From the September/October, 2010 issue of Touchstone

Miscommunicants by Kenneth D. Whitehead


Setting the Record Straight on Episcopal Duties Regarding Pro-Abortion Politicians

by Kenneth D. Whitehead

The seemingly never-resolved question of whether Catholic bishops should deny the sacrament of the Eucharist to pro-abortion Catholic politicians got another lease on life late last year. In December 2009 it was revealed that Bishop Thomas J. Tobin of Providence, Rhode Island, had written to Congressman Patrick J. Kennedy (D–RI) telling him that he should no longer present himself for Holy Communion because of his public support for abortion as a legislator.

Joseph A. Califano, Jr., who had been Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW) under President Jimmy Carter and the principal domestic advisor to President Lyndon B. Johnson, entered the lists with an op-ed in the Washington Post in which he strongly criticized the action of Bishop Tobin (“Private Conscience, Public Morality,” December 5, 2009). Secretary Califano deplored the actions of bishops like Tobin, who have seen fit to announce that the Eucharist should be denied to pro-abortion Catholic politicians.

According to Califano,

where we cannot find unanimous answers, there is at least one point on which Catholic bishops and Catholic politicians can find common ground: insistence that those who search for the right answers are doing so with integrity and sincere conviction. That was what the church leaders I dealt with in the 1960s and ’70s recognized, as their successors should today.

Those earlier church leaders, he writes, “were willing to sit down and discuss alternatives.” Is this true?

Two Dubious Examples

Califano cites two instances where he himself, as both a Catholic and a high-ranking public official, had had to deal with church leaders on controversial issues that involved Catholic moral teaching. The first, in the 1960s, had to do with government support of family planning. The Johnson administration was the first to subsidize and promote the distribution of contraceptives on a large scale. Califano recalls that this policy met with “a stinging attack from Catholic bishops,” who charged that the poor were being “coerced” by the government into practicing birth control.

Directed by President Johnson to “work something out,” Califano met with Father Francis T. Hurley (later archbishop of Anchorage, Alaska) and Archbishop (later Cardinal) John Dearden of Detroit. He says he explained to them that the Johnson administration was “offering an option to the poor, not coercing acceptance. We ultimately agreed,” he continues, “that if the president phrased his policy in terms of ‘population control’ (which allowed for the church-approved rhythm method of family planning as well as contraception), the bishops would cool their rhetoric.”

It is impossible to make an informed judgment on the true nature of this “agreement” from the bare terms in which Califano describes it. But it is true that, once government support of family planning got underway, the Catholic bishops never did mount the kind of public opposition they had been expected to mount. Earlier, both the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations had dearly wished to fund family planning but had held back because of fear of the Catholic bishops. As subsequent events showed, their fears proved largely groundless.

One gathers from Califano’s brief account that the episcopal leadership of the day may actually have been looking for some pretext not to oppose the Johnson administration’s decision to support family planning—at least, not head-on.

After all, the initiative was widely considered one of those now-familiar juggernaut ideas “whose time has come.” In any case, the “agreement” to which the future Archbishop Hurley and Cardinal Dearden are said to have acquiesced could never have been justified in terms of anything resembling authentic Catholic moral theology.

The second instance cited by Califano—in which, as a Catholic public official, he had had to act on an issue opposed to Catholic morality—occurred during the Carter administration. As Secretary of HEW, he was charged with issuing regulations to implement federal law that authorized abortion funding in cases of rape and incest “promptly reported.” Claiming that his “options were to resign or to enforce the law by issuing regulations that defined ‘prompt’ reporting,” he says that the bishops’ “attack” on him for choosing to “set prompt reporting at within 60 days” was “vehement.” However, he says, “none suggested that I should be denied the Eucharist.”

Specious Arguments

To Califano, resorting to the denial of the Eucharist represents “a sort of nuclear option.” “Is it only aimed,” he asks, “at politicians who vote for federal funds for abortions? If the issue is the sanctity of life, what about Catholic legislators who vote for the death penalty or to fund the Iraq war, which the Vatican condemned as immoral?”

These arguments are specious. First, the “Vatican” did not “condemn” the Iraq war as “immoral.” Before the war, Pope John Paul II sent Cardinal Pio Laghi to Washington to argue against the resort to arms, and after the war was launched, the pope occasionally delivered some obiter dicta critical of it. But none of this rose to the level of church teaching—and certainly not to any moral “condemnation” of the war. Califano’s choice of words here is misleading.

