The Catholic Church, Pro-Abortion Politicians and the Problem of Scandal

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christian_new.jpgWhoever shall scandalize (cause to sin) one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened round his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.
(Matthew 18:6)

Several weeks ago I wrote a piece arguing that it’s time to reopen the question of whether obdurately pro-abortion Catholic politicians should be permitted to continue freely to receive Holy Communion.  I argued that a chief consideration in the question regards the issue of scandal.  I’d like to pursue this further.

The Greek noun scandolon, from which we get the words ‘scandal’ and ‘scandalous,’ means that which causes us to stumbling, an offense or occasion of downfall.  If I trip on an exposed root while hiking and tumble headlong onto the path, that obstacle is a scandalon.  It caused me to fall down. 

Drawing on this meaning moral theology identifies a type of sin it calls scandal.  It defines scandal as an action that one foresees or should foresee is likely to be an occasion for another’s sinning.  This is different from the popular meaning of scandal as that which violates standards of propriety or ‘good taste,’ something deemed disgraceful that offends people’s sensibility.  In this latter looser sense, scandal might include manifestly good actions like showing images of aborted fetuses in order to educate people about abortion, or even preaching the Gospel.  Scandal in the sense used by moralists is more precise.  It concerns leading others to sin—causing them to fall down spiritually.

One can give scandal in three ways: (1) by acting with the precise intention that another person commits some sin; for example, coaxing a pro-abortion activist to enter a Church and receive a consecrated host in order to desecrate it; (2) although not acting with the intention that another person sins, one chooses to do wrong foreseeing that one’s action is likely to occasion another person’s sin; for example, when divorced and remarried Catholics receive Holy Communion in the presence of their children, foreseeing that the children are likely to follow their bad example if ever in a similar situation; (3) when someone does something otherwise morally legitimate that one foresees is likely to be the occasion for another’s sin; St. Paul, for example, mentions a situation in Corinth where Christians were eating meat purchased in the market places, some of which came from animals sacrificed in pagan temples.  Since, as Paul teaches, “an idol has no real existence,” there was nothing in itself wrong with eating this meat.  But Paul foresees that some of his weaker brothers and sisters, believing that it was wrong, would eat it nonetheless if offered at the table of another Christian.  By being offered such meat, these Christians would be led to sin by violating a sincere but mistaken conscience (1 Cor. 8: 4-9).  In response Paul famously replies: “if food is a cause of my brother’s falling, I will never eat meat, lest I cause my brother to fall” (vs. 13).  Number (1) is called direct scandal, and (2) and (3) are called indirect scandal

My argument for a policy denying Holy Communion to obstinately pro-abortion Catholic politicians concerns number (3), an issue of indirect scandal.  It should be obvious that simply permitting (i.e., not prohibiting) a person, including a pro-abortion politician, to receive Holy Communion is not an intrinsically evil act like the sins of those who give scandal in (1) and (2).  Not prohibiting Holy Communion might even be a good act if one has reasons to believe that leaving a sinner free to make his or her own choice will precipitate appropriate and timely repentance.  The pivotal question then is whether permitting these Catholic politicians to receive Holy Communion is likely to be the occasion for other people’s sinning.  If it is—and this is a crucial point for understanding the moral truth in question—then unless there is a grave reason for tolerating this seriously harmful effect, the Church has a moral obligation to prohibit the practice (specifically, the bishops who exercise authority in these matters have an obligation).

I think there is good reason for concluding that it is an occasion for other people’s sinning and that there are not reasons grave enough for tolerating such spiritual harm.  I recognize that some faithful Catholics will disagree with me on this.  And by setting forth my argument, I do not mean to throw into question their fidelity or sincerity.  I do however think they are mistaken.

There are four falsehoods that tolerating the reception of Holy Communion by obstinately pro-abortion Catholic politicians leads people to believe.  First, others are led to think that it is not wrong for unrepentant grave sinners to receive Holy Communion, more specifically that receiving the Eucharist is compatible with defending and abetting the killing of unborn children.  Second, they are led to believe that the sin the politicians defend and abet (abortion) is not wrong.  Third, thinking that the ministers of the Church have done wrong in permitting public sinners to receive Holy Communion, they are led to doubt the holiness of the Church.  Fourth, they are led to doubt the supreme holiness of the Blessed Sacrament.

