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Why Communion Won't Be Withheld

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Aug 02, 2004

Although I am in favor of denying Communion to pro-abortion politicians, I am sadly convinced this issue's day has not yet come. Considerations of culture, spiritual discernment, prudence, fidelity, feasibility, jurisdiction, law and courage all enter the discussion. Let’s take a look at a few of the difficulties.

Reluctance to Discipline

Because her members are profoundly influenced by the prevailing culture, the Church herself always reflects the weaknesses of that culture to some degree. Catholic teaching and grace confer greater objectivity and courage, but the life of holiness is still a day by day realization of how much our thoughts and actions are conditioned by the world, and how little by Christ. One of the hallmarks of our world is a reluctance to discipline, a hesitancy about laying blame, a refusal to punish.

Consider how much this reluctance to discipline is reflected in the life of the Church. The 1983 revision of the Code of Canon Law dramatically reduced the number of disciplinary canons and, according to a recent report from the St. Joseph Foundation, the Roman Rota decided just three penal cases over the fifteen-year period following the revision. The Foundation’s analysis suggests that the Church is “overdosing on the medicine of mercy”.

Moreover, failure to discipline is a pattern confirmed by the current pontificate. While John Paul II is undeniably a great pope, it is equally undeniable that his greatness does not derive from his ability to discipline. The Pope has set no example which would lead any of his bishops to conclude that he expects discipline to be at the heart of episcopal administration.

A Worldview at Stake

None of this is surprising. Modern Western culture is characterized by both a reflexive distrust of authority and a reflexive insistence that religious authority is irrelevant to affairs outside Church walls—so irrelevant, in fact, that most people would be astonished to see an ecclesiastical leader even attempt to exercise authority beyond the corporate structure of the Church. This astonishment would have deep roots in the lived experience of the past few generations, in the universally accepted and much misunderstood theory of the separation of Church and State, and in the mutated and truncated Western understanding of freedom of conscience.

In other words, there is an entire worldview at stake in the question of discipline of lay people by Churchmen—an overwhelming sense that, my dear man, it just isn’t done. The consequences of such discipline are potentially revolutionary, and all kinds of prudential questions arise. Even if these are properly answered, the word “prudence” in modern parlance is very frequently a synonym for worldly judgment erring on the side of caution and therefore justifying timidity.

The Match and the Fuse

These aren’t arguments; they are cultural facts. You may say that all it takes is sufficient courage to strike the match and light the fuse, and you may be right. But now we come across another cultural fact. The kind of men who are made bishops, for better or worse, are not generally dogmatic isolationists. These are men who have a great interest in networking with other people, who enjoy political machinery, who are good at all the tricks of posturing and influencing which bring initiatives and programs to birth, who can actually remember your name and be ready with an encouraging word.

In other words, these are men who can rise through the ranks in an essentially democratic society (for bishops are no longer plucked from among the younger sons of the nobility), and this means that they have an acute sense of both their “public” and their public image. Even if most bishops have as much courage as you and I, they will as a group be more tempted to fear when it comes to striking the match and lighting the fuse. Call it prudent reluctance rather than cowardice, if you prefer.

Canon Law and Ratzinger

Still, if you want greater discipline, you are in very good company. Canon Law, despite the fact that its remaining disciplinary provisions have been unused for nearly a generation, is on your side. Canon 915 still provides that persons who “obstinately persist in manifest grave sin are not to be admitted to Holy Communion.” The Canon does not say they should not present themselves for Communion; that goes without saying, and is the proper conclusion of any examination of conscience where grave sin is involved. The Canon says they are “not to be admitted.”

Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, cited Canon 915 in attempting to clarify the issue for the American bishops. Ratzinger made six points in a brief memorandum, three of which are of particular interest. First, he said that “not all moral issues have the same moral weight.” It is possible to be at odds with the Holy Father on the “application of capital punishment or on the decision to wage war” without considering oneself unworthy to receive Communion. But no such diversity of opinion is possible with regard to “abortion and euthanasia”.

