The American phenomenon of increasingly unapologetic pro-choice Catholic politicians in an age of instantaneous Internet communications and talk shows is fanning the flames of controversy over whether those politicians should be denied holy Communion. It is putting the U.S. bishops under enormous pressure to come up with a national policy on the issue to avoid the confusion that arises from different dioceses treating the issue differently. But they are in uncharted pastoral territory.

The recent selection of pro-choice Catholic Sen. Joe Biden as Democratic vice presidential nominee and pro-choice Catholic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's remarks minimizing Church teaching on abortion again have thrust the topic to the forefront in the United States.

"I think it's going to keep going," said Paul Kengor, presidential scholar and associate professor of political science at Grove City College in Pennsylvania. "It's not going to go away."

The U.S. bishops formally examined the question four years ago, under the impetus of the nomination of pro-choice Catholic Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts as the Democratic nominee for president, but were unable to reach consensus on a national policy on whether to deny pro-choice Catholic politicians Communion. They are expected to re-examine the question again during their upcoming meeting in November in Baltimore. But consensus appears still a long way off.

"I've probably interviewed 50 bishops on the question over the years, both in Rome and in the States, and gotten close to 50 different answers," said John L. Allen Jr., author of a widely read Internet column called All Things Catholic and senior correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter.

"They all agree that the Church has to give public witness to its teaching on abortion, and that politicians who call themselves Catholic ought to be coherent with what the Church teaches. But how to translate that into pastoral practice in individual cases, especially when it comes to what is supposed to be the Church's supreme moment of unity, is obviously much more complicated and divisive," Allen said.

The law

There is no debate over the Church's requirements (see sidebar) for the proper reception of Communion. These make individual Catholics responsible for examining their own consciences before presenting themselves -- or not -- for Communion. Anybody aware they are guilty of unconfessed grave sin, including politicians who advocate for abortion rights, should simply stay out of the Communion line.

The problem revolves around another section in Church law, Canon 915: "Those ... obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin are not to be admitted to holy communion." This puts the burden on the minister of holy Communion to refuse the Eucharist to those judged objectively unworthy.

Among the U.S. bishops who advocate most strongly for a national policy denying Communion to pro-choice Catholic politicians -- and who did so himself in his Archdiocese of St. Louis -- is Archbishop Raymond L. Burke, who holds a doctorate in canon law and whom Pope Benedict XVI this summer named to head the Church's highest court in Rome.

Last year the archbishop published a lengthy examination of the question in Periodica de Re Canonica, a canon law journal, in which he demonstrates the "long-standing discipline" in Church law and practice requiring ministers of the Eucharist to refuse Communion to certain public sinners.

"The exercise of such discretion is not a judgment on the subjective state of the soul of the person approaching to receive holy Communion, but a judgment regarding the objective condition of serious sin in a person who, after due admonition from his pastor, persists in cooperating formally with intrinisically evil acts like procured abortion," he wrote.

The purpose, he said, is not to punish the person, but to safeguard the sanctity of the Eucharist, prevent sinners from inflicting further harm on their souls and avoid leading other Catholics into error, either regarding the sanctity of the Eucharist or the evil of promoting abortion rights.

He said he was "deeply aware" that denying Communion involved great difficulties, especially in a secularized society like the United States, but said that was precisely why the situation "demands the wisdom and courage of shepherds" who will apply canon 915.

"No matter how often a bishop or priest repeats the teaching of the Church regarding procured abortion, if he stands by and does nothing to discipline a Catholic who publicly supports legislation permitting the gravest of injustices and, at the same time, presents himself to receive holy Communion, then his teaching rings hollow," he said.

Practical problems

If the law is clear, how is it that only about a dozen of the several hundred dioceses in the United States have taken steps to deny communion to politicians who support abortion rights?

"Most of the problems associated with the denial of holy Communion are not theological or Canonical, but simply practical," said Legion of Christ Father Thomas Williams, a theology professor at Rome's Regina Apostolorum University. "One of the most serious concerns is the large number of extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion at most Sunday Masses in the U.S. Who will make the decision to deny Communion? Only the celebrant? Any eucharistic minister? Or must the bishop make a public declaration that Communion is not to be given by anyone to a given Catholic politician?"

