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The shameful betrayal of a courageous pastor

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles ) | Nov 17, 2008

St. Mary's church in Greenville, South Carolina, is a model Catholic parish, with an outstanding young pastor. The liturgy is beautiful and reverent; the religious instruction is meticulous and orthodox; the lay people are numerous and active. There is a busy school (run by the Nashville Dominicans), and each year there are dozens of adults welcomed into the Catholic Church at the Easter Vigil.

But that's not why you've heard so much about St. Mary's in the past two weeks. In fact, the success of the parish is not why I'm writing about it today.

St. Mary's has suddenly become the focus of nationwide attention because of what the pastor said-- or rather, what the media said he had said-- about people who had voted for Barack Obama.

Before going any further, let's set the record straight. Father Jay Scott Newman did not say that he would deny the Eucharist to Obama supporters. In a message that he placed in the parish bulletin, he strongly recommended prayers for the incoming President, and reminded the parishioners that Obama had been duly elected by the American people and deserves their respect. However, he took note of Obama's strong support for unrestricted legal abortion, and made the following observation:

Voting for a pro-abortion politician when a plausible pro-life alternative exits constitutes material cooperation with intrinsic evil, and those Catholics who do so place themselves outside of the full communion of Christ's Church and under the judgment of divine law. Persons in this condition should not receive Holy Communion until and unless they are reconciled to God in the Sacrament of Penance, lest they eat and drink their own condemnation.

Notice that this pastoral observation does not mention Obama by name. It could apply to voters who supported any other pro-abortion candidate. Moreover Father Newman did not threaten to deny Communion to anyone. Quite on the contrary, in response to a reporter's question he categorically stated: "I cannot and will not refuse Holy Communion to anyone because of his or her political opinions or choices."

In light of the pastor's clear statement, it is shameful that an AP story carried the thoroughly misleading headline: " SC priest: No communion for Obama supporters." And it is still more shameful that some reputable Catholics, who had full access to the original text of Father Newman's statement and to his clarification as well, helped to spread the false impression that the AP story created, reporting that the pastor had voiced the intention of denying the Eucharist to Obama supporters.

Regrettably, the Diocese of Charleston contributed to the confusion. When Father Newman's statement first hit the headlines, the diocese issued a clear statement of support. But two days later the acting administrator of the diocese repudiated his pastor, in a public statement that lent further credence to the error contained in the AP headline.

"Christ gives us freedom to explore our own conscience and to make our own decisions while adhering to the law of God and the teachings of the faith," said Msgr. Martin Laughlin, the diocesan administrator. "Therefore, if a person has formed his or her conscience well, he or she should not be denied Communion, nor be told to go to confession before receiving Communion."

Again, Father Newman had not denied Communion to anyone, and had said clearly that he did not intend to do so. Msgr. Laughlin was aware of this; he had received Father Newman's original statement and his later (written) response to the reporter's queries.

Father Newman had pointed out that voting to support abortion is a serious sin-- a point made by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops in their election-year statement, Faithful Citizenship-- and he had reminded parishioners that if they were guilty of serious sin they should refrain from the Eucharist until receiving sacramental absolution-- the constant teaching of the Catholic Church. He had brought the debate from the abstract to the concrete level, forcefully reminding parishioners that it is possible to sin-- even to sin gravely-- by casting a ballot, and that those who sin gravely endanger their own souls.

Certainly it is true, as Msgr. Laughlin says, that every individual has the right to follow his own conscience. But every pastor has the right-- indeed the moral duty-- to help his parishioners inform their consciences. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church (#1783): “The education of conscience is indispensable for human beings who are subjected to negative influences and tempted by sin to prefer their own judgment and to reject authoritative teachings.”

A partisan political campaign furnishes plenty of "negative influences" to sway opinions and introduce temptations. Now, with the electioneering finished and passions beginning to cool, Father Newman was asking his people to examine their consciences.

Could the pastor's original statement have been inappropriately worded? Certainly. In this blog entry, my colleague Jeff Mirus argues persuasively that the original statement, as it appeared in the parish bulletin, contained a potentially serious distortion of Church teaching. Father Newman was writing at first for a restricted audience of his own parishioners, and perhaps they might have been expected to understand how much he had compressed the argument. But since he was addressing a hot political topic he should have anticipated the likely public reaction, and realized that his statement was a dangerous oversimplification.

To his credit, once he realized how much commotion he had caused, Father Newman wrote a longer message-- this time addressed not only to his parish but to all interested parties-- seeking to allay any potential confusion. This new, longer statement spelled out the crucial moral distinctions between a vote cast for legal abortion and a vote cast for a candidate who, among other things, favors legal abortion. If the first statement was defective, this clarification was an appropriate remedy, accurately conveying the full and nuanced teaching of the Church as Jeff Mirus acknowledges. Unfortunately the Charleston diocese ordered Father Newman not to release that clarification, and the excellent statement that was posted on the St. Mary's parish web site has been removed. So the confusion endures.

This campaign season saw the debate over abortion, and more particularly, over the duty of Catholic voters to resist legal abortion. Imagine if Father Newman had issued the same sort of pastoral warning regarding some immoral behavior that does not carry such strong political implications. Suppose, for instance, he had said that men who use pornography, or women who have undergone voluntary sterilization, should not receive Communion before making a good Confession. Would such a warning draw a rebuke from the chancery, too? If a pastor cannot warn his people about the moral consequences of their behavior, then the Church cannot instruct the faithful.

Father Newman's statement was a powerful challenge, not only to his own parishioners, but to countless thousands of Catholics and even non-Catholics who read it. He forcefully reminded us all that abortion is not an abstraction (as those who pound home the slogan of "choice" would have us believe) but a concrete reality. Our attitude toward abortion is not only a matter of personal opinion but a moral decision, for which we shall all be held to account.

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