Catholic Culture Overview
Catholic Culture Overview

Catholic World News News Feature

Puzzling Exchange August 01, 2004

By Philip F. Lawler

In June the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith weighed in on the steadily noisier debate among US bishops over the suggestion that politicians who actively promote abortion should be denied the Eucharist. As the American bishops prepared for a meeting in Denver, with that lively debate at the top of their agenda, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger offered his own thoughts on the topic.

Earlier in the year, the US bishops had set up a special ad hoc committee to offer suggestions on how the American hierarchy should respond to the public scandal created by prominent Catholics who oppose Church teachings on the dignity of life. Cardinal Ratzinger’s thoughts were contained in a letter to the chairman of that committee, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington. [See first sidebar]

The cardinal’s letter was not made public, but informed sources at the Vatican suggested that the general 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. The Vatican’s doctrinal watchdog, they said, had indicated his sympathy for the few American bishops—led by Archbishop Raymond Burke of St. Louis—who have announced that they will deny Communion to politicians who support abortion, euthanasia, stem-cell research, and legal recognition of same-sex unions. (That possibility has roused intense public interest in this presidential-election year, since the Democratic Party’s nominee, Senator John Kerry, is a Catholic who dissents from the teachings of the Church on all of those issues.)


Arriving in Denver, the American bishops heard Cardinal McCarrick present an interim report from his committee, in which the group argued strongly against denying the Eucharist to dissident public figures. While conceding that public support for abortion is a grave offense, Cardinal McCarrick argued that it would not be “pastorally wise and prudent” to confront public sinners; denying them Communion could “turn the Eucharist into a perceived source of political combat.”

In the course of his argument, Cardinal McCarrick stressed that his committee had reached this judgment after extensive consultations with American bishops, moral theologians, and officials of the Roman Curia. “As many of you know,” he told the assembled bishops, “Vatican officials offered both principles and advised caution and pastoral prudence in the use of sanctions.” Cardinal McCarrick mentioned that he had been in correspondence with Cardinal Ratzinger, and devoted several paragraphs of his presentation to a summary of the German cardinal’s message. [See second sidebar.] He acknowledged that the Vatican official “recognizes that there are circumstances in which Holy Communion may be denied.” But he quickly added: “I would emphasize that Cardinal Ratzinger clearly leaves to us as teachers, pastors and leaders whether to pursue this path.” [emphasis in original]

After listening to Cardinal McCarrick’s report, the US bishops proceeded to a general discussion of the topic, and finally voted their approval for a statement entitled Catholics in Political Life. That statement, approved by the entire US bishops’ conference (USCCB), included much of the language contained in the interim report from Cardinal McCarrick’s ad hoc committee. But on the pivotal issue of denying Communion to public dissenters, the body of bishops declined to endorse the committee’s proposed stance. Rather than arguing against denial of the Eucharist, the final statement left that question up to the discretion of each diocesan bishop.

On the hottest topic of the day, Catholics in Political Life said:

The question has been raised as to whether the denial of Holy Communion to some Catholics in political life is necessary because of their public support for abortion on demand. Given the wide range of circumstances involved in arriving at a prudential judgment on a matter of this seriousness, we recognize that such decisions rest with the individual bishop in accord with the established canonical and pastoral principles. Bishops can legitimately make different judgments on the most prudent course of pastoral action. Nevertheless, we all share an unequivocal commitment to protect human life and dignity and to preach the Gospel in difficult times.

The polarizing tendencies of election-year politics can lead to circumstances in which Catholic teaching and sacramental practice can be misused for political ends. Respect for the Holy Eucharist, in particular, demands that it be received worthily and that it be seen as the source for our common mission in the world.


Catholics in Political Life won the US bishops’ approval on June 18, and for two weeks there were no major reverberations. Then on July 3, Sandro Magister, the veteran Vatican-watcher for Rome’s L’Espresso, published a column analyzing “What Ratzinger Wanted from the American Bishops.”

Magister argued that Cardinal Ratzinger had been quite explicit in his instructions to the American hierarchy: “He was more than clear, he set it down in writing: no Eucharistic communion for the politicians who systematically campaign for abortion.” And to underline his point, Magister reprinted in L’Espresso the full text of the Ratzinger memo to Cardinal McCarrick.

The wording of that memo—now made public for the first time—presented a very different picture from the one Cardinal McCarrick had sketched during his presentation in Denver. While he did express confidence in the pastoral judgment of the American bishops, and he did recommend a private effort to dissuade dissidents from receiving Communion, Cardinal Ratzinger finally concluded: “When ‘these precautionary measures have not had their effect or in which they were not possible,’ and the person in question, with obstinate persistence, still presents himself to receive the Holy Eucharist, the minister of Holy Communion must refuse to distribute it.”

