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Ratzinger joins US debate on withholding Eucharist June 17, 2004

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger has weighed into debate within the American hierarchy, saying that public figures who openly dissent from Church teachings should not receive Communion.

In an official letter to the US bishops, which has not been made public, the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith writes that Catholics who are "living in grave sin" or who "reject the doctrine of the Church," should abstain from the Eucharist.

Cardinal Ratzinger's letter was prompted by the sharp differences among American bishops on the question. These differences have been discussed at length by US bishops and Vatican officials in recent weeks, as the American bishops made their ad limina visits to Rome.

The existence of Cardinal Ratzinger's letter was first reported by the Italian daily La Reppublica , and subsequently confirmed by informed sources at the Vatican.

The thrust of Cardinal Ratzinger's message was at odds with reports from a few American bishops, who had returned from their visits to Rome saying that Vatican officials had discouraged any effort to withhold the Eucharist from public figures who oppose Church teachings on issues such as abortion and same-sex unions.

This question has been thrown into sharp relief this year because of the presidential candidacy of John Kerry, a Catholic who has been outspoken in his support for legal abortion and has opposed Church positions on issues such as euthanasia, stem-cell research, and homosexuality. Archbishop Raymond Burke of St. Louis has said that he would deny Communion to Kerry; several other American bishops have stated that politicians holding such views should not receive the Eucharist.

One American bishop indicated that in an April conversation with visiting US bishops, Cardinal Ratzinger encouraged the American prelates to be "more attentive to this question." Vatican sources confirm that the German cardinal welcomed a fuller discussion of the issue, and gave every indication that he was pleased with the public pronouncements of the more conservative American bishops. Suggestions from Cardinal Ratzinger could be incorporated into a report that is being prepared by a committee of US bishops, on how Church leaders should handle the cases of political figures who dissent from important Church teachings. Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington, DC, chairs the committee that is currently considering that question. Although the issue is being discussed by the US hierarchy during their closed-door meeting in Denver this week, a final report from Cardinal McCarrick's committee is not expected until after the US elections in November 2004.

Some American bishops have indicated that they are reluctant to become involved in the public discipline of leading Catholic politicians, for fear that they may be accused to violating the proper boundaries of Church-state affairs. President George W. Bush has come under some criticism for corssing those boundaries himself, after the National Catholic Reporter said that the President had complained to Vatican officials about American bishops who "are not with me" on issues such as abortion and stem-cell research. President Bush reportedly made that remark in a conversation with the Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Angelo Sodano. The Vatican has neither confirmed nor denied that report.

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