How do these four falsehoods lead to the commission of objectively grave sins?  First, Catholics in unrepentant serious sin begin to receive or are encouraged in receiving Holy Communion.  Second, their moral inhibitions against abortion erode.  Sharing the Eucharist weekly with publically and obstinately pro-abortion parishioners, they begin to think abortion is not such a big deal— ‘it must not be so bad’—and are led to benignly tolerate this terrible evil, or worse, to defend and advocate for abortion rights.  Third, believing the Church does wrong in allowing such persons to receive, they begin doubting the holiness of the Church; they grow indifferent and callous to the instruction of her ministers, mistrust and reject the teaching of the Magisterium, or worse, break communion altogether.  Finally, doubting the holiness of the Eucharist, they are led to lose faith in Jesus himself and in the efficacy of his body and blood to transform them in holiness and purify them from sin. 

Are there reasons serious enough to convince us to tolerate these spiritual harms?  Some would argue that establishing policies (at the parish, diocesan or universal levels) prohibiting obstinately pro-abortion politicians from receiving Holy Communion will precipitate controversy that will alienate some from the Church.  Others think that the serenity of the mass during communion should not be interrupted with pro-life polemics—“the altar rail is no place for confrontation.”  Others fear that the prohibitions will drive away from the Church and the Eucharist the very ones who need them the most—the pro-abortion politicians.   Indeed these are harms that should not be taken lightly.  But in my judgment they are in no way proportionate to the harms caused by tolerating Eucharistic reception by publicly grave sinners. 

No doubt the media would exploit terribly any such prohibition and do its best to paint the bishops as rash, intolerant and inquisitorial.  Defenders of the sanctioned politicians, other pro-choice Catholics, and those inclined to believe the worst about the Church may indeed be alienated.  This would not be the intention of such a policy, but rather a foreseeable and regrettable side effect.  It follows that any such policy should be formulated and publicized with the good of these Catholics also in mind.  But given that their beliefs about abortion and the Church are deleterious to their temporal and eternal well being, the publication of such a policy, if rightly formulated, could also serve as a salutary invitation to repentance.  If on the other hand it is handled self-righteously or in an unreasonably authoritarian fashion, then it indeed could be destructive.  But as every parent knows, withholding boundaries from children in gravely important areas is not a way to love those children.  Likewise, setting and enforcing moral boundaries around the most exalted act of human existence—the reception of Christ’s body and blood—is not only a way of reverencing the Eucharist, but also of loving those who aspire to such awesome heights.

Those who are still unconvinced are unlikely to be persuaded by an argument from authority.  But it is illuminating to note that in the Summer of 2004, the (then) prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI), sent a letter to Washington’s Cardinal Theodore McCarrick entitled Worthiness to Receive Holy Communion: General Principles.  I quote in full two paragraphs especially relevant to the question at hand:

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”.* This decision, properly speaking, is not a sanction or a penalty. Nor is the minister of Holy Communion passing judgement 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.

The general principles set forth here are a solid ecclesiastical basis for the implementation of a diocesan or national policy denying Holy Communion to politicians who obstinately persist in their defense and abetting of the evil of abortion.  In fact, given the reticence of many priests to follow Cardinal Ratzinger’s instruction (which was made public in the Fall of 2004), it seems to me that the only way to effectively implement the Vatican’s directive would be by publically promulgating policies at the diocesan or national levels establishing the principles as normative for all.

One final word.  The moral truths regarding the obligation to avoid being a scandolon to my neighbor are not aimed at the welfare of those who are firmly resolute in sinning or in doing what is right.  They aim at the welfare of Christ’s “little ones”.  This of course includes children who are easily led astray by the bad example of authorities.  But it also includes those who are weak in faith, easily tempted and inclined to be led astray by the bad example of public figures.  Jesus admonishes us to have special regard for their spiritual welfare.  We need to keep these ‘little ones’ especially in mind as we consider this difficult question, lest Jesus’ haunting words catch us unawares: “Temptations to sin are sure to come; but woe to him by whom they come!” (Luke 17:1)

*The letter references a 2002 Declaration of the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts entitled “Holy Communion and Divorced, Civilly Remarried Catholics”.  The Declaration is well worth reading for anyone interested in the present question.

For more on the morality of scandal, see Germain Grisez, The Way of the Lord Jesus (Franciscan Press, 1993), 232-239.

(c) Culture of Life Foundation, 2009.  Permission granted with attribution required.