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 Washington Notebook

July 7, 2004
Vol. 1, No. 24

Joe Feuerherd, NCR Washington correspondent


"The question for us is not simply whether denial of Communion is possible, but whether it is pastorally wise and prudent."

Washington Cardinal Theodore McCarrick
speaking to U.S. bishops who met in Denver last month


Interpreting Ratzinger; Inside the bishops vote; Federal marriage amendment supported

By Joe Feuerherd

Did Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, head of the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, tell the U.S. bishops that they were obliged to deny communion to Catholic politicians who favor abortion rights?

It would appear so, at least according to a Ratzinger memo to Washington Cardinal Theodore McCarrick published July 3 by the Italian magazine L'Espresso.

But things aren't always what they seem.

In the leaked memo, Ratzinger 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."

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,' " referencing previous church statements related to the denial of communion to divorced Catholics who remarry outside the church.

Pretty clear direction?

Not necessarily, McCarrick said in a July 6 statement.

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The Ratzinger memo published by L'Espresso, said McCarrick, "may represent an incomplete and partial leak of a private communication from Cardinal Ratzinger and it may not accurately reflect the full message I received." Part of that message, apparently, was received in private conversations with Ratzinger and also in other "written materials" that were not part of the memo.

McCarrick chairs a U.S. bishops' task force on Catholics in public life, which presented its interim findings to the conference of bishops at a meeting last month in Denver. In a statement issued June 18, the U.S. bishops said it was the responsibility of individual bishops to determine how to deal with Catholic politicians whose public positions are at odds with the church.

"…the Holy See has constantly emphasized it is up to our bishops' conference to make prudent pastoral judgments in our own circumstance," said McCarrick. "I believe the interim report developed and approved by the Task Force conveys both the substance of Cardinal Ratzinger's observations as well as our own interim conclusions."


While Ratzinger's advice may have been less than crystal clear, it's now evident that the vast majority of U.S. bishops want little to do with the notion of denying Communion to pro-choice Catholic politicians.

That much was made plain when the bishops voted overwhelming last month to approve a statement that says the decision to deny Communion rests "with the individual bishop in accord with the established canonical and pastoral principles." The statement continued, "Bishops can legitimately make different judgments on the most prudent course of pastoral action."

But soon after their June 14-19 closed-door meeting in Denver, the bishops' conference posted additional documents on its Web site related to the group's discussions. The posting was done without fanfare -- no press releases issued, or calls to members of the press who follow such things.

Yet a careful reading of the documents -- grouped under the heading "Interim Reflections of the Task Force on Catholic Bishops and Catholic Politicians" -- reveals that most bishops might be nearly as frustrated with their headline-grabbing communion-denying brethren as they are with Catholic pro-choice politicians.

The interim reflections are prepared remarks of Washington Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, Baltimore Cardinal William Keeler, and San Francisco Archbishop William Levada that provided the basis for the bishops' discussion of pro-choice Catholic politicians and reception of communion. They are carefully couched. Still, within the bounds of episcopal civility, the message was clear.

"We must speak the truth, but we must not allow ourselves to become used in partisan politics either by those who dispute our teaching on life and dignity or those who reduce our teaching to a particular issue or partisan cause," McCarrick told the bishops.

He continued:

