Can bishops agree on Communion for politicians?

It's the issue that won't go away. When the American bishops gather in Baltimore for their semiannual meeting Nov. 12-15, the pros and cons of denying Communion to Catholic politicians who support legalized abortion will once more be on their agenda.

"The bishops are not of one mind in discussing this question," Cardinal Francis George of Chicago diplomatically told an interviewer. As vice president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the man expected to be elected president in Baltimore, his views carry more than ordinary weight.

But to say the bishops aren't of one mind about communion for pro-choice politicians is an understatement. They've been arguing about that since 2004, and up to now the closest they've come to agreement was a statement three years ago saying each bishop could do as he thought best in his own diocese.

The chances appear to be good that something like that will be the bottom line this time, too.

Papal input

Still, there are several important differences between 2004 and 2007 where this issue is concerned.

That includes remarks that Pope Benedict XVI made last May en route to a bishops' meeting in Brazil, in answer to a reporter's question: What did he think about the Mexican bishops' handling of legislators who'd lately voted to legalize abortion?

Pope Benedict upheld excommunicating the lawmakers, although there was confusion about whether the Mexican bishops had or hadn't really done that. The following day the Vatican issued a tidied-up version of the pope's remarks containing this declaration: "It is simply part of Church law that the killing of an innocent baby is incompatible with going to Communion."

Internal debate

In the United States, the argument over Communion for pro-choice Catholic politicians first came to national attention early in 2004. The issue then focused on Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), a Catholic pro-choicer on his way to the Democratic presidential nomination.

Archbishop Raymond L. Burke of St. Louis said he would refuse Kerry Communion if the senator came to his diocese. As bishop of La Crosse, Wis., the archbishop had already done that with three local Catholic politicians who supported legalized abortion.

The debate spread rapidly, with different bishops taking different stands. Among the critics of Archbishop Burke's position were prominent members of the hierarchy such as Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington and Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles.

Bishop Donald W. Wuerl of Pittsburgh -- now, archbishop of Washington -- complained about unilateral action by one bishop on a matter affecting them all. He called for a "process, mechanism or procedure" for reaching consensus.

But other bishops took a notably different line -- for example, the ordinaries of Atlanta, Charleston, S.C., and Charlotte, N.C., who said that pro-choice Catholic politicians were barred from Communion in their sees.

The media, tilting to the liberal side of the argument, repeatedly said that only a handful of bishops supported the hard-line position, but the reality of the situation was considerably more complex. As bishops' statements proliferated, virtually all said pro-choice politicians were seriously wrong and many said they should stay away from Communion. Few bishops, however, took the next step of specifically threatening to refuse it to them.

Compromise document

A heated debate took place behind closed doors when the bishops met in Denver that June. The upshot was a compromise document, adopted 183-6, declaring "fidelity" to Church moral teaching a necessary condition for worthy reception of Communion, but leaving it to individual bishops to decide how to apply that principle. In fact, as a matter of Church law, the bishops' conference by itself can't do anything else.

Local option is best, the statement asserted, "given the wide range of circumstances involved in making a prudential judgment."

Those who hoped that would settle the discussion were soon disappointed. The document had hardly appeared when a furor erupted over a leaked letter and statement sent to Cardinal McCarrick as chairman of a USCCB task force on bishops and politicians by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, prefect of the Vatican doctrinal congregation.

Cardinal Ratzinger, who less than a year later would become Pope Benedict XVI, said bishops should meet privately with pro-choice Catholic politicians and try to persuade them to change their views. That failing, he said, the politicians should be denied Communion. Since then some bishops have reported meeting with politicians, but there have been no known changes of heart.

Bishops who oppose refusing Communion say that would politicize the Sacrament, though it isn't clear what they mean by that. Those on the other side stress reverence for the Sacrament and the scandal caused when politicians who flout the moral teaching of the Church on something as serious as abortion are allowed to receive holy Communion.

Campaign complications

Helping set the stage for the bishops' discussion in Baltimore -- along with Pope Benedict's remarks last May -- is the fact that several current presidential contenders are pro-choice Catholics. Another factor is a recent article by Archbishop Burke arguing his position in a canon law journal. Although it's no secret that the bishops are divided, the coming debate is likely to take place in executive session.

In his interview, Cardinal George called some Catholic politicians' voting records "scandalous," but he questioned whether the bishops could agree on a uniform policy.

"We're going to talk about it," he said. "I don't know what's possible and what's not." He isn't the only one.

Russell Shaw is a contributing editor to Our Sunday Visitor.