Late Edition: Who’s in Charge Here?

Concerning the denial of the Eucharist to pro-abortion Catholic politicians, a few observations:

(1) Contrary to what certain American bishops have implied, abundant canonical authority exists to justify withholding the Sacrament. (See, e.g., Canons 915, 916, and 1364-1399 of The Code of Canon Law (1983); sections 19-20 of Evangelium Vitae (1995); the Doctrinal Note on Some Questions Regarding the Participation of Catholics in Public Life (Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, 2002); paragraphs 31-34 of Living the Gospel of Life: A Challenge to American Catholics (United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 1998); Redemptionis Sacramenturn (Congregation for Divine Worship, 2004).) The central question is not the existence of such authority but whether it should be exercised.

(2) Some bishops have argued that withholding Communion requires a priest to judge the moral condition of a would-be recipient’s soul; it is in any event “unpastoral.” To the contrary, being warm and fuzzy hardly exhausts the meaning of the pastoral function, which may require admonition no less than consolation. Admonition is precisely the antidote for politicians who ostentatiously defend abortion. We are speaking, after all, not about hidden sin but about public acts that scorn objective moral law as well as Church doctrine. To ignore the behavior of contumacious politicians risks further injury to their souls, undermines Church authority, and scandalizes the faithful.

(3) Even so, some say that the greater risk of scandal lies in denying the Sacrament to a presidential candidate who may be itching for a fight. One who so readily thumbs his nose at the Church on abortion, it is argued, will not hesitate to cast himself as a victim of reactionary ecclesiastical authority. Distinctions about the nature of the Eucharist and the proper conditions for its reception will be lost in a sea of media bathos about priestly interference with a presumed right of conscience.

 

The argument gives one pause. The devastating erosion in proper Catholic formation over the past 30 to 40 years is not to be taken lightly. Millions of nominal Catholics are not only soft on abortion but clueless about the central tenets of their faith; many couldn’t explain the Eucharist if their lives depended on it. Imagine a parish, half of whose members indicate support for John Kerry (which is roughly what the polls now show). In the event he is denied Communion, would you care to wager on how these parishioners will react?

Withholding the Eucharist from the likes of Kerry, in short, will not be a cost-free exercise. The alternative, however, is likely to be far worse: continued distortion of Church teaching, further diminution of its moral authority, and encouragement of the view, already dangerously advanced, that the untutored right of conscience trumps all. Thirty more years of that and the Church will be undone. In this hour of peril, we need courageous bishops who will explain and defend the Faith. All hail, then, Archbishops James Burke (St. Louis), John Myers (Newark), Charles Chaput (Denver), and others for standing firm. They are true pastors.

(4) The immediate controversy is perhaps less revealing for what it says about the canonical rules governing the reception of Communion than for what it says about the decline in episcopal teaching authority. That the bishops themselves publicly disagree on the rules for receiving the Sacrament is one measure of that decline, but not necessarily the most significant.

Consider, for example, how the current controversy has reversed the customary presumptions. Not so very long ago, it would have been thought scandalous for a Catholic politician to scoff at Church teaching or to challenge episcopal authority on sacramental rules. Today, quite the opposite presumption prevails: It is the priest or bishop who threatens to withhold Communion who is now considered scandalous.

As if to underscore the point, the eminent theologian Victoria Reggie Kennedy, wife of the Massachusetts senator, took to the op-ed page of the Washington Post to chastise conservative bishops for failing to understand their proper duties and the true purpose of the Eucharist. Shortly thereafter, 48 Catholic members of Congress delivered their own pastoral reflections in a public letter to the American bishops, the gist of which was that the bishops should shut up about what it means to be a Catholic in good standing. The problem is that too many bishops followed that advice 30 years ago.

Michael M. Uhlmann

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Michael Martin Uhlmann (1939-2019) served as professor of government in the department of politics and policy at Claremont Graduate University and Claremont McKenna College. Prior to teaching at Claremont, Dr. Uhlmann was a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, Vice President for Public Policy Research at the Bradley Foundation in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and taught at the George Mason University Law School.

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