  • "On the question of calls for denying Communion or public calls for refraining from Communion, our conference is not united, with several bishops sincerely convinced this is necessary and many others who do not support such actions."
  • "The question for us is not simply whether denial of Communion is possible, but whether it is pastorally wise and prudent."
  • "…based on the traditional practice of the Church and our consultation with members of our conference, other episcopal conferences, distinguished canonists and theologians, our Task Force does not advocate the denial of Communion for Catholic politicians or Catholic voters in these circumstances."
  • "… there is significant concern about the perception that the sacred nature of the Eucharist could be trivialized and might be turned into a partisan political battleground. Expecting a minister of Holy Communion to make these judgments would create great pastoral difficulties. We do not want to encourage confrontations at the altar rail with the Sacred Body of the Lord Jesus in our hands. This could create unmanageable burdens for our priests and those who assist them and could turn the Eucharist into a perceived source of political combat."
  • "We fear that [denial of communion] could further divide our Church and that it could have serious unintended consequences. For example, it could be more difficult for faithful Catholics to serve in public life because they might be seen not as standing up for principle, but as under pressure from the hierarchy. We could turn weak leaders who bend to the political winds into people who are perceived as courageous resistors of episcopal authority. In the past such actions have often been counter-productive. We also fear it could push many people farther away from the Church and its teaching, rather than bringing them closer."
  • "…the task force urges for the most part renewed efforts and persuasion, not penalties. We urge new efforts to teach clearly, advocate effectively, organize and mobilize Catholic laity and to engage, persuade, and challenge Catholic politicians to act on the moral teaching of our Church."
  • "Disciplinary actions … should be applied when efforts at dialogue, persuasion and conversion have been fully exhausted. There is a wide range of affirmative approaches used by members of our conference. These need to be practiced more widely, more strategically and more effectively."
  • "This is a time for mutual respect for our duties and differences as bishops, for our exercise of pastoral prudence in our common responsibilities, and for our unity as a body of bishops, recognizing how our individual actions affect other bishops and our entire community of faith."

Keeler, meanwhile, reported on the input 70 bishops provided to the task force. "Among those who expressed a view, the majority were negative on refusing Communion by a margin of roughly 3-1."

Said Keeler: "Those who supported sanctions advocated several differing alternatives, including private or public calls for politicians to refrain from identifying themselves as Catholic or refrain from receiving Communion. Others proposed publicly refusing Communion to politicians who oppose church teaching on abortion and euthanasia. These bishops' rationale for sanctions included the conviction that sanctions simply acknowledge that these politicians have cut themselves off from the Catholic community; that our faithful people are scandalized and expect strong action; and that it's time to be clear and stop worrying about consequences. Several bishops applauded the leadership of those who have already stepped forward.

"On the other hand, many bishops urged personal communication, dialogue and persuasion rather than ecclesial penalties. Many suggested sanctions would cause more problems than they solve and might make it more difficult, if not impossible, for faithful Catholics to be leaders in public life. It was pointed out that the [Vatican's] Doctrinal Note did not call for or provide for sanctions. It was also suggested this could divide the bishops and our community, not just on issues, but on the role of the Church in public life. This could make it more difficult to teach and persuade."

Ultimately, the bishops voted to reaffirm the authority of individual bishops within their dioceses to do as they may with politicians in their midst who reject church advice on legislative issues. That, of course, may have been just so much face-saving, given that the conference of bishops has no authority over the individual decisions of bishops in such circumstances.

But now, at least, we know where most of them stand.


The U.S. Senate is scheduled to take up a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage next week. The legislation, introduced by Colorado Republican Wayne Allard, has the bishops' support.

The proposed constitutional amendment reads: "Marriage in the United States shall consist only of the union of a man and a woman. Neither this Constitution, nor the constitution of any State, shall be construed to require that marriage or the legal incidents thereof be conferred upon any union other than the union of a man and a woman."

In a June 24 letter, bishops' conference president Wilton Gregory wrote to all the U.S. bishops urging their support for the amendment.

"As the U.S. bishops have previously written, marriage is a basic human and social institution. Though it is regulated by civil laws and church laws, it did not originate from either the church or state, but from God. Therefore neither church nor state can alter the basic meaning and structure of marriage," Gregory said.

"However, a growing movement today favors making those relationships commonly called same-sex unions the legal equivalent of marriage," he continued. "This situation challenges Catholics -- and all who seek the truth -- to think deeply about the meaning of marriage, its purposes, and its value to individuals, families and society."

Gregory asked the bishops to generate additional support for the amendment through their pastors.

Last September, the bishops, through their administrative committee, announced their support for a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, though they did not, at the time, indicate which among several competing measures they favored.

At his meeting with Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Angelo Sodano June 4, President Bush urged the U.S. bishops to increase their efforts on the legislation. "Not all the American bishops are with me," Bush told Sodano (NCR, July 2).

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