What would JPII do? Democrats fire up Catholic & Communion debate

It's safe to say that most American newspaper readers will have a chance to read the following quotation today. It comes from a letter sent to Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington by 48 Catholics in Congress who want the right to remain members in good standing of the modern Democratic Party, while remaining members in good standing of the ancient Church of Rome.

The quote is everywhere, but this edit is taken from a Washington Post report:

"For many years Catholics were denied public office by voters who feared that they would take direction from the Pope," they wrote. ". . . While that type of paranoid anti-Catholicism seems to be a thing of the past, attempts by Church leaders today to influence votes by the threat of withholding a sacrament will revive latent anti-Catholic prejudice, which so many of us have worked so hard to overcome."

In other words: Catholics who defend the teachings of their church are in trouble at the ballot box, especially if they are Democrats. It would hurt the church if bishops tried to control the sacraments at their own altars.

That may sound harsh. Then again, the following language is just as strong, even if it is couched in the unknown tongue that shapes the work of Vatican document drafters. It is safe to say that very, very few newspaper readers in America will have a chance to read this quotation today. It comes from the Vatican's own letter on the issue of the Catholic faith and the hard, complex realities of politics. This is a long quotation, but journalists need to read it.

Catholics . . . have the right and the duty to recall society to a deeper understanding of human life and to the responsibility of everyone in this regard. John Paul II, continuing the constant teaching of the Church, has reiterated many times that those who are directly involved in lawmaking bodies have a "grave and clear obligation to oppose" any law that attacks human life. For them, as for every Catholic, it is impossible to promote such laws or to vote for them. As John Paul II has taught in his Encyclical Letter Evangelium vitae regarding the situation in which it is not possible to overturn or completely repeal a law allowing abortion which is already in force or coming up for a vote, "an elected official, whose absolute personal opposition to procured abortion was well known, could licitly support proposals aimed at limiting the harm done by such a law and at lessening its negative consequences at the level of general opinion and public morality."

One of the pro-life Democrats who signed, speaking to The Washington Post, defended his fellow Democrats with language that has become popular in American pews. For modern Catholics, it is wrong to limit their freedom of conscience.

And what about other life issues? What about Iraq? The death penalty?

Rep. James R. Langevin (R.I.), said that "while I agree with [the bishops] on the pro-life issue, I don't agree with them on denying Communion to those who in good conscience have come to a different position. . . . These are complicated, emotional issues that each of us has wrestled with, and it's not helpful for the church to be punitive or to approach these issues in this heavy-handed way."

Once again, the Vatican letter addresses this question. The bottom line is that the Vatican has raised the issue of abortion to a higher level. This isn't just a matter of a few votes on complex legislation. Like it or not, the church has said -- with a high degree of authority -- that politicians who actively support legalized abortion in all its forms are out of line.

This is language that is not appearing in media reports about the actions of the handful of American bishops who want to apply this teaching to the sacramental status of Catholics who have made the active defense of abortion rights a major part of their political platforms. The Vatican statement notes:

In this context, it must be noted also that a well-formed Christian conscience does not permit one to vote for a political program or an individual law which contradicts the fundamental contents of faith and morals. The Christian faith is an integral unity, and thus it is incoherent to isolate some particular element to the detriment of the whole of Catholic doctrine. A political commitment to a single isolated aspect of the Church's social doctrine does not exhaust one's responsibility towards the common good. Nor can a Catholic think of delegating his Christian responsibility to others; rather, the Gospel of Jesus Christ gives him this task, so that the truth about man and the world might be proclaimed and put into action.

Cardinal McCarrick knows all of this and he knows he is walking a high wire between Rome and The New York Times. News reports are all quoting the statement, in a recent column in his own archdiocesan newspaper, in which he opposes using Communion as a weapon in these kinds of political disputes. But this raises the same question: Is this essentially a political dispute or a doctrinal dispute? Is it about a sacrament or a senator?

Finally, here is a piece of the McCarrick column in which he tiptoes through this minefield (pick a metaphor, any metaphor). It is interesting to note that he begins by quoting a document from the U.S. Catholic bishops, as opposed to quoting the Vatican.

Basically, the cardinal is saying that it is more compassionate to let Catholic politicians place their own souls at risk than to discipline them in public. At least, that is what I think he is saying. Newspaper readers will not have a chance to make this kind of call for themselves until journalists start treating this as a story about doctrine, as well as politics.

I am asking the Catholic Standard to reprint the statement about the worthy reception of the Eucharist which appears in the missalettes and which was authorized by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. Basically, it places on the individual Catholic the need to make a judgment as to whether he or she can properly come to receive Communion. One must not be conscious of any serious sin that has not been absolved in the sacrament of Penance. One must be striving to live as a good Catholic, keeping the commandments of God and of the Church, especially those two great commandments to love God and neighbor.

This would exclude from Communion anyone who would hate his neighbor or harm his neighbor, in particular when that neighbor is a little unborn baby in its mother's womb. This doctrine by which the Church places a particular personal responsibility concerning the decision to approach the altar on each individual, protects the holiness of the Eucharist and challenges its children to holiness as well. It places the decision to approach the altar on the informed conscience of the individual Catholic -- informed by the truth of our teachings -- and, therefore, each one of us must not presume to approach Holy Communion if we are not, in our informed conscience, already with the Lord and in communion with the teachings of His Church.

By the way, anyone who wants to read two lively commentaries on this situation can turn to Rod Dreher in The Dallas Morning News and to Andrew Sullivan in Time.

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