Regarding capital punishment, it is well known (and often repeated) that the church generally opposes it, but this is neither an absolute nor an exceptionless norm. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church phrases it:

Assuming that the guilty party’s identity and responsibility have been fully determined, the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor. If, however, non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people’s safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means, as they are more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good and more in conformity with the dignity of the human person. ( CCC, 2267)

Thus, capital punishment is to be eschewed in most, but not all, cases.

Both war and capital punishment, by their very nature, allow for a diversity of prudential judgments based on circumstances. Elective abortion, however, belongs in an entirely different moral category. The church teaches that it is always wrong to directly and intentionally take the life of an innocent human being. Abortion does so, and hence it constitutes an intrinsic evil that the church must always oppose.

In light of the breadth and depth of the debates on the moral issues of war, capital punishment, and legalized abortion that have taken place in American public life over the past several decades, it is hardly credible that a man who served as a presidential aide and cabinet secretary could still either himself believe, or ingenuously propose to others, that these very different issues are morally equivalent.

Misplaced Concern

It is not irrelevant in this context to note that, in our day, abortion entails the destruction of innocent human life on a massive scale. More Americans are killed every year by abortion (1.3 million) than have been killed in all the wars of American history put together (1.2 million, according to the World Almanac). For Califano to reprise in the face of all this carnage the tired refrain of abortion’s supposed moral equivalence with the issues of war and capital punishment is to cheapen his argument. How can he not know better?

On the evidence of his own account, though, Califano appears to be among those legions of Americans who do not seem unduly bothered by the ongoing holocaust of abortion. For him, abortion seems to be just another public issue. He says that both he and President Carter were opposed to federal funding of abortion, but he gives no indication of their having any qualms about issuing regulations that provided for such funding. They were just “enforcing the law,” he tells us—another refrain regularly sung by “personally opposed” pro-abortion Catholic politicians.

What does arouse Califano’s grave concern, and even his ire, is not the millions of abortion deaths in America, but rather the actions of those who attempt to “impose” their convictions of conscience “indiscriminately on others by uncompromisingly translating them into policy.” Specifically, he means the Catholic bishops’ presuming to hold Catholic politicians accountable for contravening church teachings. The bishops’ actions, he maintains, do not serve the common good of a “just and free democratic society”—not noticing that a society that allows and even sponsors the mass murder of the innocent can no longer be considered, in that regard, “just and free.”

Requirements of Canon 915

It also seems to elude Califano that the denial of the Eucharist by bishops to pro-abortion Catholic politicians is not an attempt to impose anybody’s “conscientious convictions” on anyone else as “public policy.” Rather, it is a matter related to the internal governance of the church by the bishops. Canon 915 of the church’s Code of Canon Law requires that those “who obstinately persist in manifest grave sin are not to be admitted to Holy Communion.” It has long been understood in the church that support for abortion by a legislator entails formal cooperation with a grave and intrinsic evil and therefore constitutes “manifest grave sin.” If a legislator obstinately persists in it, then Communion must be denied to him, according to church law.

Shouldn’t the bishops, then, either enforce the church’s law or resign, as Califano claims he had to decide in the civil sphere? On what grounds could he argue that the Catholic bishops ought not to enforce church law, if he and the president and were obliged to enforce civil law even if they purportedly disagreed with it?

It is true that Canon 915 has not been uniformly enforced in the United States. While some bishops have asserted a strong need to enforce the canon and have moved to do so, the majority have disagreed and not acted. The bishops did issue an instruction strongly upholding the principle that those guilty of “manifest grave sin” should not present themselves for Communion, but they specifically declined to endorse mandatory enforcement.

The guidance from Rome on Canon 915—signed by Pope Benedict XVI when he was still Cardinal Ratzinger—requires that it be enforced after an erring politician has been privately warned by his bishop about his “manifest grave sin” and has persisted anyway. It should be evident to any observer that America’s pro-abortion Catholic politicians have shown brazen disregard, if not outright contempt, for the church’s teaching on the gravity of the sin of abortion. Nevertheless, Califano thinks that the bishops should assume “the integrity and sincere convictions of these politicians.” They should simply be allowed to adopt their own interpretation of the meaning and seriousness of the church’s teaching.

True Integrity & Conviction

Califano places no responsibility on the politicians to get it right in the way that he does on the bishops. His strictures are entirely one-sided. The case he specifically deplores—the contretemps in the fall of 2009 between Bishop Tobin and Representative Kennedy—fails to show much evidence of “integrity and sincere conviction” on the part of the congressman.

