The Pope on Abortion, Politicians and Communion

Flying to Brazil on May 9, Pope Benedict XVI was asked whether he supported the excommunication of Mexican legislators who had voted to legalize abortion. The Pope replied, "Yes, this excommunication was not something arbitrary, but is foreseen by the Code (of Canon Law). It is simply part of Church law that the killing of an innocent baby is incompatible with being in communion with the body of Christ." That seemed clear enough, until Father Federico Lombardi, S.J., the papal press spokesman, went though the press section of the papal plane and told reporters that the pope "was not announcing a new policy on Catholic politicians," and that in any case, as the Mexican bishops had not pronounced a formal excommunication of the legislators, the Pope wasn't doing so.

The next day, a transcript of the Pope's impromptu press conference was posted on the Vatican Web site, in Italian; alert observers like my friends John Thavis of CNS, Philip Pullela of Reuters, and Victor Simpson of the AP (who seems to have been covering popes since Linus, Cletus, and Clement) reported that the transcript had altered what the Pope had actually said. The "Yes" at the beginning of his answer (which might have been a bit of rhetorical throat-clearing, much like someone saying "Well…) had been deleted, as had the references to Mexican bishops. Not altogether reassuringly, Father Lombardi went on to note that this was standard procedure, as the Vatican Secretariat of State "reviews and cleans up" the Pope's remarks "every time the Pope speaks off the cuff."

All of which tended to create, unnecessarily, an image of confusion, vacillation, and, as Vic Simpson put it, a "roll back" of a tough papal stance. In fact, however, there is considerable clarity beneath the surface confusion, and it's worth noting precisely what's clear.

 First, it is the settled conviction of the Catholic Church that a legislator's facilitating abortion through a vote to legalize or fund the procedure puts that legislator outside the communion of the Church. The Pope seems content to leave it to moral theologians to determine precisely how this form of cooperation with grave evil touches on legislators (as distinguished, say, from abortionists). But that a public official's act in facilitating the "killing of an innocent human baby" is "incompatible with being in communion with the body of Christ" is not in doubt. And if one's communion with the body of Christ that is the Church is radically ruptured, then one must not present oneself for Holy Communion – for that is to add a lie to the original offense against justice, the taking of an innocent human life.

Second, Benedict's answer indicates that he will support the actions of those bishops who deem it a pastoral necessity to order that politicians in this position of estrangement from the Church not be given Holy Communion. Anyone who expects Pope Benedict to distance himself from the American bishops who have taken this stand is likely to be disappointed.

And third, the Pope's answer suggests that he is prepared to leave the pastoral judgment on these cases to the discretion of the local bishops, who are presumably better-informed about the circumstances than he is: and by "circumstances," I do not mean "balancing" serious (and, some would argue, canonically required) sanctions against wayward politicians with other prudential considerations, but the specific circumstances of Legislator X. All of which is to say that Pope Benedict seems unlikely to issue a universal edict on the subject.

This may well be good ecclesiology and prudent pastoral practice, but it is very difficult to communicate without appearing to vacillate. Thus it would be helpful if the Holy See would, on some future occasion (and not six months from now) underscore that a) deliberate legislative facilitation of abortion is a grave evil that puts one outside the communion of the Church and thus renders the reception of Holy Communion a dishonest act, and b) that, when local bishops choose to forbid obstinate politicians from receiving Holy Communion for this reason, they will receive the full support of the Holy See.

George Weigel


George Weigel is an American author and political and social activist. He currently serves as a Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Weigel was the Founding President of the James Madison Foundation.

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  • Guest

    I’d love to see the Holy See clarify what evil a legislator does or doesn’t do when he/she votes to provide for legal abortion. Though, I know it to be evil, many consciences have been formed to believe the opposite.

    Let me just say in general that it is truly a shame when we men, me included, need full papal authority to help us identify sin. Our sould should sing out truth and know lies when we see them.

    Oh for the grace of Christ’s Eucharist to truly trasnform each and every one of us! Crush me like a bug and wring my evil out of my soul. Bring me back to your love and the ripped flesh and open wounds that you accepted because of me.

    The Beatles were right “All We Need is Love.” And yet we don’t know just what love is. Catch me Now I’m falling. This is Captain America Calling. When I Die and They Lay Me to Rest, I Wanna Go To the Place That’s the Best.

    GK – God is good!

  • Guest

    I think it's crucial that Ted Kennedy is denied Holy Communion. He is the face of dishonest Catholicism in this country, and has done so much damage to defenseless little babies. The act itself would speak greatly towards life, and show everyone the true intentions of the Catholic Church. It would also be very heartening and meaningful to believers.

    I was at my niece's Christening this weekend, and it makes me sick to think about what Kennedy's philosophy has meant to other children. In my opinion, the Catholic Church has to deny him Holy Communion, or show itself to be on the side of wealthy, corrupt politicians.


    "Here is a fantastic charity formed by the heavyweight champion of the world to help injured vets: "


  • Guest

    What I would like is a better explanation on the consequences for the soul when communion is received in a state of mortal sin.

    If Jesus Christ chose Blessed Mary ever Immaculate Virgin to be His Mother because she alone was conceived without sin — what does it mean to unite Christ's flesh and blood with sin, and mortal sin at that!

    The refusal to grant communion is not a chastisement, but a great charity.  Holy Mother Church — please do inform those who desparately need to be told they cannot receive the Eucharist– it is a help that must be bestowed upon them lest their hearts become so hardened they will never be able to return to Christ!

  • Guest

    There is a regular Catholics Approving Abortion Caucas in the Senate:  Ted Kennedy, Joe Biden, Dick Durban, Pat Leahy just to name a few.  Nancy Pelosi leads the House brigade.  But not to worry.  If the national mood swings against abortion, these some politicians will be against abortion, and we will learn from their very own lips that they were never for abortion – well, not really for it anyway.

    I think it would be predictable that if the American Bishops ex-communicate these powerful politicians, they will be accused of using the church for political purposes and the tax exempt status of the church will be challenged.

    For the American Bishops to take on these powerful Catholic politicians and risk that kind of battle would be an act of heroism from a group that has not shown themselves to be very heroic. They seem to react very much in the same manner as the Catholic politicians, so I would not expect anything dramatic very soon.