Communication from Priest in “Deny Communion” Story

Email (forwarded to CE Editor) dated November 14th, Subject: Confusion over my teaching in Greenville

Last Sunday, 9 November 2008, I published a column in my parish bulletin which attracted the attention of the local newspaper, The Greenville News, which published a story on Thursday 13 November. That story, in turn, attracted the attention of the Associated Press which was quickly picked up by news services throughout the English-speaking world. In the past twelve hours I have received over 4,000 emails from around the globe, and whether praise or blame is being assigned, it usually for something that I have not done. The AP story and, perhaps worse, the headline attached to the story gave the impression that I intended to deny Holy Communion to anyone who voted for Barack Obama last week. This, of course, is absurd is on its face, and the two documents I have attached to this email are a brief attempt to the falsehoods and misrepresentations present in the AP story and other based upon it.

I have attached two brief documents to this email, and if you know anyone who might be interested in this topic, please feel free to share them. The first is the column which will be on the cover of my bulletin this weekend, and the second is a short letter which will be enclosed with the bulletin. Both attempt to clarify the misunderstandings which have followed the AP story and to rebut the mistakes contained in much reporting based upon the AP story.

In truth, had I known while writing the original bulletin that my words would be read beyond my parish, I would have given much greater care to my formulation of the problem posed by voting for a pro-abortion politician. These columns are written every week for our little bulletin and are almost always written in haste against the deadline of getting the pages printed at the end of a busy week. Last week’s column was no exception to this rule and was not meant to be a careful or systematic treatment of even one part of a complex issue. In any event, here are the new little texts.

Thank you.


Bulletin Column

Dear Friends in Christ,

Last week I wrote a column for our Sunday bulletin just as I have done every week for the past seven years, and when I wrote it, I had no thought that it would be read by anyone other than parishioners of St. Mary’s or out of the context of everything that has been taught and preached here, from the pulpit or in writing, over these seven years. And yet that was precisely the result of the distortion of my words by the Associated Press. For an in depth explanation of what I wrote and what I did not write, please see the bulletin insert today which begins “Priest: No Communion for Obama Voters.”

Of course, I said nothing of the kind and explained very carefully and in writing to both the Greenville News and the Associated Press that “I cannot and will not refuse Holy Communion to anyone because of his or her political opinions or choices.” Nevertheless, the AP story was written to create the false impression that I intended to deny Holy Communion to those who voted for Senator Obama; I did not.

My bulletin column last week was exactly 542 words-a space in which no comprehensive description could be offered of an enormously complex subject. That is why what I wrote last week has to be read in light of the teaching of the American bishops on “Faithful Citizenship” which was distributed in the bulletin the week before the election and explained from the pulpit. From that document and the teaching of the Church’s Magisterium, no one could conclude that a vote for Senator Obama is in itself or by itself a mortal sin. But from that same teaching, though, we must conclude that a vote for a pro-abortion candidate can be a mortal sin if the intent is to support abortion, that abortion is not merely one issue among other important issues, and that no Catholic should endorse a pro-abortion politician if a plausible pro-life alternative is available. I regret that I did not take time last week to parse out every stipulation of the Church’s teaching, because the failure to do so allowed those who oppose that teaching to ridicule it by falsely asserting that I intended to deny Holy Communion to anyone who voted for the president-elect or that I presumed to know or judge their conscience. Again, for a fuller discussion of these issues, please see today’s bulletin insert.

As I write these words, I have received over 3,500 emails from around the world. Most of the people who wrote seem to regard me as either a mighty champion of reform or an evil tool of the devil, and I am naturally hesitant to accept either title. In truth, I am but a useless servant of the Lord Jesus trying, despite my frailty, to be a faithful witness to Him who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. I hope that everyone who reads these words will study what the Church teaches about freedom of conscience, political responsibility, and the absolute sanctity of human life. As I explain in the introduction to the Principles of Evangelical Catholicism which guide pastoral practice at St. Mary’s, everything about us must be measured and guided by the Gospel: our thoughts, words, actions, bodies, relationships, spending habits, political convictions, lifestyle choices, and business decisions. But this total surrender to Christ and His Gospel is not a restriction of our freedom; in fact, it is the beginning of authentic discipleship and the only path to evangelical liberty.


Letter on Political Choices

Dear Friends in Christ,

“Priest: No Communion for Obama Voters”

That, or something like it, was the headline on every English-speaking news service in the world by Friday morning, and although it does grab one’s attention, it is also utterly false.

Last Wednesday morning I received five written questions about last week’s bulletin column from the Greenville News, and I answered those questions in writing. The third question asked “Are you saying that you’ll administer a no-communion policy unless Obama voters partake in penance?” Here is my answer:

“I cannot and will not refuse Holy Communion to anyone because of his or her political opinions or choices, even as I continue to teach what the Church teaches about the necessity of being in full, visible communion with the Church before receiving the sacraments. Only those who believe what the Catholic Church teaches and who seek to live according to that teaching should even be interested in receiving the sacraments of the Church, and on the question of the intrinsic and grave evil of abortion, there is and can be no doubt about what the Church teaches.”

