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Grave and manifest: an archbishop's odd logic on withholding Communion

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles ) | Oct 31, 2008

In a a fine column that appears this week in the archdiocesan newspaper, The Catholic Review, Archbishop Edwin O'Brien of Baltimore has joined dozens of other American bishops in affirming that the protection of innocent human life is the paramount political issue of our time. For that affirmation-- and for the clarity and candor with which so many bishops have made it-- we should all be grateful.

However, I am baffled by a passage in his article, in which Arcbishop O'Brien announces that he will not withhold the Eucharist from Catholic public officials who persist in supporting the destruction of human life. The logic of the archbishop's argument escapes me.

Archbishop O'Brien says that he wants to speak with Catholic office-holders whose public stands are in conflict with their Catholic faith. "I pledge not to be confrontational, however," he says; "and would welcome a private discussion of this message with those who seek or hold office." That is exactly as it should be. As their father in faith, the archbishop is looking for the opportunity to correct his spiritual children without causing a public uproar.

But what if, after instruction and pleas and remonstrations, these politicians still support abortion and euthanasia and embryonic stem-cell research? What then? The archbishop has already announced that he will not take the next step, and invoke the prescribed canonical discipline on these erring politicians.

Why has he surrendered his disciplinary authority in advance? Archbishop O'Brien gives three reasons:

1. In contrast to and in spite of the measured tones of several bishops who have made this decision, many of the letters I have received and advertisements I have seen calling for this penalty reflect an uncharitable anger and even a vindictiveness that undermine the healing intent of those bishops’ decrees.

This, frankly, is not a reason at all. Yes, there are people who make an argument for withholding Communion in a mean-spirited way. But good ideas can have nasty supporters. If the discipline is appropriate, it remains appropriate despite the ill-temper of its proponents. Archbishop O'Brien could rebuke the spiteful letter-writers and discipline the pro-abortion politicians; there would be no contradiction in those actions.

The archbishop continues:

2. At this stage, the divisive result of such an action in the Archdiocese of Baltimore both within and outside the Catholic community would, in my opinion, prove counterproductive to our evangelizing efforts and to our overall unity.

3. In this unique and highly-charged atmosphere, it is likely inevitable that such a step, in spite of any appropriate attempts on our part to explain it, would be distorted as constituting an unwise and unwarranted intrusion of the Church in the political life of the community. It might even undermine pro-life politicians, suggesting that their position is simply a consequence of pressure from the institutional Church, rather than the result of the Church’s clear obligation to defend the dignity of every human life.

Unless I am mistaken, arguments #2 and #3 are the same. Archbishop O'Brien fears that if he announced the decision to withhold the Eucharist, the resulting furor would cause a backlash, bringing a storm of anger down upon both the Catholic Church and the pro-life movement. Those fears are not unrealistic. Indeed I am prepared to accept the likelihood that the archbishop's predictions would come true.

But the purpose of canonical discipline is not to advance the political cause of the pro-life movement, or to enhance the public image of the Church. The purpose of Church law is to avoid public scandal.

In the Code of Canon Law, #915 states: "Those upon whom the penalty of excommunication of interdict has been imposed or declared, and others who obstinately persist in manifest grave sin, are not to be admitted to Holy Communion." [emphasis added]

Archbishop O'Brien writes in his column that some bishops have decided to withhold the Eucharist, and other-- himself included-- have not; he suggests that individual bishops are free to set their own policies according to their best lights. Canon law suggests otherwise. Canon 915 does says flatly that manifest sinners "are not to be admitted to Holy Communion."

In 2004, in a letter to American bishops on precisely this question, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger wrote that when a public figure persists in grave sin despite the best efforts of the bishop, he should not receive the Eucharist and "the minister of Holy Communion must refuse to distribute it." The law does not allow latitude for negotiation. If the sin is manifest and grave, and the sinner persists, the minister is obligated to withhold the Eucharist.

A politician's public support for legal abortion certainly qualifies as "manifest;" that much cannot be denied. When he announces that he will never invoke the provisions of Canon 915, then, a bishop leads us to draw one of two logical inferences: Either he does not consider support for legal abortion a "grave" matter, or he does not respect the laws of the Church and the need to avoid scandal.

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