By John-Henry Westen
The politics surrounding the matter of reception of Holy Communion by Catholics in public life who support legal abortion has confused the issue in the minds of most Americans. It’s not the politics of the politicians, so much as the perceived politics of the Bishops and the Pope that is the source of the confusion.
The popular perception sees caring liberal bishops welcoming Catholic politicians regardless of their abortion orientation to receive Communion while heartless conservative bishops use confrontation at the altar rail as an opportunity to embarrass and harass political leaders who cross them on their hobbyhorse of opposing a woman’s ‘right to choose’.
Taking a look at the issue through a Canadian lens may help put the matter in better focus. For many years the only Canadian bishop to address the issue was Calgary Bishop Fred Henry in the province of Alberta. The Calgary prelate was the first bishop in recent years to say publicly that Catholic politicians who supported abortion and same-sex marriage would be refused Communion. Bishop Henry is however the farthest thing from a right-wing conservative imaginable. In fact, he is best known as “Red Fred” for his untiring and very vocal support for trade unions.
Another Canadian bishop has recently spoken out on the issue as well – Archbishop Terrence Prendergast – who was recently installed as Archbishop in the Canadian capital city of Ottawa.
I interviewed Archbishop Prendergast on the issue recently and he revealed what seems to be a hidden truth in the abortion and communion debate. He explained that denial of Holy Communion to pro-abortion politicians is an act of love for the Catholic politician him or herself – an act meant to call the politician back to the truth. Prendergast said: “The Church’s concern is for anyone who persists in grave sin, hoping that medicinal measures may draw them away from the wrong path to the truth of our faith.” He said that “medicinal” remedies such as “denial of communion” are employed to “draw them back to the way of Christ, Our Lord, the Way, the Truth and the Life.”
Catholics believe that Holy Communion is the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus Christ.
From the earliest days of the Church, receiving Holy Communion unworthily has been forbidden; forbidden out of concern for those who would make such unworthy communions. St. Paul in the eleventh chapter of First Corinthians wrote: “Therefore whosoever shall eat this bread, or drink the chalice of the Lord unworthily, shall be guilty of the body and of the blood of the Lord. But let a man prove himself: and so let him eat of that bread, and drink of the chalice. For he that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh judgment to himself, not discerning the body of the Lord.” (1 Cor. 11:27-29)
From this perspective, Bishops who treat Catholic politicians who support abortion as if they were in full communion with the Church are neglecting their pastoral concern and charity for their wayward spiritual children.
For the Vatican, there is no question about the need to deny Holy Communion to Catholic politicians who vote in favour of abortion. The issue was closed with a letter from Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI.
The then-Vatican Cardinal intervened into a debate among the US Bishops on the issue in 2004. Simply put, Cardinal Ratzinger said in his letter titled “Worthiness to receive Holy Communion”, that a Catholic politician who would vote for “permissive abortion and euthanasia laws” after being duly instructed and warned, “must” be denied Communion. Ratzinger’s letter explained that if such a politician “with obstinate persistence, still presents himself to receive the Holy Eucharist, the minister of Holy Communion must refuse to distribute it.”
Since then, Pope Benedict XVI has confirmed this position speaking as Pope. Answering a reporter on an in-flight press conference last May, Pope Benedict addressed a question on the Mexican bishops excommunicating politicians who support legalizing abortion. “Yes, this excommunication was not an arbitrary one but is allowed by Canon law which says that the killing of an innocent child is incompatible with receiving communion, which is receiving the body of Christ,” said the Pope.
In the comment, the Pope was referring to the Church’s Canon law 915 which states: “Those upon whom the penalty of excommunication or interdict has been imposed or declared, and others who obstinately persist in manifest grave sin, are not to be admitted to Holy Communion.”
Archbishop Raymond Burke of St. Louis, a pre-eminent Scholar of Canon Law remarked on the need for Bishops to uphold this canon since without doing so they undermine belief in the truth of the evil of abortion. “No matter how often a bishop or priest repeats the teaching of the Church regarding procured abortion, if he stands by and does nothing to discipline a Catholic who publicly supports legislation permitting the gravest of injustices and, at the same time, presents himself to receive Holy Communion, then his teaching rings hollow,” he said. “To remain silent is to permit serious confusion regarding a fundamental truth of the moral law.”
It is not only the Pope who has been reiterating the truth that Catholic politicians who support abortion ‘must’ be denied Communion. The highest authority on the subject in the Vatican, next to the Pope, is the head (or Prefect) of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments – Nigerian-born Cardinal Francis Arinze.
Already in 2004, Cardinal Arinze said a pro-abortion politician “is not fit” to receive Communion. “If they should not receive, then they should not be given,” he added.
Since then, Cardinal Arinze, who is still in his position as Prefect of the Congregation, has been asked about the issue so frequently he has begun to joke about it. The latest such incident was videotaped and is available on Youtube.
The November 2007 video shows Cardinal Arinze eliciting much laughter and applause when he made the analogy, “To the person who says, ‘Personally I’m against abortion, but if people what to do it, I’ll leave them free’, you could say, ‘You are a member of the senate or the congress, personally I’m not in favour of shooting the whole lot of you, but if somebody else wants to shoot all of you in the Senate, or all of you in Congress, it’s just pro-choice for that person, but personally, I’m not in favour.’
“That is what he is saying. He’s saying he’s personally not in favour of killing these millions of children in the womb, but if others want to do it, that’s pro-choice. That’s what he is saying.”
Arinze said that he is regularly asked if a person who votes for abortion can receive Holy Communion. He replies, “Do you really need a cardinal from the Vatican to answer that? Get the children for first Communion and say to them, ‘Somebody votes for the killing of unborn babies, and says, I voted for that, I will vote for that every time.’ And these babies are killed not one or two, but in millions, and that person says, ‘I’m a practicing Catholic’, should that person receive Communion next Sunday? The children will answer that at the drop of a hat. You don’t need a cardinal to answer that.”