More on Catholic Voters and Communicants

Today’s post is my response to a gentleman who sent me six questions via a handwritten note last fall as the 2008 campaign began to heat up. The questions should be obvious from the responses themselves.

Your first point isn’t really a question, but rather you simply note that you agree with the first part of (then) Cardinal Ratzinger’s 2004 memo to Cardinal McCarrick.

Second, you ask about Card. Ratzinger’s statement in that memo that “when a Catholic does not share a candidate’s stand in favor of abortion and/or euthanasia, but votes for that candidate for other reasons, it is considered remote material cooperation, which can be permitted in the presence of proportionate reasons.”

Here’s how I understand the Cardinal’s statement:

A Catholic may not knowingly and willingly vote for a “pro-choice” candidate based on that candidate’s permissive view toward abortion. In other words, it would be a serious sin to vote for candidate X because we believe candidate X would promote the culture of death by promoting laws favoring moral evils such as abortion, euthanasia, or same-sex marriage.

However, if “proportionate reasons” exist, a Catholic may licitly vote for a “pro-choice” candidate. If one candidate is solidly in the “culture of death” camp regarding the above issues and the second candidate solidly upholds the natural moral law on these issues, it’s usually safe to conclude that such “proportionate reasons” to vote for the “pro-choice” candidate do not exist. The “culture of death” candidate may have, in our opinion, better views on immigration, tax reform, or other such issues. Yet, as significant as these other issues may be, they do not morally justify supporting such candidate.

However, it sometimes happens that both candidates favor abortion rights, at least to some extent. In such case, one is not necessarily required to abstain from the electoral process, though refusing to vote for either candidate can be a legitimate alternative. If a distinction can be made, however, voting for one of the candidates does not make one complicit in the culture of death. Further, the Church explicitly encourages our participation in society and our promoting the common good specifically through exercising the right to vote.

It may be, upon closer examination, that one candidate more avidly and completely promotes abortion, euthanasia, etc. than the other candidate, so that some significant distinction may be made. The less of a difference there is between the candidates on these culture of death issues, the more the candidate’s views on other issues (as well as character, experience, and other less tangible considerations) come into play. Certainly in such situations Catholics of goodwill may support different candidates (or no candidate) without sinning.

Voting is a human act that involves moral responsibility. When it comes to electing people (as opposed to voting for or against specific laws), there are many, many factors to take under consideration. We must try to have well-formed consciences, to be aware of the candidates’ relative positions, and make decisions that we honestly believe are in the best interest of our society. The exercise of this responsibility does not typically involve serious sin except when our tenaciously held political views clash with the objective moral law. If we’re honestly striving to “think with the Church” rather than, say, our political party, we find that this becomes less of an issue. 

Third, the authority to remove priests from active ministry is generally exercised by the local bishop, and it becomes a little more involved if the priest is also a pastor. The manner of procedure for removing a pastor is found in canon 1740 and following. As for bishops, canon 416 says that “an episcopal see is vacant upon the death of the diocesan bishop, upon his resignation accepted by the Roman Pontiff, and upon transferral or deprivation of office made know to the bishop.” “Deprivation of office” is a very serious penalty, and only the Holy Father has the authority to issue a decree of privation of the episcopal office. In practice, this is only done in the most extreme cases (e.g., involvement in a sex scandal), and even then the preference is to have the bishop resign from office of his own volition. I know from personal experience that the Holy See will not consider removing a bishop simply because he has “weak” or “liberal” tendencies or is lax in cracking down on problems in his diocese.

Fourth, I know some bishops who interpret canon 915 (calling for denial of Communion to obstinate, notorious sinners) in a more restrictive way. I do not agree with their interpretation, as I find Archbishop’s Burke’s discussion, coupled with the plain language of 915, compelling, though my training is in civil law, not canon law. Still, I don’t think it’s fair to say that the bishops who don’t invoke canon 915 in any way desire to make a mockery of the Eucharist. Rather, they think they’re upholding the dignity of the rite by not having discriminatory judgments made during Mass by every priest and Eucharistic minister as to who is worthy to receive Communion. And I also think they confuse “invisible communion” with “visible communion.” 

