As the 2010 midterm elections heat up, we will once again encounter the controversy surrounding (a) who should or shouldn’t receive Communion, and (b) what candidates may a Catholic in good conscience support, given their positions on abortion, same-sex marriage, etc.
Catholics have been told that it’s immoral to vote for a candidate because of their permissive views on abortion. If we want to vote for a pro-abortion despite their permissive views on abortion, we must have “proportionate reasons.” I’ve written on this in the past (see the posts linked to here), and there have been some very good explanations from Catholic bishops, including this pastoral letter by the Kansas City bishops.
I’ll take up the issue of “proportionate reasons” again at some point but, like the canon 915 issue, it’s unreasonable to expect the bishops to speak in a unified, meaningful way on those issues right now. While pro-life advocates need to keep “going there,” I think it’s also important to identify three things all bishops can and should stress right now with a unified voice, to help overcome rampant confusion on these issues. Here are the three items I propose:
First, I think there needs to be a clear presentation on mortal sin as it relates to the reception of Communion. I realize that many people don’t want to hear about it, and that a coherent presentation of the Gospel has to emphasize grace, not sin. Yet, both St. Paul and official Church teaching are clear that anyone who is aware of having committed a serious sin should refrain from receiving Communion until he or she has been reconciled with the Church through sacramental Confession. It’s all right there in Catechism, no. 1385, and all bishops should be able to sign off on that as a general principle.
Second, the fact that our lawmakers and judges say there is a right to abortion does not make it so. The fact that it is legal does not make it moral, nor does it give Catholics the right to wash their hands of the matter (a la Prof. Kmiec) as though we simply have to take this abomination as a “given” in our society. So, I think the second point would be to communicate to the faithful their obligation to oppose permissive abortion laws (and certainly not defend and champion them, like some of our Catholic lawmakers). On this point, we need more teaching on Pope John Paul II’s Evangelium Vitae, which leaves little doubt on the subject:
Abortion and euthanasia are thus crimes which no human law can claim to legitimize. There is no obligation in conscience to obey such laws; instead there is a grave and clear obligation to oppose them by conscientious objection. From the very beginnings of the Church, the apostolic preaching reminded Christians of their duty to obey legitimately constituted public authorities (cf. Rom 13:1-7; 1 Pet 2:13-14), but at the same time it firmly warned that ‘we must obey God rather than men’ (Acts 5:29). In the Old Testament, precisely in regard to threats against life, we find a significant example of resistance to the unjust command of those in authority. After Pharaoh ordered the killing of all newborn males, the Hebrew midwives refused. ‘They did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but let the male children live’ (Ex 1:17). But the ultimate reason for their action should be noted: ‘the midwives feared God’ (ibid.). It is precisely from obedience to God-to whom alone is due that fear which is acknowledgment of his absolute sovereignty-that the strength and the courage to resist unjust human laws are born. It is the strength and the courage of those prepared even to be imprisoned or put to the sword, in the certainty that this is what makes for ‘the endurance and faith of the saints’ (Rev 13:10).
In the case of an intrinsically unjust law, such as a law permitting abortion or euthanasia, it is therefore never licit to obey it, or to ‘take part in a propaganda campaign in favor of such a law, or vote for it’ (paragraph 73).
Third, bishops don’t agree on the application of canon 915, which calls for the withholding of Communion from notorious sinners. Some bishops have the intestinal fortitude of St. John Chrysostom, but others don’t. But many of those who won’t withhold Communion at least agree that the politician, judge, or celebrity who takes sides against the Church on key moral issues like abortion and same-sex marriage shouldn’t receive Communion. They just don’t want to be in the position of withholding it. But that’s still an important point: Couldn’t the bishops collectively and forcefully say that those who advocate for “rights” such as abortion, euthanasia, same-sex marriage, etc. should not receive Holy Communion until they’re reconciled with the Church? Then when people like VP Biden go up and receive Communion, the faithful know that this is something he really shouldn’t be doing.
I offer these three points not to try to tilt an election in favor of a given political party or to criticize anyone, but so that Catholics can really know the score. We’re told that it’s a serious sin to support a pro-abortion Catholic politician, that we need to have some other “proportionate reason” for it to be morally acceptable. Pope John Paul II as quoted above couldn’t have been more clear. Yet then the Church seems to wink at the very politicians whom we’re not supposed to support under pain of sin. It’s not right.
But even more, it’s a matter of salvation–not just for those who may be led astray by all the mixed messages with the heavy overlay of media spin, but even more for the Catholic public officials themselves, whose manifestly unworthy reception of Holy Communion only compounds their sin and spiritual blindness (see 1 Corinthians 11:27-30).
I don’t know what the bishops actually will do, but I don’t think strong statements by some bishops coupled with the indecisive silence of the national body (coupled with the obfuscating “Faithful Citizenship” document) is the best recipe. I think their emphasizing catechetical points of agreement that even the “non-Chrysostom-like” bishops can stomach may be the right incremental step to take at this time.