Washington Notebook

April 21, 2005
Vol. 2, No. 15

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Joe Feuerherd, NCR Washington correspondent


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Cardinal Ratzinger as presidential kingmaker

By Joe Feuerherd

How would the nation's media report the end of the world?

The New York Times: World Over - Poor, Women, and Minorities Suffer Most

The Wall St. Journal : Dow Plummets on News of Apocalypse

LA Times: World to End -- Mel Gibson, Martin Sheen Share Views on Afterlife

USA Today: We're Dead

NCR: End of World Seen as Setback to Collegiality

(Full disclosure: this is an old joke with many variations, so apologies to the Web sites from which I cribbed.)

The point, of course, is parochialism, and Washington, which fancies itself a sophisticated world capitol, is really a company town; government is the company, politics the work product. (Washington Post: Planet Implodes -- Dems and GOP Differ on Implications). Every major world event, not least a papal election, is viewed through this parochial political prism.

Early results: The Ratzinger papacy is a boon, and potentially a big one, to Republicans.

This is not to say, of course, that Benedict XVI will act as Vatican precinct chair for the GOP. While the new pope is a highly-educated man, there's no reason to believe that he has the least interest in, or understanding of, the nuances of American party politics. And by all accounts, he's not a poll-driven guy.

That said, there's a case to be made that as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger had more to do with electing George W. Bush to a second term than any number of party activists and operatives who worked full-time on the task.

It started with CDFs November 2002 "doctrinal note on some questions regarding the participation of Catholics in political life." That 4,000 word document reaffirmed "the legitimate freedom of Catholic citizens to choose among the various political opinions that are compatible with faith and the natural moral law, and to select, according to their own criteria, what best corresponds to the needs of the common good." But, in reference to abortion, it declared that Catholic legislators "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."

In late 2003, citing the doctrinal note, La Crosse, Wis., Bishop Raymond Burke issued a directive prohibiting any pro-choice legislator from taking Communion in the diocese. That edict would have drawn some attention, no doubt, but it became major news when Burke was transferred to St. Louis, a large archdiocese. As it happens, Burke's installation coincided with the Missouri Democratic primary, where pro-choice Catholic Senator John Kerry, fresh off his victories in Iowa and New Hampshire, was the frontrunner. Burke told reporters that if Kerry presented himself for Communion, he would refuse him the sacrament.

Over the course of the campaign a relatively small (but vocal and media-savvy) number of American bishops declared that they too would deny Kerry Communion because of his pro-choice views, while others urged him (and other Catholic politicians with similar views), to refrain from the Communion line. Colorado Springs, Colo., Bishop Michael Sheridan went so far as to say that anyone who voted for Kerry risked eternal damnation.

It was the perfect ecclesial-political storm.

Which is where Ratzinger entered the picture. The American bishops, prior to their June 2004 closed-door meeting, sought his guidance. The result of which was more confusion, not clarity. The point man for the bishops' communication was Washington Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, chair of the bishops' task force on "Catholics in Political Life." (McCarrick said he would not deny Communion to pro-choice politicians and warned against "politicizing" the Eucharist.)

McCarrick and Ratzinger apparently had a number of conversations prior to the bishops' June meeting. At that meeting, encouraged by McCarrick, the bishops decided to leave the decision over whether to withhold Communion to the local bishop of each diocese. A happy compromise?

Not really. Following the meeting, a memo from Ratzinger to McCarrick, a document that had not been shared with the other bishops, was leaked. The memo said that pastors who have politicians who favor abortion rights or euthanasia within their congregations should meet with them. At which point, said Ratzinger, the pastor should inform the politician that "he is not to present himself for Holy Communion until he brings to an end the objective situation of sin, and [warn] him that he will otherwise be denied Communion."

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Further, said Ratzinger, when such warnings go unheeded, "and the person in question, with obstinate persistence, still presents himself to receive the Holy Eucharist, 'the minister of Holy Eucharist must refuse to distribute it.' " He referenced previous church statements related to the denial of communion to divorced Catholics who remarry outside the church.

McCarrick stood accused of misleading his brother bishops -- of misrepresenting Ratzinger's views to the body of bishops. He denied the charge and quickly sought and received clarification from Ratzinger. "The statement [of the American bishops released at their June meeting] is very much in harmony with the general principles [of] 'Worthiness to Receive Holy Communion,' sent as a fraternal service -- to clarify the doctrine of the church on this specific issue -- in order to assist the American bishops in their related discussion and determinations," wrote Ratzinger.

The Ratzinger intervention and the bishops' statement did little, ultimately, to quell the hierarchical attacks on Kerry, which had a real impact on the race. As Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg noted recently in a memo designed in-part as guidance to pro-choice Catholic politicians: "Conflict with the bishops on abortion or on Communion is not particularly helpful."

In the general election, Bush and Kerry essentially split the Catholic vote. But in heavily Catholic Ohio -- the state that decided the contest -- Bush carried 53 percent of the Catholic vote to Kerry's 46 percent.

The Ratzinger effect? Parochially speaking, there's no doubt about it.

The e-mail address for Joe Feuerherd is jfeuerherd@natcath.org

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