Bishop Tobin’s admonition to Kennedy concerning Holy Communion had actually been made in a private letter in 2007. Kennedy did not make the letter public until 2009—after he was rebuked by Bishop Tobin for harshly and publicly attacking the Catholic bishops for being unwilling to back healthcare legislation that included abortion funding.

Only then, more than two years later, did Representative Kennedy publicly reveal that he had been privately admonished not to take Communion—and he did so in a way that implied that the bishop had meant it as a retaliatory penalty against him. Kennedy also claimed that the bishop had told his priests not to give him Communion, which was not the case; the bishop’s office had to issue a statement that at no time had Bishop Tobin discussed with his priests the denial of Communion to anyone.

In short, what Bishop Tobin had to contend with was indeed an unprovoked attack followed by a dishonest escalation of it on the part of Representative Kennedy. Califano’s imputation of “integrity and sincere conviction” to Catholic politicians would thus not apply in Kennedy’s case—the very case that prompted his op-ed article in the first place.

In view of all this, it certainly seems that Califano’s Washington Post op-ed is considerably less pertinent to the question of the denial of the Eucharist to pro-abortion Catholic politicians than he makes it out to be.

The case is not at all as he describes it. Bishop Tobin was right all along.

For the Record

In the run-up to the 2004 presidential election, Raymond Burke, who at the time was Archbishop of St. Louis, declared that public officials who supported abortion and other unjust attacks against innocent human life could not be admitted to Holy Communion, the preeminent sacrament of unity.

Pro-life citizens of every religious persuasion applauded the archbishop’s stand. Critics, however, were quick to condemn him. They denounced the archbishop for “crossing the line” separating church and state.

But this is silly. In acting on his authority as a bishop to discipline members of his flock who commit what the church teaches are grave injustices against innocent human beings, Archbishop Burke was exercising his own constitutional right to the free exercise of religion; he was not depriving others of their rights.

Freedom is a two-way street. No one is compelled by law to accept ecclesiastical authority. But Archbishop Burke—and anyone else in the United States or other freedom-respecting nations—has every right to exercise spiritual authority over anyone who chooses to accept it. There is a name for people who do accept the authority of Catholic bishops. They are called “Catholics.”

In many cases, the charge that bishops who adopt the policy of excluding pro-abortion politicians from Communion “are crossing the line separating church and state” is also hypocritical. A good example of this hypocrisy comes from the Bergen Record, a prominent newspaper in my home state of New Jersey. John Smith, the Bishop of Trenton, did not go so far as Archbishop Burke had gone in forbidding pro-abortion Catholic politicians from receiving Communion. Bishop Smith did, however, in the words of the Bergen Record, “publicly lash” then-Governor James McGreevey, who at the time was a Catholic, for his support of abortion and embryo-destructive research.

For criticizing the governor on these grounds, the Record lashed the bishop in an editorial. The paper accused him of jeopardizing the delicate “balance” of our constitutional structure, contrasting Bishop Smith’s position unfavorably with President John F. Kennedy’s assurance to a group of Protestant ministers in Houston in 1960 that he, as a Catholic, would not govern the nation by appeal to his Catholic religious beliefs.

Since the Record saw fit to take us back to 1960 for guidance, I thought I would invite its editors to consider a case that had arisen only a few years earlier than that. In a letter to the editor, I proposed a question that would enable readers to determine immediately whether the editors of the Bergen Record were persons of strict principle or hypocrites.

I reminded readers that in the 1950s, in the midst of the political conflict over segregation, Archbishop Joseph Rummel of New Orleans publicly informed Catholics that support for racial segregation was incompatible with Catholic teaching on the inherent dignity and equal rights of all human beings. Archbishop Rummel said that “ racial segregation is morally wrong and sinful because it is a denial of the unity and solidarity of the human race as conceived by God in the creation of Adam and Eve.” He warned Catholic public officials that support for segregation placed their souls in peril. Indeed, Rummel took the step of publicly excommunicating Leander Perez, one of the most powerful political bosses in Louisiana, and two others who promoted legislation designed to impede desegregation of diocesan schools.

So I asked the editors of the Bergen Record: Was Archbishop Rummel wrong? Or do Catholic bishops “cross the line” and jeopardize the delicate constitutional balance only when their rebukes to politicians contradict the views of the editors of the Record? To their credit, the editors published my letter—but I am still waiting for them to reply to my question.

— Robert P. George

Kenneth D. Whitehead is the 2004 recipient of the Blessed Frederic Ozanam Award for Catholic Social Action of the Society of Catholic Social Scientists (SCSS). He writes frequently on Catholic social and moral issues.

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