Certainly we all need to be in a state of “invisible communion”–in other words, in a state of grace–to worthily receive Holy Communion, and the minister is in no position to make judgments on that.

But there’s also a need to be in “visible communion,” and in certain circumstances, as in the case of notoriously pro-abortion politicians, it’s not only a sacrilege but a cause of scandal and confusion when they are allowed to receive Communion. Pope John Paul II made all this clear in section 37 of his final encyclical, Ecclesia de Eucharistia, but we need prelates like Archbishop Burke who are willing to take this teaching and apply it in the tough, real-life pastoral situations that arise during every election cycle.

I don’t want to speculate as to why some bishops, including some who have advanced degrees in canon law, are unwilling to even consider the application of canon 915. Probably a lot of it has to do with the political overtones of the issue.

Nonetheless, canon 915 is a narrow provision. In most cases, someone who isn’t Catholic at all can go up and receive Communion without having to show any “credentials.” Sadly, it’s probably also true that many Catholics present themselves for Communion though they’re not properly disposed. Again, they’re bringing grief upon themselves (1 Cor. 11:27-29), but the minister typically and correctly gives Communion without making seat-of-the-pants judgments.

Canon 915 talks about “manifest” grave sin. In other words, this grave sin must be a matter of public knowledge, whether it’s a public figure like John Kerry or a member of a group like Rainbow Sash or the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence that wear identifying clothing or insignias on their person.

The person must also “obstinately persist” in their grave sin, which means that at least some pastoral effort was made to reconcile this person to the Church.

While Archbishop Burke rightly has gotten most attention on this issue, I know of other bishops who have taken similar measures. One bishop actually sent me a letter he had sent to the Kerry campaign in 2004 letting him know the precise boundaries of his diocese so he would know not to present himself for Communion there.

Fifth, the nuntio is an appropriate person to contact regarding problems and abuses in the Church that are not being adequately addressed at the local level. How one communicates such concerns matters greatly. Concerns need to be expressed clearly, specifically, and succinctly. They must be verifiable. And the communication should be respectful of all, especially successors of the apostles, and free from extraneous comments and harsh, inflammatory rhetoric.

Sixth, the rite does not call for holding hands during the Our Father. The pastor should not tell the congregation to hold hands as though it were part of the rite. I agree that this can be very irritating. However, on the scale of possible liturgical deviations this is a relatively insignificant matter. Making a federal case over this would likely cause more harm than good. And there’s nothing wrong with spontaneously holding hands. Lots of times I’m already holding my son’s hand (so he won’t get away–he’s 3!) when the Our Father begins, and surely I don’t have to let go because the Our Father has begun.

Speaking as someone who has weathered more than his fair share of liturgical controversies, I’d say it’s better not to let things like this distract us from the saving events that are being made present during the sacred liturgy. We are beggars, not critics of the Mass–we need what is being offered there: the Bread of Life. I’d try to become friends with the pastor and affirm him whenever possible. Then should a more serious liturgical issue arise, you can talk to him on a friendly level, rather than as an adversary of sorts.

CUF members are welcome to contact us with their questions through our Catholic Responses department. 

One response

  1. Blessings!!

    I blog to you on behalf of Fr. Frank Pavone and Priests for Life. Fr. Pavone recently posted two videos on You Tube in which he describes and demonstrates the two most common abortion techniques, using the actual instruments of abortion and the words found in medical textbooks and court testimony.

    You can view these videos at (Dismemberment abortion) and (Suction abortion).

    These videos are part of a new project called, “Is This What You Mean?” It aims to educate the public about the nature of abortion and to challenge public officials and candidates who support the legality of abortion to admit what it is. A full description of the project is at .

    We are asking blog moderators to post a link or set-up an area on their blog for easy access to view our two You Tube videos.

    As Fr. Pavone has quoted in endless homilies and talks about public servants who are pro-choice, there is a difference between serving the public and killing the public. Abortion has lost its meaning and is just a word to some politicians. In fact, as long as it has been since Jan.22 1973, the public is still not aware of what an abortion is and what it looks like. Again, we urge you to view Fr. Pavone’s demonstrations and forward this to anybody unaware such as parents, pastors, teachers, government officials etc….

    In Christ,


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