A scandal hits Kansas

eucharistIn the days preceding and following Pope Benedict XVI's visit to the United States, we discussed some of the media coverage of whether politicians who publicly advocate for abortion rights would/should/could receive Communion at the papal masses in Washington and New York. After former New York Mayor Rudy Guiliani, a Republican, received communion at one papal mass, New York Cardinal Edward Egan announced "that he was not to receive the Eucharist because of his well-known support of abortion." He said he would meed personally with the former mayor to discuss the matter. Now another politician has been singled out for receiving the sacrament while supporting legalized abortion.

Archbishop Joseph Naumann, of the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas, published a column in the archdiocesan newspaper that said Democratic Gov. Kathleen Sebelius should refrain from taking Communion until she publicly repudiates her support for abortion rights. Naumann also criticized Sebelius for her recent veto of a bill regulating abortion clinics that was passed by significant majorities in the Kansas legislature. John Hanna of the Associated Press has the goods:

Naumann said he wrote to Sebelius, who is Catholic, in August, asking her to refrain from Communion but learned recently that she had participated in the sacrament. He said it prompted him to write to her again, asking her to respect his request and "not require from me any additional pastoral actions."

He said he had earlier called upon the governor to make "a worthy sacramental confession" and take "the necessary steps for amendment of her life which would include a public repudiation of her previous efforts and actions in support of laws and policies sanctioning abortion."

In a column published Friday in The Leaven, the archdiocese's newspaper, Naumann wrote: "The spiritually lethal message, communicated by our governor, as well as many other high-profile Catholics in public life, has been in effect: 'The church's teaching on abortion is optional!' " . . .

Naumann wrote, "I hope that my request of the governor, not to present herself for Holy Communion, will provoke her to reconsider the serious spiritual and moral consequences of her past and present actions."

Sebelius spokeswoman Nicole Corcoran said the governor hasn't seen the archbishop's column. However, Corcoran said, "receiving Communion has not been a problem in the past for her."

One of the readers who sent this story in wondered whether it belonged on page A1 of a newspaper. It's a great question. Last week I wrote about media coverage of a new book by Honor Moore about her Episcopal Bishop father's adultery and bisexuality. Even thought the book was very supportive of her deceased father's behavior, one of the GetReligion readers who commented wondered why there was any coverage of such a topic at all. It is worth asking whether the media should permit such discussion of public figures who can't defend themselves.

The Sebelius situation is different and it's important to discuss why. In order to understand the journalistic question, a quick clarification of the Catholic church's treatment of sin is in order. While Catholic clergy promise to keep secret the sins that are confessed to them, the church considers public support of abortion to be scandalous. The Catholic definition of "scandal" is conduct that incites others to act immorally or do evil. So this brouhaha is not about the private views of Sebelius. This is about church figures speaking publicly about public figures' public support of abortion. In other words, I think it's definitely worth prominent media coverage. And since Sebelius has been mentioned as a possible running mate for Barack Obama, her profile is rising.

The AP report seemed very straightforward and fair. Finn Bullers of the Kansas City Star also wrote a helpful story by putting Naumann's action in context: sebelius

Four years ago, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops said leaders who support abortion rights were "cooperating in evil" and their bishop should decide whether to deny them Communion.

But not all Catholic leaders have agreed that it's proper to deny the sacrament.

Speaking about the debate in 2004, Bishop Raymond J. Boland of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph told a Star columnist, "I don't think I have any right to invade another person's conscience when they come to me."

Naumann said he wrote to Sebelius in August and asked her to refrain from Communion but learned recently that she'd participated in the sacrament at a church in Topeka. He said he again wrote and asked her to respect his request and "not require from me any additional pastoral actions."

Forcing priests to refrain from giving the governor Communion would be one option, but one not being considered by the archbishop. Instead, he said he puts the burden on Sebelius to do the "right thing" and heal the fracture her actions have caused the church.

For Catholics, he said, the Eucharist is the literal nourishment of the body of Jesus Christ and not a symbolic gesture. So to support abortion and take Communion creates a theologic contradiction that is unacceptable, Naumann said. . . .

Bishop Robert Finn, Boland's successor in the Kansas City-St. Joseph diocese, said in a statement Friday that Sebelius' Catholicism made her "consistent support of abortion especially troubling."

Naumann's request that Sebelius refrain from communion "is clearly a pastoral responsibility of the local bishop entirely consistent with guidance from the Vatican and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops," Finn said. "Archbishop Naumann has my admiration and prayerful support."

I'm glad that Bullers showed that not every bishop handles public support of abortion in the same way. That was one of the obvious and most interesting subplots to the papal mass stories. Why did Cardinal Egan crack down on Guiliani while pro-choice politician Sen. Edward Kennedy received no such admonition for receiving the sacrament? naumanncloumn4916 Washington Times religion reporter Julia Duin actually did some investigative journalism to answer that question. She quoted eyewitnesses who said that Kennedy didn't just receive the sacrament but had it hand delivered to him in the stands -- a move they said would have had to have been pre-arranged. After inquiring about how decisions about who to commune are made, the Washington archdiocese told her such decisions are best handled by local bishops. So Duin contacted the home dioceses of pro-choice politicians such as Rep. Nancy Pelosi, Sen. John Kerry, Sen. Kennedy and Sen. Chris Dodd. None of the bishops there responded.

We're still pretty early in the cycle for much of this coverage but there are a few things that I hope to see in subsequent coverage. Most importantly, we need a theological -- or even just practical -- defense for receiving communion when the local bishop has said it's wrong to do so. With so much of the opinion media failing to get the underlying theological issues, it's important to clearly and repeatedly explain the Catholic concept of scandal as well as the politicians' understanding that they can choose which Catholic doctrines to follow. The Kansas City Star, for instance, wrote an editorial claiming that Naumann is forcing Sebelius to choose between his will and her oath of office. Religion reporters need to explain to the uninformed how the church sees the conflict. A good religion reporter will also explain the theological positions -- as opposed to the political -- of Sebelius and her pro-choice colleagues.

It is also important for religion reporters to explain the church's pastoral actions versus political advocacy. Sometimes these two issues sit closely together but they are distinct. Telling a parishioner she is not to receive communion while in a state of unrepentant sin is, in the eyes of the church, a way to care for the very soul of the parishioner. It is important that this aspect is not neglected in the story. Some churches believe it's loving to accept and embrace people without judgment as to their actions. Others believe that it's loving to show people their errors. Though they frequently do, the media should not take sides on which method is correct.

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