When the Washington Times asked Cardinal McCarrick to comment on the report in L’Espresso, the American prelate replied that the document which Magister reprinted “may represent an incomplete and partial leak of a private communication from Cardinal Ratzinger, and it may not accurately reflect the full message I received.” But an informed Vatican official, speaking to Catholic News Agency, confirmed that the document in L’Espresso was authentic, and “hardly requires a context or further documents for interpretation.” Although the Ratzinger memo was accompanied by a cover letter, the source said, “it does not modify a bit the full content of the memorandum.”

Adding to Cardinal McCarrick’s discomfort, the Vatican source told Catholic News Agency that Cardinal Ratzinger had never intended to keep his memo secret, “especially from fellow bishops gathered at the Denver meeting.”


At this point Julian Coman, the Washington correspondent for London’s Daily Telegraph, made the obvious point that “the leaking of Cardinal Ratzinger’s memo has hugely embarrassed Cardinal Theodore McCarrick.” The American cardinal, it seemed, had offered a skewed summary of Cardinal Ratzinger’s argument, and on the basis of that summary the US bishops had adopted a policy statement that apparently fell short of the Vatican official’s expectations. The liberal British Catholic weekly, The Tablet, expressed the prevailing opinion: “America’s bishops have chosen not to follow Vatican guidelines over the distribution of Communion to pro-abortion politicians, it emerged this week.”

But the Tablet analysis was soon contradicted by none other than Cardinal Ratzinger himself. In a July 9 letter to Cardinal McCarrick, the German prelate said that the US bishops’ statement, Catholics in Political Life, “is very much in harmony with the general principles” that he had set forth in his June memo. This letter, unlike the earlier one from Cardinal Ratzinger, was promptly and prominently made public. Cardinal McCarrick proclaimed himself vindicated, saying, “I am grateful for his support of our statement and I look forward to continuing dialogue between our task force and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.”

But the end of this story is not yet written. Cardinal Ratzinger had indicated his satisfaction with the statement adopted by the entire body of US bishops, not the more cautious statement proposed by Cardinal McCarrick’s committee. More important, the Vatican official had withdrawn nothing from his original argument, which was now on the public record, and clearly at variance with Cardinal McCarrick’s own public posture.

The debate among American bishops will continue. The McCarrick committee is not expected to present its final report until after the November elections. Even when it does, there is no guarantee that US bishops will accept the committee’s guidance; some prelates may find Cardinal Ratzinger’s logic more persuasive. In a July interview with journalist Barbara Kralis, Bishop Robert Vasa of Baker, Oregon, remarked: “The June memorandum of Cardinal Ratzinger should have a greater impact on individual bishops in their own dioceses than the statement of the USCCB.”

Bishop Vasa added: “I answer to the Holy See. I don’t answer to the USCCB.”


Worthiness to Receive Holy Communion. General Principles

By Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger

1. Presenting oneself to receive Holy Communion should be a conscious decision, based on a reasoned judgment regarding one’s worthiness to do so, according to the Church’s objective criteria, asking such questions as: “Am I in full communion with the Catholic Church? Am I guilty of grave sin? Have I incurred a penalty (e.g. excommunication, interdict) that forbids me to receive Holy Communion? Have I prepared myself by fasting for at least an hour?” The practice of indiscriminately presenting oneself to receive Holy Communion, merely as a consequence of being present at Mass, is an abuse that must be corrected.

2. The Church teaches that abortion or euthanasia is a grave sin. The encyclical letter Evangelium Vitae, with reference to judicial decisions or civil laws that authorize or promote abortion or euthanasia, states that there is a “grave and clear obligation to oppose them by conscientious objection…. In the case of an intrinsically unjust law, such as a law permitting abortion or euthanasia, it is therefore never licit to obey it, or to take part in a propaganda campaign in favor of such a law or vote for it. (73) Christians have a grave obligation of conscience not to cooperate formally in practices which, even if permitted by civil legislation, are contrary to God’s law. Indeed, from the moral standpoint, it is never licit to cooperate formally in evil.... This cooperation can never be justified either by invoking respect for the freedom of others or by appealing to the fact that civil law permits it or requires it.” (74)

3. Not all moral issues have the same moral weight as abortion and euthanasia. For example, if a Catholic were to be at odds with the Holy Father on the application of capital punishment or on the decision to wage war, he would not for that reason be considered unworthy to present himself to receive Holy Communion. While the Church exhorts civil authorities to seek peace, not war, and to exercise discretion and mercy in imposing punishment on criminals, it may still be permissible to take up arms to repel an aggressor or to have recourse to capital punishment. There may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about waging war and applying the death penalty, but not however with regard to abortion and euthanasia.