Second, he noted that when there was evidence of cooperation with abortion or euthanasia on the part of a Catholic politician, “his Pastor should meet with him, instructing him about the Church’s teaching, informing him that he is not to present himself for Holy Communion until he brings to an end the objective situation of sin, and warning him that he will otherwise be denied the Eucharist.” Third, he concluded that if these precautionary measures fail and the said person presents himself for Communion, “the minister of Holy Communion must refuse to distribute it”.

Episcopal Politics as Usual

Lest we think that this settles the issue, we must remember that the purpose of Cardinal Ratzinger’s memo was to clarify the issue for the bishops, not to make the decision for them. Moreover, even if one agrees in principle with everything Ratzinger wrote, there remains the need for someone to make a judgment that a particular politician is guilty of “obstinate persistence in manifest grave sin” (Canon 915).

In any case, episcopal politics also mirrors the larger culture. Cardinal Ratzinger’s memo was sent through USCCB president Bishop Wilton Gregory and Theodore Cardinal McCarrick, the head of the USCCB committee which is studying this very issue. Unfortunately for Ratzinger, McCarrick is a strong proponent of the view that it is decidedly imprudent to withhold Communion. Accordingly, he chose not to make Ratzinger’s clarifications available to the bishops at their semi-annual meeting in June.

In the absence of Ratzinger’s notes, the bishops eventually approved a statement emphasizing that the burden is on the politician to recognize his sin and refrain from presenting himself for Communion. They did not state that the minister should withhold Communion, but they also rejected a version of the statement, backed by McCarrick, that asserted it would be imprudent to do so.

Authority and Escape

One might well have wished for a stronger statement, but we do well to remember that USCCB statements are themselves problematic. The Conference of Catholic Bishops has no magisterial authority. That belongs to the Pope and to individual bishops acting in their dioceses in union with him. Individual bishops have not, apparently, received instructions from Rome, and they have made it clear that their opinions differ. A strong statement by the Conference would have some value, and might change some minds. But it would not—and should not—govern the practice of individual bishops.

So, as a body, the bishops have been able to bring themselves no farther than reaffirming the responsibility of a pro-abortion politician, like any Catholic, to examine his conscience and to refrain from receiving Communion if he finds himself in serious sin. Thankfully, the statement also makes clear that voting in favor of legalized abortion is in fact serious sin. Meanwhile, Cardinal McCarrick’s committee continues its study of the matter, and by orchestrating a modest statement at the June meeting, they have succeeded in putting off anything tougher until the November meeting—after the U. S. Presidential election is over.


If the bishops were to decide unanimously to withhold Communion from pro-abortion politicians, one is still left to wonder whether the decree could be enforced among the lesser clergy. Refer to the discussion of reluctance to discipline, above. There are so many leaks in this boat that we are left begging for alternatives.

Perhaps the only timely alternative is for individual bishops in their own dioceses to name names. They must quickly meet with pro-abortion politicians under their jurisdiction and read them the riot act. If this doesn’t work, then each bishop should make clear that said politicians—enumerated by name—are guilty of publicly advocating policies in direct opposition to the most important teachings of the Catholic Church and have been advised that they must not present themselves for Communion. A chorus of such statements should be heard around the country.

In the long run, it is also extremely important for all bishops and even the Holy See to clarify Catholic social teaching. Cardinal Ratzinger’s distinctions concerning abortion and euthanasia on the one hand, and capital punishment and war on the other, need to become the centerpiece of effective social catechesis. It must become increasingly impossible to make the argument that if I oppose capital punishment and favor abortion I am just as Catholic (and just as pro-life) as someone who opposes abortion and favors capital punishment—or any other argument of this kind. Sorry, but having a particular position on health insurance isn’t enough.

Alone Again, Naturally

Of course, since not all bishops accept Cardinal Ratzinger’s distinctions about what constitutes certain Catholic teaching (as no few have shown by repeated comments on capital punishment, war and even this particular issue), it is clear that we won’t have a chorus of statements “singling out” pro-abortion politicians. All we have gained this year, then, is a slight raising of consciousness.

Incredible as it may seem, the time is still not ripe. Therefore, Catholic Americans will have to fight the battle for the Presidency without significant moral support from their bishops.


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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