A North Carolina priest has brought to the forefront again the question of whether pro-choice Catholic politicians should be excluded from Holy Communion. Rev. Jay Scott Newman of St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Greenville told his parishioners that voting for a pro-abortion candidate “when a plausible pro-life alternative exists” constitutes wrongful cooperation in the evil of abortion. Persons who do so, he said, ipso facto place themselves outside full communion with the Catholic Church and therefore “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”. His final clause was familiar because it was adapted from 1 Cor 11: 27-29 where St. Paul writes: “Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a man examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For any one who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself” (RSV).
Fr. Newman, of course, took the question one step further holding that those who support pro-choice politicians should be denied Holy Communion. I doubt many will follow his example. Not because he erred, but because of the serious diversity of opinion among Catholics, including bishops, over the prior question of whether the pro-abortion Catholic politicians themselves should be excluded. Unfortunately the question has been treated in the past decade as a matter of prudential pastoral opinion. When the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops considered it in 2004—when Catholic John Kerry was running for president—the compromise was to eschew a policy statement either in defense of or opposition to denying Communion and to leave the matter to the judgment of the individual diocesan bishop. I think a careful reading of canon law and official ecclesiastical teaching on the wider question of prohibiting public sinners from Holy Communion argues for something stronger than ad hoc statements of individual bishops. But I do not intend here to make that argument.
Here I want simply to suggest that in light of the recent presidential election, the question deserves serious reconsideration. Although Obama is not Catholic, he was supported by a majority of Catholic voters (exit polls say 54%). This tells us that a large number of Catholics do not think that vigorously defending and politically abetting the killing of innocent human life is an issue important enough to persuade them to vote against a candidate. Hear me clearly. I do not mean they should have voted Republican. There were morally good reasons not to. But there were morally decisive reasons for not voting for Obama. Brian Burch, president of the Catholic think-tank Fidelis, a group that monitored the Catholic vote in the recent election, says that although Obama received 54% of the Catholic vote overall, McCain won 55% to 43% among weekly Church attending Catholics. (Approximately 25% of adult Catholics in the U.S. say they go to weekly mass.) This means a sizeable number of weekly Churchgoing Catholics voted for Obama. I expect that most of them receive Holy Communion. And I do not doubt they do so in good faith. But isn’t this itself a problem? Why doesn’t voting for an ardent defender of abortion violate their consciences? Why do they think the two are compatible, killing the innocent and receiving the Lord? How can Catholics have grown so dull to things so grave?
As I said, I think the question deserves reconsideration. But not as a potential punitive measure against political adversaries; this would trivialize it. The question concerns the holiness of the Sacrament. We obviously do not see Holy Communion as very holy. At the time of the Israelite Temple, only one person per year, the High Priest, and only with great trepidation, dared to enter the Holy of Holies and attempt worship. The Holy of Holies was merely a chamber in which relics of wood, stone and wool were kept. In going to Communion, Catholics approach the living flesh of the God-man Himself. The High Priest tied a rope around his waist lest he approach the Lord unworthily and he be struck down; this way his attendants could drag him out without needing to enter the awesome Presence. In Holy Communion, Catholics not only stand in that Presence, they become one flesh with Him.
Our choices make a difference. They shape and determine the kind of people we become. Mature adults want and expect their choices to be taken seriously. Politicians make choices. In some cases, they choose to advance the interests of constituencies who defend killing innocent human beings. When they do, they become defenders of evil. This is their prerogative, as it is ours. But the choices should be taken seriously. Canon law and ecclesiastical teaching dating back to the High Middle Ages refer to those who are “publicly unworthy” to be admitted to Holy Communion. They include those who obstinately persist in gravely immoral acts of a public nature. For a thousand years the Church has excluded these persons from Eucharistic communion, sometimes as a canonical penalty but equally as often to avoid the scandal that might arise by permitting them to receive. Scandal in Catholic doctrine refers to an act or omission that leads another to sin. Since their acts are public, others who see them receiving Holy Communion will be led to think either their choices are not so bad, or the Eucharist is not so holy. The example might lead some to imitate them.
Permitting them to receive Holy Communion makes a statement. It’s not pastorally neutral. Excluding them would also make a statement. It would say their public and unrepentant choices are very bad, harmful to ecclesial communion, and unworthy of the privilege of receiving the Lord. It would speak loudly.
Some might think this sounds pharisaical. Are not all sinners unworthy to approach the table of the Lord? Since “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23), should not all be excluded from Holy Communion? Isn’t it hypocritical to exclude some and permit others? There are two replies. First, this implies that all sins are equally grave. But this is false. It is true that all sin is bad. But not all sin is flatly incompatible with friendship with God and ecclesiastical communion. Acts of irritability or impatience, minor acts of boasting, bias, or impurity weaken our unity with Christ and damage our communion with the Church because they do not express the full charity that Jesus wills our acts to express. But just as an act of kindness such as preparing a nice supper or bringing home flowers can atone for an unguarded remark in a marriage, so too a devout and penitent reception of Holy Communion is itself atoning for minor sins. But the adulterous husband who merely brings his wife flowers trivializes his sin and insults his wife. Since his adultery did not merely weaken but rather severed the bond of love with his wife, his restitution needs to be more radical. Sins such as killing the innocent and politically abetting such killing radically contradict charity. If such sinners approach Holy Communion without first receiving sacramental absolution, they trivialize their sin and insult the Lord.
Second, although most moral intentions, including sinful intents, are invisible to the community, politicians manifest their intentions — publicize them — by their voting records and public statements. Some politicians publicly promise and repeatedly vote to authorize and expand the liberty to kill the innocent. Since their words and votes constitute public acts, persons who take their words and acts seriously rightly conclude that in the absence of acts publicly repudiating their prior acts such politicians persist in their original intentions. Are public sinners intrinsically worse than private sinners? Certainly not. Do they occupy a different place in the consciousness of the Christian community? As living advertisements for the legitimacy of gravely evil acts, they certainly do. Denying them Holy Communion would take their choices seriously, illustrate the holiness of the Sacrament, protect the community against their bad example and, we hope, contribute to their repentance.