Communion debate focuses on politician's abortion beliefs
By David Yonke
June 21, 2004
The Catholic Church teaches that abortion is a "grave sin" and "intrinsically evil," but are politicians who vote in favor of abortion also guilty of committing sin? Are Catholic clergy obligated to deny the Holy Eucharist to politicians who favor abortion rights?
Bishop Thomas Wenski of Orlando, Fla., said in an essay published in the Orlando Sentinel that pro-choice politicians "cannot have their 'waffle' and their wafer."
U.S. bishops, who have been meeting in Denver for a retreat that ended Saturday, and the U.S. Catholic Church are heading toward a showdown on this issue that involves matters of canon law, personal faith, judgment, conscience, and First Amendment rights.
The bishops have not announced plans to release a statement on the subject, although it is possible they may do so, according to a spokesman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Washington.
While the national controversy has centered on abortion-rights advocate John Kerry, expected to become the first Catholic presidential nominee since John F. Kennedy, the topic is one of concern to Catholics everywhere.
"These politicians are making a mockery of the Catholic faith," said Bishop John Yanta of Amarillo, Texas.
"A Catholic politician who supports or votes for laws that are unjust, because they permit procured abortion, persists in a gravely sinful act," said Archbishop Raymond Burke of St. Louis.
Bishop Michael Sheridan of Colorado Springs, Colo., went so far as to warn parishioners that anyone who votes for politicians who do not uphold church teachings on abortion should not come to the altar to receive Communion.
The Rev. Jim Bacik, Toledo priest and theologian, said bishops have a duty to try to influence public debate on important issues, but asked: "Do you improve the situation simply by denying Communion to politicians who are labeled as pro-choice?"
Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, archbishop of Washington, the head of a bishops' task force on Catholics and political life, said individuals should examine themselves and decide whether they are in unity with the church before coming to the altar to receive Holy Communion.
"I would be very uncomfortable to have a confrontation at the altar because it implies that I know precisely what's in a man's heart or in a woman's heart, and I'm not always sure," Cardinal McCarrick said in April, shortly after the debate was triggered by a statement by Cardinal Francis Arinze, a Vatican official and possible papal successor who said that unambiguously pro-choice politicians should not be given Communion.
A small group of Catholics from Crawford County, Ohio, protested in front of the Catholic Center in downtown Toledo last week, urging Toledo Bishop Leonard Blair to take a stand against Catholic politicians who vote in favor of abortion rights.
"John Kerry cannot be a Catholic if he supports abortion," said Gary Bishop, 60, a retired printer from Mansfield who organized the protest. "The bishops should ban him from receiving Communion. It doesn't matter if he's a Democrat or a Republican. It's not a political issue, it's a moral issue."
Bishop Blair was attending the retreat in Denver last week and could not be reached for comment, but he is likely to address the issue when he meets with priests at the diocese's annual convocation that begins today, said Sally Oberski, director of communications.
At least one Toledo diocesan priest, the Rev. Stephen Stanbery, pastor of three rural parishes in Henry County, has said he would refuse to serve Communion to politicians who vote in favor of abortion rights.
"According to Catholic teaching, they're cooperating in genocide," Father Stanbery said.
According to the church's Canon Law No. 915, Communion should not be served to all "manifest, obstinate, persistent sinners." The law does not just refer to abortion issues or to politicians, but to those who continue to sin or publicly disobey the church's teachings.
Father Bacik, pastor of Toledo's Corpus Christi University Parish, said in an interview last week that abortion is a complicated issue and that the church's responsibility is to "inform the public debate."
"The whole abortion issue is simply not a matter of women's rights over their own bodies, but it really is a four-part moral equation that includes the rights and situations of the pregnant woman, of the father, of the fetus, and of society.
"Our position is that all of that has to be factored into the moral judgement," Father Bacik said.
He said that "only a small minority" of the nation's 422 bishops have taken a public stand, saying they would refuse Communion to pro-choice politicians.
"The vast majority of bishops have chosen not to raise that issue," Father Bacik said.
The fact that an estimated 4,000 abortions are performed daily in the United States is "a tragic number" and "a great tragedy in our culture," he said, but "a blanket recriminalization of all abortions is not going to improve the situation."
The church should get involved in leading civil discourse on how to prevent abortion, Father Bacik said, without making the sacrament of Holy Communion part of the controversy.
Contact David Yonke at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6154