No Communion for Obama Supporters?

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Nov 17, 2008

Fr. Jay Scott Newman, pastor of St. Mary’s Church in Greenville, SC, told his parishioners in the parish bulletin for November 9th that they must not present themselves for communion if they voted for Barack Obama, until they repent of their sin. After making a direct reference to Obama's support for unrestricted abortion, Fr. Newman stated:

Voting for a pro-abortion politician when a plausible pro-life alternative exists 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.

At least one prelate, the fiery retired bishop of Corpus Christi, René Henry Gracida, greeted Fr. Newman's bold stance with “admiration and awe”. This is unfortunate, because in the controversy following his initial statement, Fr. Newman himself recognized that he had handled the matter too quickly, and had inadvertently left out important aspects of the Church’s teaching. In his November 16th bulletin, therefore, he clarified his statement as follows:

What I wrote last week has to be read in light of the teaching of the American bishops on “Faithful Citizenship” which was distributed in the bulletin the week before the election and explained from the pulpit. From that document and the teaching of the Church’s Magisterium, no one could conclude that a vote for Senator Obama is in itself or by itself a mortal sin. But from that same teaching, though, we must conclude that a vote for a pro-abortion candidate can be a mortal sin if the intent is to support abortion, that abortion is not merely one issue among other important issues, and that no Catholic should endorse a pro-abortion politician if a plausible pro-life alternative is available. I regret that I did not take time last week to parse out every stipulation of the Church’s teaching, because the failure to do so allowed those who oppose that teaching to ridicule it by falsely asserting that I intended to deny Holy Communion to anyone who voted for the president-elect or that I presumed to know or judge their conscience.

I have only a minor quibble with this clarification. Fr. Newman is perhaps just a trifle self-serving (as most of us tend to be when explaining a past mistake) in regretting his failure “to parse out every stipulation of the Church’s teaching” because it gave those who oppose that teaching a chance to make false assertions about Fr. Newman’s intentions. He might have been more frank. In fact, he left so much out of his original statement that it seriously distorted the Church’s teaching in a way that could damage souls. Nonetheless, he quite properly corrected himself within days, and how often do we see that?

My original blog entry on this subject was written before I knew that Fr. Newman had corrected his inadvertent error. When I learned of the correction, I replaced the original with what you are now reading. I still think it is important for pro-life Catholics to understand what was wrong with Fr. Newman’s original statement, and why his subsequent clarification is so very much better. I will explain this in the context of related arguments on Fr. Newman’s theme which I myself have made in some of my weekly columns.

Indeed, you would be hard-pressed to find a Catholic writer who argued the moral case against voting for Obama-Biden harder than I did (see both On Voting for Pro-Abortion Candidates (9/5/2008) and Defending Ourselves Against the Absolute (9/19/2008)). My own judgment was that, given the options available today, to vote for Obama would be immoral. I tried very hard to persuade others that this judgment was correct.

At the same time, however, I acknowledged that it took a two-part argument to reach this conclusion, and that the second part of the argument was prudential. As Cardinal Ratzinger pointed out four years ago, to vote for a pro-abortion candidate because he is pro-abortion is a grave evil. Done with full knowledge and full consent of the will, this would unquestionably be a mortal sin. The commission of that sin should cause a person to refrain from Communion until he has confessed and received absolution. But to vote for a pro-abortion candidate in spite of the fact that he is pro-abortion, from a desire to promote some other good, is a lesser moral problem. At the minimum, it is remote cooperation with evil. Such remote cooperation is always suspect, but it is permissible if there is a proportionate reason. Note that in Fr. Newman’s clarifying statement, the entire question of proportionate reason is subsumed in his phrase “if a plausible pro-life alternative is available”. That phrase, along with the later phrase about his inability to judge anyone’s conscience makes the clarifying statement quite sound, but the lengthier discussion here will, I believe, shed more light on the problem.

The part of the argument that abortion is gravely evil is absolute and certain; therefore to seek to support or promote abortion in any way is gravely wrong, and this too is absolute and certain. But the part of the argument that there is no proportionate reason to vote for a pro-abortion candidate, despite his stance on abortion, is prudential, and therefore theoretically incapable of absolute certitude. I believe that this part of the argument can be made so effectively that it cannot be refuted rationally, but it remains a prudential argument, which means that it is at least theoretically possible for someone in good conscience to disagree. Just before the election, when a number of bishops began to teach this prudential conclusion, I suggested that these bishops were apparently driven to pronounce on the prudential part of the argument because, without such specificity, too many laymen remained confused. After all, it ought rightly to be very rare for bishops to appear to put their magisterial weight behind a prudential judgment (something that sound Catholics have long criticized the USCCB for doing in many of its policy statements). I believe such prudential teaching was justified in this case as an application of moral principle to a fairly obvious case. Nonetheless, it remains a prudential judgment which, accordingly, carries within it the potential for legitimate dissent.

Perhaps even more important, there remains the question of mortal sin. To commit a mortal sin one must do something that is gravely evil with both full knowledge and full consent of the will. Even if you assume (as I do) that no Catholic who voted for Obama really had a legitimate proportionate reason, such a Catholic could have believed that he had a reason, or could have been badly advised or poorly formed, or could have been ignorant of the issues and so unaware of the great moral questions involved. In any of these circumstances, the sin would not have been mortal, and therefore would not require that he refrain from Communion.

Finally, there is the question of whether someone who voted for Obama has thereby publicly manifested a sufficiently grave evil that a pastor would be justified in refusing Communion to attempt both to prevent a further public scandal (by making it impossible to view the Church as a collaborator) and to curb the existing public scandal (of a person claiming to be a Catholic in good standing while promoting grave evil). Of course, if a parishioner were publicly advocating abortion, or publicly praising Obama’s abortion stance, this should be considered. But not only do many people support or oppose candidates for reasons unrelated to abortion (whether they should or not), but also many do not provide public information about how they vote. For the vast majority of ordinary Catholics, it would (perhaps regrettably) be impossible to make the case based on public scandal.

All of these considerations show why Fr. Newman’s original statement needed to be corrected. It was, in its original form, a perfect example of what I warned against in last week’s column (Modern Knowledge). If we truly respect truth, we need to be very careful not to push our arguments beyond their legitimate scope. There is nothing wrong with Fr. Newman attempting to make the relevant moral considerations very clear to his parishioners through effective teaching and preaching; nor is there anything wrong with urging his parishioners to make a very serious examination of conscience on this very point. Any good priest should do the same. But Fr. Newman’s original instruction that all those who voted for Obama must refrain from Holy Communion suggested that he was pronouncing, without adequate knowledge of the individual cases, that many identifiable souls entrusted to his care had cut themselves off from the Body of Christ.

I am delighted that Fr. Newman saw the problem and corrected it quickly. Again, he is to be commended for the humility and intelligence he displayed in doing so. Let his example, then, instruct us once more in the need for extreme attentiveness in matters of truth, and the equal need to correct ourselves quickly—just as Fr. Newman did—should we slip.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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