Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Abortion and Communion

In the wake of Pope Benedict's visit to the United States, there has been another flap about giving communtion to politicians who support abortion rights. John Kerry, Nancy Pelosi, Ted Kennedy, and Rudy Giuliani -- all vocal supporters of abortion rights -- received communion at the Papal Masses in Washington and New York, apparently from the hand of the Papal Nuncio (ambassador to the US), Pietro Sambi. It seems that some of them even announced beforehand that they were going to do it.

For the record, I stand with the rigorists on this. Those who make a career of directly contradicting the Church's most basic teachings in the public sphere are objectively in grave sin, and should not be given communion. I can understand the argument for why this might be hard to implement -- can every extraordinary minister be expected to know all the details of every politician? -- but in this case it was some of the most public advocates of abortion in our country, receiving from the man whose entire job is to be a liaison between the Vatican and the US government. There is no excuse, in my opinion, for Archbishop Sambi's decision. (And I do not understand the argument made by some that Archbishop Wuerl, of Washington, and Cardinal Egan, of New York, are the real ones to blame. Sambi is the papal nuncio!)

But I write this post not to give my opinion, but to examine the opinion of the Holy Father. This is a good opportunity, I think, to make a critical distinction in thinking through who Pope Benedict XVI is and how he thinks about papal policy.

We have been reminded in the recent weeks of a letter the future pope, Cardinal Ratzinger, sent to then-Archbishop of Washington Theodore Cardinal McCarrick in 2004. The full text is available on Sandro Magister's webpage, where it was originally leaked (intentionally?) in 2004. Cardinal McCarrick was leading a commission of American bishops in deciding what to do about giving communion to the pro-abort, nominally Catholic presidential candidate John Kerry. The letter is very clear:
in the case of an intrinsically unjust law, such as a law permitting abortion or
euthanasia, it is therefore never licit to obey it, or to 'take part in a
propoganda campaign in favour of such a law or vote for it' . . . . This
cooperation can never be justified either by invoking respect for the freedom of
others or by appealing to the fact that civil law permits it or requires it. . .
. Not all moral issues have the same moral weight as abortion and
euthanasia. For example, if a Catholic were to be at odds with the Holy Father
on the application of capital punishment or on the decision to wage war, he
would not for that reason be considered unworthy to present himself to receive
Holy Communion. . . . Regarding the grave sin of abortion or euthanasia, when a
person's formal cooperation becomes manifest (understood, in the case of a
Catholic politician, as his consistently campaigning and voting for permissive
abortion and euthanasia laws), his Pastor should meet with him, instructing him
about the Church's teaching, informing him that he is not to present himself for
Holy Communion until he brings to an end the objective situation of sin, and
warning him that he will otherwise be denied the Eucharist. When 'these
precautionary measures have not had their effect or in which they were not
possible,' and the person in question, with obstinate persistence, still
presents himself to receive the Holy Eucharist, 'the minister of Holy Communion
must refuse to distribute it'."

The letter was originally private, and Cardinal McCarrick directly misrepresented it, claiming that Ratzinger had told him it was fine to give communion to pro-abort politicians. McCarrick is a disgrace.

But the question now is, what does this letter tell us about Pope Benedict? It has been quoted of late as evidence of the Pope's opinion on this matter. I disagree.

It has often been noted that Ratzinger's successor as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, William Cardinal Levada, is not especially impressive. (CDF is the most important office of the Vatican, in charge of making clear what is and what is not in line with Catholic doctrine.) And it is generally agreed that Ratzinger picked Levada to be more of a secretary than a "prefect": to be a mouthpiece for the Pope, and to let the Pope make the real decisions, rather than doing much of his own volition. I think that analysis makes good sense.

Where I disagree, however, is in the suggestion that this constitutes a change. Strictly speaking, CDF, like every other office of the Vatican, is nothing but a mouthpiece for the Pope. Cardinal Ratzinger had absolutely no authority except as John Paul II's mouthpiece.

Now obviously one can give one's mouthpiece more or less leeway. Take as an example CDF's two fantastic responses to liberation theology, from 1984 and 1986. These documents, which amount to a repudiation of the liberation-theology movement, are beautiful works of theology, expressing an alternative vision of what liberation theology can and should be. It is generally agreed that they bear a strong imprint of Cardinal Ratzinger.

But their fundamental orientation, and 100% of their authority, come not from the Cardinal Prefect but from the Holy Father himself. We'll probably never know how much John Paul and Ratzinger collaborated in writing these documents, or who else was involved. But we do know that by their very nature, their authority came from John Paul.

In the case of the letter to Cardinal McCarrick, this is all the more the case. The letter is strictly disciplinary, not theological -- and thus I think we should take it as more directly the voice of John Paul. The CDF is, in a sense, no different from the White House spokesperson: he might be given leeway to explain things in his own words, but the spokesperson is never at liberty to announce policies that do not come directly from the President. The words in that letter, in other words, might have been written by Cardinal Ratzinger, but they are the words of John Paul II. I think it safe to assume -- and perilous to doubt -- that the letter was the direct product of a personal conversation between the Prefect and the Pope. (They dined together once a week.)

What does Pope Benedict think about giving communion to pro-abort politicians? Well, the logic of the letter still stands. Now, as then, the Church teaches that abortion is a grave moral evil; that a politician who promotes abortion rights participates directly in this evil; and thus that such a politician is objectively not in communion with the Church and therefore should not receive communion.

But there is room for interpretation on how such things are implemented. There is room for interpretation, for example, on the question of who makes the judgment. (Archbishop Wuerl wrote an interesting article arguing that as bishop of Washington, these are not his decisions, but the decisions of the bishops of politicians' home dioceses.) There is room for interpretation on how "public" a figure has to be: should every priest know Nancy Pelosi's record? What about Steny Hoyer's? How about a liberal city council member? All may be directly participating in the same evil, but where do we draw the pastoral line on deciding who counts as a "public" figure? And related, whom do we expect to know these faces? Should every priest in Washington be studying the pictures of every member of Congress? Should every extraordinary minister? If somebody sort of looks like Nancy Pelosi, should you withold communion just in case?

Let's be clear: I agree that John Kerry should have been denied communion, and I think someone like Archbishop Sambi ought to know who Nancy Pelosi is and not give her communion. And I think, based on that letter to Cardinal McCarrick, that John Paul probably would have agreed. But the question here is what Pope Benedict thinks. And what I wish to assert is that the letter "he" -- as prefect of a Vatican congregation -- sent to Cardinal McCarrick is not evidence of his personal thinking.

As a friend said when Benedict was elected, "he may still turn out to be a softy."