By John M. Grondelski
John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) is former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, NJ. All views expressed herein are exclusively his own.
Thomas Paprocki, the bishop of Springfield (the state capital of Illinois), has issued a decree barring the Illinois State Senate President and House Speaker—both ostensibly Catholics—from receiving Communion in the diocese. The June 2 decision took place in response to enactment of abortion legislation codifying in state law an unlimited abortion liberty through birth, in the event that Roe et al. v. Wade was judicially modified. Paprocki’s decree also states that Illinois Catholic legislators who voted for the bill should also not receive Communion until they first are “reconciled to Christ and the Church.”
With the uptick in state legislative action on abortion this year, the problem of nominal Catholics receiving Communion while voting for abortion has again become acute. This issue has arisen over the years: it first arose in 1973 when a Catholic justice, William Brennan, joined the majority in Roe and acquired particular visibility later in 1984 and 2004.
In 1984, Democratic New York Congresswoman Geraldine Ferraro became the first Catholic since Roe to be a major party presidential or vice-presidential candidate. Her pro-abortion stand was then strongly criticized by John Cardinal O’Connor, Archbishop of New York, who nevertheless did not take the further step of publicly barring Ferraro from Communion.
That same year, Mario Cuomo appeared at the University of Notre Dame to provide theological cover for “personally opposed” (but presumably impersonally accepting) support for abortion.
With ineffective pushback from the bishops (Cardinal Bernardin was pushing his “seamless garment” while the rest of the bishops seemed content to kick the can down the road) pro-abortion Catholic politicians gradually came to expect little more than occasional rhetoric from the Catholic Church.
No other Catholic took a place on a national political ticket until 2004, when Massachusetts Senator John Kerry, whose votes regularly favored abortion, became the Democratic presidential nominee. Bishops found themselves facing the issue they had punted on twenty years earlier, and turned to Rome for guidance.
Then-Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Joseph Ratzinger, wrote a letter to the American bishops making clear that they had an obligation to deny Communion to pro-abortion “Catholic” politicians. When then-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick related the letter to his fellow bishops, however, “Uncle Teddy” bowdlerized its contents, claiming that Ratzinger had said that denial of Communion was a matter of episcopal discretion, not demand. Under that misrepresentation, the bishops promptly took the off-ramp and exercised their “discretion” not to address the issue.
That “standard” would then continue, even with Kerry’s defeat. It was revived in 2008, 2012, and 2016, when other Catholic Democrats who voted for abortion ran for Vice President: Delaware Senator Joe Biden in 2008 and 2012, and Virginia Senator Tim Kaine in 2016. (In 2012, Wisconsin Republican Vice Presidential candidate Paul Ryan was pro-life).
The disclosure of Theodore McCarrick’s sexual abuse of minors and seminarians, leading to his laicization, also revived discussion of his misrepresentation of the Ratzinger letter. The pressure to enact pro-abortion legislation in 2019 in Democratic-majority states with significant Catholic populations (New York, Rhode Island, and Illinois so far) intensified its urgency. I welcome Paprocki’s decision as long overdue.
The Eucharist is the “source and summit of the Christian life” (Lumen gentium, # 11). It is the sacrament of initiation to which the other two initiatory sacraments lead.
The teaching of the Catholic Church on abortion is clear. Vatican II—the Council intended to speak to the Church’s engagement with the modern world—made clear that “any type of murder, genocide, abortion [or] euthanasia … are infamies…. They poison human society … [and] are a supreme dishonor to the Creator” (Gaudium et spes, #22). Yes, Vatican II lists other violations of human dignity in that paragraph, but the Council also repeats its explicit singling out of abortion and infanticide when it brands them “unspeakable crimes.” Furthermore, the Council is clear that the human mission includes “the surpassing ministry of safeguarding life…” (#51).
Catholics are, by virtue of their initiation, to be “salt and light to the world.” By virtue of Baptism and especially Confirmation, they are duty-bound to bear witness to the values that animate their faith.
Cuomo père et fils were wont to mention their oaths of office in defense of their pro-abortion activity. They politely mention neither their Baptismal vows nor Confirmation commitments. Furthermore, the values of which Vatican II speaks when addressing abortion are not negated by civil oaths, even when they are made in God’s name–as if one has an obligation to God under an oath to ignore the obligations of one’s Christian initiation or his Church’s teaching.
This is not advocating theocracy, nor is it an unjustified admixture of Church and state. It is recognizing, in the words of St. Thomas More, that I am “the king’s good servant, but God’s first.” It is also the vision of an integrated person, who recognizes that his commitments of conscience—especially commitments so deep and foundational as the sanctity and immunity from harm of an innocent human life—cannot be bracketed off from one’s actions in the political arena. Just as, once upon a time, we expected the Catholic who went to Mass on Sunday would bring those same values to his professional life on Wall Street on Monday, so today we expect a Catholic to hold the same principles when he walks into Church on Sunday and a legislature on Monday.
Furthermore, if the teaching of the Catholic Church on abortion and infanticide is clear—and it is—then one cannot be in “communion” with that Church while rejecting its teaching. One can be either/or; one cannot be both. And if the Church identifies what it condemns in its teaching as a moral evil, “infamies,” and “unspeakable crimes,” then claiming communion with the One who is “the Way, the Truth, and the Life” in the Eucharist while tolerating, if not promoting, policies whose practical outcome is anti-life is simply an irreconcilable contradiction.
Pace some bishops who still want to persist in the ungrounded McCarrick thesis, the decision of Bishop Paprocki and those who advocate a similar approach is not “weaponizing Communion” as much as it demands making the same choice Yahweh put to the children of Israel: “I set before you today life and death…” (Deut 30: 15). Yahweh invites, but does not force them to “choose life” (v. 19). If this is the “Bread of Life” (John 6:35) that one should eat on to life and not judgment (I Cor 11: 28-29), the discipline (and disciple) appears clear.
I have no doubt we will hear the claim that denial of Communion to public officials is a violation of Church/state separation. However, it is Paprocki, not the current lax practice, which protects the distinction between Church and state. The state may have its policies, which a Catholic politician should seek to align with human dignity, but it cannot lawfully demand that the Church disregard its own values so that a pro-abortion politician can receive the Eucharist. It is the public official who must choose between two paths.
In the 1994 Macedonian film Before the Rain, the photojournalist Aleksandar Kirkov quits his profession because “I killed a man with my camera.” Hearing that he wanted to get a picture of the brutalities of the Yugoslav Wars, a guard in a detention camp pulled a random prisoner out and shot him so that Kirkov could get his photograph. When Kirkov’s bored-by-life British editor and lover Anne tries to dissuade him from abandoning his professional life and return to Macedonia, Aleksandar parts from her, fittingly in a graveyard, with these final words: “Take sides.” Sage advice for Catholic politicians who refuse to decide.