4. Apart from an individual’s judgment about his worthiness to present himself to receive the Holy Eucharist, the minister of Holy Communion may find himself in the situation where he must refuse to distribute Holy Communion to someone, such as in cases of a declared excommunication, a declared interdict, or an obstinate persistence in manifest grave sin. (cf. can. 915).

5. Regarding the grave sin of abortion or euthanasia, when a person’s formal cooperation becomes manifest (understood, in the case of a Catholic politician, as his consistently campaigning and voting for permissive abortion and euthanasia laws), 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.

6. When ‘these precautionary measures have not had their effect or in which they were not possible,’ and the person in question, with obstinate persistence, still presents himself to receive the Holy Eucharist, “the minister of Holy Communion must refuse to distribute it.” (cf. Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts declaration Holy Communion and Divorced, Civilly Remarried Catholics [2000], 3-4) This decision, properly speaking, is not a sanction or a penalty. Nor is the minister of Holy Communion passing judgment on the person’s subjective guilt, but rather is reacting to the person’s public unworthiness to receive Holy Communion due to an objective situation of sin.

[N.B. A Catholic would be guilty of formal cooperation in evil, and so unworthy to present himself for Holy Communion, if he were to deliberately vote for a candidate precisely because of the candidate’s permissive stand on abortion and/or euthanasia. When a Catholic does not share a candidate’s stand in favor of abortion and/or euthanasia, but votes for that candidate for other reasons, it is considered remote material cooperation, which can be permitted in the presence of proportionate reasons.]


Cardinal McCarrick’s Interpretation

In his “interim report” to the US bishops, delivered in Denver on June 15, Cardinal McCarrick offered an extended summary of Cardinal Ratzinger’s advice. (In the following excerpts, emphasis is preserved from Cardinal McCarrick’s original text.)

On the question of calls for denying Communion or public calls for refraining from Communion, our conference is not united, with several bishops sincerely convinced this is necessary and many others who do not support such actions. Our consultations with moral theologians and canonists warned us that such steps could raise serious questions about Catholic teaching and the application of Canon Law. State Catholic conference directors warned about a negative impact on faithful legislators, the Catholic community, and the role of the Church in public life.

In our ad limina visits, many of us raised these questions. As many of you know, Vatican officials offered both principles and advised caution and pastoral prudence in the use of sanctions. In recent days, I have once again been in contact with Cardinal Ratzinger both by letter and telephone calls. He has offered some observations for our work which he specifically asked not be published, but which I wish to share with you. The first is a recognition that it is up to us as bishops in the United States to discern and act on our responsibilities as teachers, pastors and leaders in our nation. He expresses his respect for the role of our conference and the bishops in the United States in carrying out these responsibilities.

Having said this, Cardinal Ratzinger speaks about what constitutes “manifest grave sin” and “obstinate persistence” in public life, stating that consistently campaigning for and voting for permissive laws on abortion and euthanasia could meet these criteria.

Cardinal Ratzinger outlines how a bishop might deal with these matters, including a series of precautionary measures involving a process of meeting, instruction and warning. This process involves meeting with the person and providing instruction on Catholic moral teaching. Cardinal Ratzinger suggests informing such persons that if they reject Catholic moral teaching in their public actions, they should not present themselves for Holy Communion until their situation has ended. Using the precedent of our teaching and practice in the case of a person in an invalid marriage, the Cardinal recognizes that there are circumstances in which Holy Communion may be denied. He also indicates that in these cases a warning must be provided before the Eucharist can be denied.

I would emphasize that Cardinal Ratzinger clearly leaves to us as teachers, pastors and leaders whether to pursue this path. The Holy See has repeatedly expressed its confidence in our roles as bishops and pastors. The question for us is not simply whether denial of Communion is possible, but whether it is pastorally wise and prudent. It is not surprising that difficult and differing circumstances on these matters can lead to different practices. Every bishop is acting in accord with his own understanding of his duties and the law.

It is important to note that Cardinal Ratzinger makes a clear distinction between public officials and voters, explaining that a Catholic would be guilty of formal cooperation in evil only if he were to deliberately vote for a candidate precisely because of the candidate’s permissive stand on abortion. However, when a Catholic does not share a candidate’s stand in favor of abortion and/or euthanasia, but votes for that candidate for other reasons, it is considered remote material cooperation, which can be permitted if there are proportionate reasons.

Therefore, based on the traditional practice of the Church and our consultation with members of our conference, other episcopal conferences, distinguished canonists and theologians, our Task Force does not advocate the denial of Communion for Catholic politicians or Catholic voters in these circumstances.