By Leon Suprenant | October 31, 2008
At their semi-annual meeting November 10-13th in Baltimore, the United States bishops will discuss the “practical and pastoral implications of political support for abortion.” Some might question the timing of this discussion, coming days after a national election featuring a candidate whom Princeton professor Robert George described as being the most extreme pro-abortion candidate ever to seek the presidency. At the same time, better (barely) late than never, and perhaps the timing will allow for a candid discussion relatively free of USCCB-speak (read “Faithful Citizenship”) or charges of partisanship.
In my own discussions with bishops regarding this issue in the weeks leading up to the November meeting, I have urged them to consider these three concerns:
(1) I think it’s important that the bishops clearly distinguish the canon 915 issue (i.e., withholding Communion from notoriously pro-abortion Catholic politicians) from the sinful exercise of one’s vote. Apart from the automatic excommunication provision of canon law (which to my knowledge has never been applied to politicians) or the possibility of a heresy trial, I believe that canon 915 of the Code of Canon Law should be engaged on its own merits.
Namely, can it be said that a Catholic politician who for decades has fought for liberalized abortion rights “obstinately persists in manifest grave sin”? If yes, then he or she must “not . . . be admitted to Holy Communion” until he or she repents. If not, however, then it would be helpful for the faithful (and probably for the bishops, too) to understand why not, especially given the clear language of canon 915.
I understand both the disinclination to withhold Communion as well as the desire to respect the discretion of individual bishops to make pastoral judgments pertaining to Catholics in their own jurisdiction. All I’m asking for is that the canon be applied consistently. Each umpire during the World Series called balls and strikes a little differently, but at least they were all working from the same criteria as to what constitutes the strike zone.
Similarly, the bishops should at least be on the same page as to the objective meaning of canon 915 and thus be using the same “strike zone”–and at present they’re not.
When it comes to canon 915, there seems to be some bishops who confuse “visible communion” with “invisible communion” (of course we can’t make judgments about the latter), and others who flat out say that they would never refuse Communion under any circumstance. That conflicts with the parameters of canon 915 and leads to scandalously inconsistent applications of Church law.
Of course canon 915 applies only in exceptional situations, but when it does apply, it should not be seen as a penalty or taking sides politically, but rather as an act of pastoral charity to the sinner as well as to all the faithful.
(2) Church documents say that it is “formal cooperation with evil” to vote for a candidate because of their permissive views on abortion, euthanasia, and presumably same-sex marriage. Even material cooperation is forbidden in the absence of “proportionate reasons.” That’s all well and good. But in the case of the pro-abortion politician himself or herself, he or she is the one with whom the faithful are forbidden to formally cooperate. In other words, what the Church has to say about “formal cooperation” in this situation seems to presuppose the fact that the pro-abortion politicians’ views constitute “manifest grave sin.” If that’s not the case, then it shouldn’t constitute “formal cooperation with evil” to align ourselves politically with such people.
Let me be clear about this. The Church says that I would be committing mortal sin in voting for a Catholic politician like Joe Biden or Nancy Pelosi if I do so because of their pro-abortion views and policies. How could we deny, then, that such public figures are persisting in “manifest grave sin,” especially as they work to bring others to accept their dissident, sinful views?
The bishops’ failure to take appropriate corrective action pertaining to these politicians undercuts anything they might say about the faithful’s obligation not to support the intrinsic evils championed by these politicians.
(3) Clarifying the narrow issues of canon 915 applicability and the sinfulness of voting for candidates who support abortion, euthanasia, and same-sex marriage would put the much broader Faithful Citizenship document in its proper context. As it is, I have not encountered anyone who has had his or her conscience formed by that document. Instead, I run into many people, including a shamefully large number of Catholic school teachers (who have already decided to vote for a pro-abortion candidate) who quote Faithful Citizenship selectively and use it to rationalize their pre-determined conclusion. I know it’s not intended as such, but in practice it’s a pastoral filibuster used to neutralize (to put it mildly) the teaching of the Holy Father and the individual bishops.
Clearly the first order of business in making a prudent decision of conscience is to rule out any alternatives that are morally unacceptable. Once that’s accomplished, then a document like Faithful Citizenship can do much good. There are, after all, many important issues facing our country, and we should understand them in the context of an authentically Catholic worldview.
But the make-or-break issues of our time are abortion (life) and institutionalized homosexuality (family). History will judge us harshly if we as the Church in the United States lack the resolve to be at the forefront of resisting these grave societal evils.
I pray that that’s the direction the U.S. bishops take in Baltimore.
Suprenant is the director of program development for School of Faith, a public association of the faithful based in the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas.