Why Communion Could Be Denied to Anti-Life Legislators

Interview With an American Theologian in Rome

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ROME, APRIL 26, 2004 (Zenit.org).- Moves by the Church to deny Holy Communion to staunchly pro-abortion Catholic politicians are growing.

At a Vatican press conference last Friday, Cardinal Francis Arinze said that politicians who unambiguously support abortion must not go to Communion and priests must deny them the sacrament.

Last January, then Bishop Raymond Burke of La Crosse, Wisconsin, issued a decree forbidding Catholic legislators who support abortion or euthanasia from receiving Communion.

To learn more about the canonical and pastoral implications of these declarations, ZENIT interviewed American theologian Father Thomas Williams, dean of the School of Theology of the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical Athenaeum.

Q: Is the Church beginning to adopt a hard-line stance regarding the reception of Holy Communion?

Father Williams: The Church has always taken this issue seriously. In very strong terms St. Paul admonished the Church in Corinth: «Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a man examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup.» That’s in 1 Corinthians 11:27-28.

The 1983 Code of Canon Law, echoing the teaching of the Council of Trent, Canon 11, states that, without a very serious reason, a person who is aware of having committed a mortal sin should voluntarily abstain from Communion. «A person who is conscious of grave sin is not … to receive the Body of the Lord without prior sacramental confession,» says Canon 916 of the 1983 code.

Q: But isn’t there a big difference between encouraging those in a state of sin to abstain from Communion and forbidding Communion to determined persons?

Father Williams: Yes, of course. Whereas anyone who is aware of having committed a grave sin of any sort, hidden or public, should willingly abstain from Holy Communion, only grave sins committed overtly or publicly provide grounds for non-admittance to Communion on the part of priests and bishops.

The pertinent reference in canon law can be found in Canon 915. In its entirety, this brief canon reads: «Those who are excommunicated or interdicted after the imposition or declaration of the penalty and others who obstinately persist in manifest grave sin are not to be admitted to Holy Communion.»

This canon treats two instances where members of the faithful are not to be admitted to Communion. The first deals with excommunication and interdicts — ecclesiastical censures forbidding participation in the sacraments — and the second refers to obstinate persistence in manifest grave sin.

Q: So in the case of pro-abortion politicians we would be dealing with a situation of manifestly grave sin? What does this mean?

Father Williams: The technical language of the code which refers to those who «obstinately persist in manifest grave sin» must be carefully parsed.

Four essential elements come into play, all of which are necessary to fulfill the conditions laid out in Canon 915.

The first element is «gravi peccato,» or grave sin. This can only be taken to refer to the matter of the action — or omission — without necessarily implying a judgment of subjective culpability. «Grave sin» in this case simply means objectively evil conduct of a serious nature.

The second requirement specified by Canon 915 refers to the «manifesto,» or overt, character of the sin. This stipulation limits the sanction to sins of a public nature, and reiterates the public and ecclesial dimension of Holy Communion, which signifies moral, spiritual and doctrinal union with Christ and with his Church.

Thirdly, to be refused Communion a person must persist — «perseverantes» — in this openly sinful behavior. To say that a person persists in a public sin means that he somehow makes it known that he plans to continue engaging in his sinful behavior.

Finally, the code speaks of obstinate persistence. The Latin adverb «obstinate» here means that the person has been duly informed of the evil of his behavior but deliberately chooses to persist in it anyway.

There is such a thing as inculpable persistence in evildoing, when a person is unaware that a certain habitual activity is sinful. But once the evil of his actions has been brought to his attention, his persistence qualifies as obstinate.

Judging from the foregoing considerations, it seems clear that a politician who votes in a way that fails to defend innocent human life on a consistent basis and gives every indication of his intention to keep doing so despite warnings from ecclesiastical authorities can be said to obstinately persist in objectively evil behavior of a public nature. And in this regard he fulfills the requirements of Canon 915.

Q: In Bishop Burke’s Notification, made public this past January, he speaks of scandal. To fail to «uphold the natural and divine law regarding the inviolable dignity of all human life,» he writes, «is a grave public sin and gives scandal to all the faithful.» How does scandal fit into the equation?

Father Williams: Though in common language «scandal» often refers to something shocking or disgraceful, the word comes from the Greek «skandalon» — a stumbling block — and properly means «an attitude or behavior which leads another to do evil,» as the Catechism says in No. 2284.

Because of their high public visibility and moral authority, politicians can, by their example, lead others to good or to evil. According to the Catechism, No. 2285: «Scandal is grave when given by those who by nature or office are obliged to teach and educate others.» We further read in No. 2286 that «they are guilty of scandal who establish laws or social structures leading to the decline of morals.»

Along with its practical role of making certain actions punishable or permissible under the law, civil legislation has a pedagogical role as well and thus contributes to the formation of public opinion and private conscience.

The criminalization or legalization of determined activities influences the way people view the morality of such activities since it represents a social judgment on this sort of behavior. Thus legislators, even more than other public figures, are called to a higher standard of accountability because of their moral authority and the influence that their decisions have on others.

Q: In his comments last Friday, Cardinal Arinze stated: «The norm of the Church is clear. The Catholic Church exists in the U.S.A. and there are bishops there. Let them interpret.» If the norm is clear, why is interpretation necessary?

Father Williams: One thing is the objective norm, another the application to specific cases.

According to the Code of Canon Law, it falls to the local bishop — the «ordinary» — to determine when such situations arise and to take the appropriate steps to correct the causes.

Canon 1339 states in part: «An ordinary can likewise rebuke a person from whose behavior there arises scandal or serious disturbance of order in a manner accommodated to the special conditions of the person and the deed.» Thus it falls to bishops to apply these sanctions.

Q: Won’t such sanctions be seen as playing partisan politics?

Father Williams: In the specific case of Catholic politicians who openly dissent from the Church’s stand on life, prudence is particularly necessary.

Especially in the present instance, when the major political parties differentiate themselves along these lines, great care must be taken to avoid the appearance of partisan politics while at the same time giving an unequivocal message of both the Church’s position on abortion and the importance she accords to this issue because of its centrality to the common good.

Where a political party takes an anti-life stand as a fundamental component of its platform, the Church may have
no choice but to denounce it.

If the Church’s pastors were to make it clear to politicians that abortion is truly a non-negotiable question and one on which they were prepared to «go to the mat,» they would exert considerable moral, and political, pressure on all politicians to give this moral issue the weight it deserves.

Sometimes a prophetic voice is needed to shake people out of their moral lethargy, especially when people have come to accept as «normal» something which by rights should provoke moral outrage.

If publicly supporting abortion doesn’t constitute a sufficient pastoral reason to justify the denial of Holy Communion, it is hard to imagine when recourse to this measure would be appropriate.

Q: Is this issue really that important? Should bishops really risk their moral authority on the question of pro-abortion legislators?

Father Williams: A glance at the past may prove instructive. History tends to be severe in its judgments of Church leaders who failed to use all the means at their disposal to put an end to egregious sins against human rights.

It is sufficient to recall events of the past centuries such as the African slave trade or apartheid or Hitler’s Germany to bring home this argument.

Situations which appeared complicated and multifaceted at the time take on a peculiar starkness when viewed with historical hindsight.

A dispassionate analysis of the facts may show that the current situation with legalized abortion is no less grave than the greatest human rights issues of other times.

Though we may be inured to the grim reality of abortion, it seems likely that once civilization has comes to its senses, future generations will look back on our time as one of the most barbarous in history, not merely for our wars and terrorism, but especially for the antiseptic extermination of the most defenseless members of our society, the poorest of the poor, precisely because they have no voice.

Furthermore, the mere magnitude of the crisis — now more than 40 million planned deaths of unborn children in the United States alone since the legalization of abortion in 1973 — is sufficient to make abortion the greatest social justice issue of all time.

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