Father Williams has written a journal article arguing that pro-choice politicians fall within the purvey of Canon 915's definition of someone "obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin." But is a relatively new application, and one that does not have precedent in the United States or elsewhere.

In Europe, for example, pro-choice politicians receive Communion without outcry, said Sandro Magister, a prominent Italian journalist who covers the Church and the Vatican for an Italian newsmagazine, L'Espresso.

Magister said Pope John Paul II publicly gave Communion to Francesco Rutelli, a pro-choice Catholic who served as mayor of Rome from 1993 to 2001. In the 1970s, Rutelli was a member of Italy's Radical Party and assisted the campaign to legalize abortion, which became law in 1978.

"Outside of the United States, particularly in Europe," Magister told OSV, "the link between principles and pastoral practice is not as rigid. One accepts a larger area of middle ground between Christian morality and political decisions."

In the United States, the issue first surfaced during the 2004 presidential campaign of Sen. Kerry, whose pro-choice positions prompted a dozen bishops, led by Archbishop Burke, to publicly say they would deny Communion to Kerry. In a letter to Washington's Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, now retired, who was heading a task force on the question, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and now Pope Benedict XVI, advised bishops to withhold Communion from pro-choice politicians.

Cardinal Ratzinger said a Catholic politician could be considered to be in grave sin by "consistently campaigning and voting for permissive abortion and euthanasia laws." In such cases, he said, "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."

If the politician ignores the warning and continues to get in the Communion line, "the minister of holy Communion must refuse to distribute it," he said.

"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," the cardinal wrote.

The U.S. bishops, however, did not see the letter until a leaked copy, presumably from a Vatican source, was published on the website of Magister, the Italian journalist. Amid an uproar, Cardinal McCarrick said that the letter did not represent the Vatican's only word on the matter. He said it was only one part of many communications he had had with Cardinal Ratzinger's office.

When it came to deciding on a policy, the bishops decided to take a cautious approach. By a 183-6 vote, the bishops' conference opted to leave the decision to individual bishops, a position that Cardinal Ratzinger later said was harmonious with the Vatican's stance.

Eucharistic custodians

Since then, the bishops have taken a broad variety of approaches to the problem. Some, like Archbishop Burke, have notified the pro-choice Catholic politicians in their dioceses that they will be denied Communion.

There are considerably more bishops at the other end of the pastoral scale, who have made it clear that they will not implement the practice of denying Communion.

Bishop M. Francis Malooly of Wilmington, Del., the home diocese of Sen. Biden, recently outlined this view in an interview marking his transfer to the diocese.

"I do not intend to get drawn into partisan politics nor do I intend to politicize the Eucharist as a way of communicating Church teaching," he told the Dialogue, the diocesan newspaper.

"I think I will get a lot more mileage out of a conversation trying to change the heart and mind than I would out of a public confrontation. That might not make some people happy who feel there ought to be a confrontation, but I have to follow my own conscience and try to do what I can for the long term," Bishop Malooly said.

In Washington, at the center of American politics, Archbishop Donald Wuerl has taken a similar approach.

During a meeting last year with young adults, he was asked how he would respond to Catholic politicians who support abortion.

His answer was: "Teach."

"That is what Jesus did," he said, according to a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette report. "Did everyone accept that teaching? No. ... But he didn't stop teaching. We are in this for the long haul."

The archbishop said he sometimes gets letters from Catholics demanding to know what he will do about pro-choice Catholic politicians.

His temptation, he said, was to reply with, "What are YOU doing about it? How is your voice heard?" The Post-Gazette reported his remarks were met with a smattering of applause.

San Francisco's Archbishop George Niederauer is taking a similar line with one of his most famous parishioners, pro-choice Speaker Pelosi.

