Should a Catholic politician who supports abortion rights receive communion? The U.S. bishops have been divided on the issue at least since Senator John Kerry, a Catholic who strongly supported “the right to choose,” ran for president in 2004. The fury died down after Ms. Kerry, but the debate resumed when President Biden became the first Catholic to occupy the Oval Office since Roe vs. Wade in 1973.
The question of communion, at least for Mr. Biden, seemed settled. Cardinal Wilton Gregory, Archbishop of Washington, said he would not deny Mr Biden communion. The pastor of Holy Trinity Parish in Georgetown, where the president often attends Mass, agreed. But earlier this year, Archbishop Salvatore J. Cordileone of San Francisco said President Nancy Pelosi would not be allowed to receive communion in his archdiocese.
Archbishop Cordileone, with the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, calls abortion the “preeminent” moral issue of our time. If a Catholic acts against or opposes this teaching in the political realm, then that person is not “in communion” with the Church. The archbishop wrote that a Catholic legislator who supports “induced abortion” is committing “a manifestly grave sin which is a cause of the gravest scandal to others.” Universal Church law, Bishop Cordileone emphasized in his statement, provides that such persons “must not be admitted to Holy Communion (Code of Canon Law, can. 915).”
But there is another approach. Bishop Robert W. McElroy of San Diego, recently appointed by Pope Francis to become a cardinal, has opposed the “militarization” of the Eucharist. After all, could a Catholic pass the worthiness test for communion? “It is the moral obligation of Catholics to embrace all Church teachings in their entirety,” he writes. “But failure to fulfill this obligation to its fullness cannot be the measure of Eucharistic dignity in a church of sinners and questioners, who must deal with intense pressures and complexities in their daily lives.”
Bishop McElroy also notes that the focus on these restrictions is often very selective. Why target only abortion? There are other important “life issues”. Take the example of former Attorney General William Barr, who supported the death penalty, which the “Catechism of the Catholic Church” clearly declares “inadmissible”. Still, there was little outcry over Mr Barr’s fellowship. By focusing only on abortion, pastors risk politicizing something sacred. “The Eucharist should never be instrumentalized for political ends, however important that may be,” says Bishop McElroy.
Amid these controversies, Pope Francis offers advice to the church. The pope, like me and virtually all Catholic clergy, is pro-life. Yet there is a difference in how the Bishop of Rome and the American bishops view abortion as linked to other life issues. In his apostolic exhortation “Gaudete et Exsultate,” Pope Francis begins his discussion by acknowledging that “our defense of the innocent unborn. . . must be clear, firm and passionate, because it is about the dignity of a human life, which is always sacred and requires the love of every person, whatever their stage of development.
But he recognizes that abortion is not the only problem in life: “Equally sacred. . . are the lives of the poor, the already born, the destitute, the abandoned and the disadvantaged, the infirm and the vulnerable elderly exposed to clandestine euthanasia, the victims of human trafficking, new forms of slavery and all forms of rejection.
Pope Francis is also clear about the best on-the-ground applications of these teachings. “I have never refused Communion to anyone,” he said last year. As for the communion received by Mr. Biden despite its “inconsistency” with Church teaching, the pope felt that it was a matter for the conscience of Mr. Biden and his pastors.
The best solution may be to observe Jesus in the Gospels. He called people to turn away from sin and metanoia– a word usually translated as “repentance” but best understood as a profound change of mind and heart rather than a mere desire to repent. Yet, during his public ministry, Jesus also regularly dined with “tax collectors and sinners,” much to the dismay not only of the crowds but also of his followers.
In the Gospel of Luke, when Jesus invites himself to dine with Zacchaeus, the chief tax collector of Jericho, “all who see him begin to murmur” (Luke 19:7). The crowd disapproved of Jesus breaking bread with Zacchaeus, who would likely have been considered the “great sinner” in town thanks to his collusion with the Romans.
When I questioned the late New Testament scholar, Father Daniel J. Harrington, about this passage, he pointed to the Greek word pants, which means “everything”. He says the curmudgeons “would have included the disciples.” Even Jesus’ closest advisers were against breaking bread with sinners. He was not. It’s no surprise that the controversy and grumbling continues.
Father Martin, a Jesuit priest, is editor-in-chief of America Media and author of “Learning to Pray: A Guide for All”.
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