announced he would not give Communion to a woman who openly advocated the ordination of women priests. Sydney Morning Herald. September 30, 1998. In 1989 San Diego’s Bishop banned Lucy Killea, a state Assemblywoman who supported allowing access to abortions from receiving Communion. The Bishop of the neighboring Sacramento diocese informed Killea that she could receive Communion within his jurisdiction. At the time, Killea was running in a special election for state Senate. She won the election.

[10] The Baltimore Sun. May 28, 2004

[11] Newsday. May 13, 2004.

[13] Los Angeles Times. May 15, 2004.

[14] Fox News. May 10, 2004.

[15] On the Value and Inviolability of Human Life. Evangelium Vitae. Pope Paul II. March 25, 1995

[16] On the Value and Inviolability of Human Life. Evangelium Vitae. Pope Paul II. March 25, 1995

[17] Augustine, On Exodus. For fuller discussion of the Church’s position on abortion throughout its history, see Issues and Allegations: Abortion and Contraception.

[18] A majority of Catholics voted for the Democratic nominee for President in 2000. Two-thirds of Catholics believe abortion should be legal. The Times Union. May 8, 2004.

[19] Copley News Service. June 9, 2004. Rev. Edward Kavanaugh, a priest in a parish in Sacramento under Wiegand bishop barred Davis from delivering Christmas gifts to children in December 2002 because of his stance on abortion rights.

[20] Newsday, May 25, 2004. Op Cit.


David Morris
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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.