About two weeks after Speaker Pelosi's public denial of Church teaching on abortion, he issued a 2,000-word statement inviting her to a private conversation on abortion. Saying it was a subject that did not lend itself to "sound bites," Archbishop Niederauer stopped short of directing Pelosi specifically to refrain from Communion but stated Church requirements for proper reception of the Eucharist.

Earlier in August, a television interviewer asked Pelosi if the Church gave her "any difficulties" for her abortion stance. Pelosi answered: "Not really. But I think some of it is regional. It depends on the bishop in a certain region. Fortunately, for me it has not - Communion has not been withheld and I'm a regular communicant, so that would be a severe blow to me if that were the case."

Other bishops have taken what might be described as a middle approach. Denver's Archbishop Charles Chaput has publicly told a pro-choice Catholic politician in his diocese, U.S. Sen. Ken Salazar, that he should not receive Communion. He made similar remarks in response to a question by an Associated Press reporter about Sen. Biden. But he has stopped short of ordering that pro-choice Catholic politicians be denied Communion.

Archbishop Chaput says part of his worry is that in the furor, the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist will be forgotten.

"The recurrent debates over denying Catholic politicians Communion are usually marked by ignorance about the Church and disregard for the real nature of the Eucharist," he writes in his new book, "Render Unto Caesar: Serving the Nation by Living Our Catholic Beliefs in Political Life." "As Catholics, we believe the Eucharist is not just a symbol or a sacred meal or an important ritual expression of community. Rather it is quite literally the body and blood of Jesus Christ."

"The archbishop is very resistant to over-focusing on 'denying' anyone Communion," said Fran Maier, chancellor of the Denver Archdiocese. "He does not exclude that, especially for persons showing deliberate disregard or disrespect for Catholic belief. But the issue for him is not primarily legal, which the mainstream media will usually misrepresent as being punitive. Instead, it's one of common sense, personal honesty and justice to fellow Catholics."


Among the other factors that have helped stoke the debate was the public reception of Communion by pro-choice politicians at Masses celebrated by Pope Benedict XVI during his April visit to the United States. Though they did not receive directly from his hand, Sen. Biden, Massachusetts Sen. Edward Kennedy, Speaker Pelosi and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani all received, captured by eager television cameras.

And in May, Kansas City Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann publicly directed Gov. Kathleen Sebelius -- who was being mentioned as possible Democratic vice presidential material -- to refrain from Communion for her persistent support for abortion. The archbishop said he had given her a number of private admonitions.

But media attention really took off when a college chaplain denied Communion to Doug Kmiec, a law professor, Reagan adviser and pro-life Catholic who announced at Easter he was endorsing Sen. Barack Obama for president, despite Obama's very strong pro-choice positions. Kmiec has said he's convinced that Obama's social policies will actually lead to fewer abortions than under an administration led by pro-life Sen. John McCain, the Republican nominee.

Kmeic did not disclose the name of the priest who denied him Communion, but the incident took place somewhere within the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, which later had the priest apologize to Kmeic.

Church lawyers, including proponents of a more muscular policy of withholding Communion, say the priest was out of line.

"I have been urging for years that greater respect for our Lord in the Eucharist be shown by, among other ways, withholding holy Communion from certain figures who fail to meet the requirements set out in canon law," said Edward Peters, professor of canon law at a seminary in Detroit, on his website "I suppose it's inevitable that, with steps finally being taken toward the enforcement of Canon 915, some hotheads are going to misapply the law."

Heat is also being generated in the blogosphere, where some younger Catholics are ready to blow a whistle on the bishops.

"This is the first generation to be born after Roe v. Wade, and these young Catholics see abortion as a social injustice for which pro-choice Catholic politicians -- and those bishops and pastors too timid to rebuke them -- bear great responsibility," said Colleen Carroll Campbell, author of "The New Faithful: Why Young Adults Are Embracing Christian Orthodoxy."

"So it makes sense that much of the interest and information on this issue is coming from the ranks of 'new faithful' Catholic bloggers,' said Campbell.

But it has also created an overcharged atmosphere as Election Day approaches. The bishops' fall meeting takes place, according to a longtime scheduling practice, just after the election.