When a reporter from the AP called to ask about the story which appeared in the Greenville News, I forwarded my written answers to her and verified by email that she received them. So, the AP knew that I stated categorically that “I cannot and will not refuse Holy Communion to anyone because of his or her political opinions or choices,” and yet it was on the basis of the slant in the AP story that the world was then told that my position is “No Communion for Obama Voters.”

I insisted on receiving and answering the original questions in writing precisely because I knew that this might turn into a very ugly brawl designed to make me look like a raving lunatic seeking to coerce voters through spiritual blackmail rather than a shepherd warning his flock about the spiritual danger of supporting abortion, whether directly or indirectly. And my suspicion proved well-founded. So, now that I have clarified what I did not say, allow me to summarize what I did say in my main points last week:

1) Since Roe v. Wade abortion has been the chief battleground in the ongoing “Culture War” over how to order our common life together. 2) Although the Catholic Church teaches that abortion is an intrinsic evil which no Catholic can ever support without damaging his or her communion with the Church, the majority of self-identified Catholics voted for the most radical pro-abortion politician ever to run for president. 3) This majority vote, however, changes dramatically when practicing Catholics and lapsed Catholics are considered separately. 4) Whatever we think of his position on abortion, Barack Obama will be the 44th President of the United States, and we are bound by religious duty to respect his office, to cooperate with his leadership unless obliged by conscience not to, and to pray for him and the effectiveness of his service to the nation.

To those four points in my column, no one objected. And the last point–our duty to respect, cooperate with, and pray for the new president–almost no one mentioned in the multiple press reports. The two points which have received a great deal of attention are: 1) I addressed the president-elect by his full name (Barack Hussein Obama), with the implication that this was a sneer intended to arouse contempt, and 2) I say that those Catholics who vote for a pro-abortion politician when a plausible pro-life alternative exists have cooperated in evil and should not receive Holy Communion until they have received the Sacrament of Penance. Allow me to respond to the criticism I have received on both points.

1) Where I come from, addressing a man by his full name is a mark of respect and the most dignified way of speaking of someone-particularly when he is named for someone else. That is why, for example I have always used my full name in public even though I am called only by my middle name among family and friends: my first name was given as a tribute to a beloved great uncle, and I honor him every time I use my full name. For me to speak of the president-elect as Barack Hussein Obama was not intended as a sneer or an invitation to contempt; it was, rather, a mark of respect for a man I described in my column as “extraordinarily gifted.”

2) I wrote last week that “Voting for a pro-abortion politician when a plausible pro-life alternative exists constitutes material cooperation with intrinsic evil, and those Catholics who do so place themselves outside of full communion with Christ’s Church and under the judgment of divine law. Persons in this condition should not receive Holy Communion until and unless they are reconciled to God in the Sacrament of Penance, lest they eat and drink their own condemnation.”

Please note what I did not say: a) I did not endorse any candidate or party. b) I did not make myself or any human authority the judge of an individual’s conscience; that task belongs alone to Almighty God through His divinely revealed law. c) I did not presume to know or determine for others what constitutes being a “plausible pro-life alternative” to a pro-abortion politician; I asserted only that there can be such.

What I intended to say was this: a) Any Catholic who endorses or supports the intrinsic evil of abortion has, by that fact, placed himself or herself outside of full communion with the Catholic Church and should not receive Holy Communion before being reconciled to God in the Sacrament of Penance. b) It is possible to be guilty of supporting abortion by voting for a politician who pledges to support abortion if that is the voter’s intention and it is possible instead to vote for another “plausible candidate” who opposes abortion. I deliberately left unaddressed what constitutes being a plausible alternative candidate because there is no way for a general principle to anticipate and include every possibility of nuance and judgment in the evaluation of candidates in a given election. It is in making this judgment that all voters, including Catholics, must exercise their personal liberty and follow a conscience informed by right reason and objective truth. But the very reason the Lord Jesus gave us the Sacrament of Penance is that we all too often act contrary to the law of God and the voice of our conscience.

In making these points, I have not attempted to give my private opinions about anything; rather, I have sought to reflect faithfully the moral teaching and sacramental discipline of the Catholic Church, and if I have erred in that task by omission or commission, I look forward to being corrected by lawful authority in the Church. As I have written today in my bulletin column, there was no way in last week’s 542 words to explain fully a matter of extraordinary complexity, and what I wrote before must be in the context of everything the Church teaches on these questions. I hope that this clarification will serve to assure our parish and those who read about this matter that no infringement of political liberty or individual conscience was my intent.

Father Jay Scott Newman

Pastor of St. Mary’s Catholic Church

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