For more reading:

Respect for Unborn Human Life: The Church's Constant Teaching:

"The Discipline Regarding the Denial of Holy Communion to Those Obstinately Persevering in Manifest Grave Sin," by Archbishop Raymond L. Burke.

Statement on Responsibilities of Catholics in Public Life

March 10, 2006

"Happy Are Those Who Are Called to His Supper: On Preparing to Receive Christ Worthily in the Eucharist"

Nov. 14, 2006

"Worthiness to Receive Holy Communion". Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, prefect of the prefect of the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, published July 2004 on the Italian news site, /7055?eng=y

Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship: A Call to Political Responsibility from the Catholic Bishops of the United States. May 2008

Evangelium vitae, Encyclical letter of The Gospel of Life, Pope John Paul II, 1995

Ecclesia de Eucharistia, Encyclical on the Eucharist, Pope John Paul II, 2003.

Recent Church statements relating to abortion, holy Communion

The encyclical letter Evangelium Vitae ('"The Gospel of Life"), 1995, by Pope John Paul II.

"Abortion and euthanasia are thus crimes which no human law can claim to legitimize. There is no obligation in conscience to obey such laws; instead 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 favour of such a law, or vote for it.'"

Letter of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger to Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, published July 2004.

"When 'these precautionary measures [private admonition by a pastor to a Catholic politician who consistently promotes abortion or euthanasia] 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" [2002], nos. 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."

"Catholics in Political Life," developed by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) Task Force on Catholic Bishops and Catholic Politicians in collaboration with Cardinal Francis George, O.M.I., Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M.Cap., and Archbishop Donald W. Wuerl. Approved for publication by the bishops at their June 2004 meeting.

"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."

Who can receive?

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops issued "Happy Are Those Who Are Called to His Supper: On Preparing to Receive Christ Worthily in the Eucharist" on Nov. 14, 2006, to explain the Church's teaching on reception of Holy Communion. Although it does not directly mention abortion, numerous bishops have cited it in reference to questions about whether pro-choice politicians should receive Communion.

Here are some excerpts:

Who may receive holy Communion?

With few exceptions, only those who are members of the Catholic Church may receive holy Communion at a Catholic liturgy. Being baptized and sharing in the Church's faith are, therefore, conditions for full participation in the Sacrament of the Eucharist, which culminates in the reception of holy Communion.

Should we ever refrain from receiving holy Communion?

In virtue of our membership in the Catholic Church we are ordinarily free to receive holy Communion unless we lack sanctifying grace or lack adherence to the teaching of the Catholic Church.

Lack of sanctifying grace means willfully violating God's law in a grave matter. [Some examples listed by the bishops are: missing Mass on Sunday without a serious reason, dishonoring one's parents by neglecting them in their need or infirmity, committing murder, including abortion and euthanasia, sexual abuse of another, harboring deliberate hatred of another, engaging in sexual activity outside the bonds of a valid marriage.]

Lack of adherence to Church teaching: As Catholics we believe what the Church authoritatively teaches on matters of faith and morals, for to hear the voice of the Church, on matters of faith and morals, is to hear the voice of Christ himself. ... Individuals who experience serious difficulties with or doubts about Church teaching should carefully study those Church teachings from authentic sources and seek advice from a confessor or pastor. If a Catholic in his or her personal or professional life were knowingly and obstinately to reject the defined doctrines of the Church, or knowingly and obstinately to repudiate her definitive teaching on moral issues, however, he or she would seriously diminish his or her communion with the Church. Reception of holy Communion in such a situation would not accord with the nature of the Eucharistic celebration, so that he or she should refrain.

Giving public scandal: When a person is publicly known to have committed serious sin or to have rejected definitive Church teaching and is not yet reconciled with the Church, reception of holy Communion by that person is likely to cause scandal for others. ... To give scandal means more than to cause other people to be shocked or upset by what one does. Rather, one's action leads someone else to sin.

Valerie Schmalz is an OSV contributing editor.