- The Washington Times - Monday, June 2, 2008

The debate over denial of Communion to pro-choice Roman Catholic politicians was rekindled last month when Bishop Joseph F. Naumann of Kansas City, Kan., told Gov. Kathleen Sebelius to refrain from partaking in the sacrament.

Similar actions by Catholic bishops in the past have led to strong debate among canon lawyers - those who function within the church’s internal legal system.

As Bishop Naumann joins the chorus of American bishops refusing Communion to wayward politicians, a new consensus is emerging among canon lawyers on the topic, which reached a boiling point four years ago surrounding Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry. Mrs. Sebelius, a Democrat, has been the subject of much speculation as a potential vice-presidential pick for Sen. Barack Obama.

“Eight or 10 years ago, when people first started advocating on this, they were voices crying in the wilderness,” says the Rev. Francis G. Morrisey, a retired professor of canon law at St. Paul University and one of the most respected canon lawyers in North America. “What we’re seeing is a consensus emerge; it’s more of a discussion now than a debate.”

Father Morrisey, who long had been among the most vocal opponents of denying Communion to politicians, admits that his thinking on the subject has shifted substantially, although he still does not think Communion should be denied in every case.

“It is very rare that truth is in the extremes,” he says. “We have to look at the individual conscience of each politician, and just when a person has overstepped the line.”

The church law in question is Canon 915, which states that those “who obstinately persist in manifest grave sin, are not to be admitted to Holy Communion,” but mostly it had been applied in cases of remarried or cohabiting Catholics

This was not understood as applying to pro-choice politicians - partly because the Catholic Church is a famously slow-acting institution and abortion’s current shape as a U.S. political issue dates back only to 1973, when the procedure was declared a constitutional right in Roe v. Wade.

Though it has long been an excommunicable offense to obtain or assist in an abortion, there was debate within the church about the appropriate response to the political issue.

For example, New York Gov. Mario Cuomo outlined in 1984 at the University of Notre Dame a pro-choice political stance that said it accepted the wrongness of abortion. The church’s bishops have spent the last two decades teaching against such a “personally opposed, but …” stance, though usually to little effect.

In 2004, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, told American bishops that pro-choice Catholic politicians should first be privately admonished to cease their activism on the abortion issue. If there was no change, the future pope said, the sacrament should be refused.

Father Morrissey said one important determining factor is the attitude of the Catholic politician when approached privately by the bishop, as Mrs. Sebelius was.

“Is the politician ready to look at things and re-evaluate certain situations, or has the politician simply closed the door and said ‘mind your own business?’” he said.

According to some of North America’s leading canon lawyers, what has changed in the past several years is lay activism on the issue, the intellectual “discovery” of Canon 915 by one of the leading U.S. Catholic bishops, and finally the perception that Catholic politicians had lost respect for the bishops and were simply flaunting them.

For example, at least five pro-choice Catholic politicians took Communion during Benedict’s April U.S. visit: Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, Sen. John Kerry and former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani. When asked whether he was uncomfortable violating church rules, Mr. Giuliani, who also is divorced and remarried, gave reporters a one-word answer: “no.”

“If a person identifies himself as a Catholic, yet holds a position that is directly contrary to the Catholic faith in a very serious matter - the killing of innocent children by means of abortion - it would seem that they should have the respect for the church to refrain without coercion from receiving Holy Communion,” said Monsignor Timothy Thorburn, a canon lawyer and vicar general of the Diocese of Lincoln in Nebraska.

But that didn’t happen, he said.

“That some do not seems to indicate almost an intention to insult the church,” he said. “It would be far better for the politician to say I simply disagree with the church and I respect the church enough to refrain from Holy Communion until I can resolve this disagreement.”

Father Morrissey added: “Simply com[ing] to Communion and flaunt it” is “a total disregard for the faith community.”

R. Michael Dunnigan, a lay canon lawyer with the St. Joseph Foundation, said that the move to withdraw Communion from politicians has been driven primarily by American laity, having received momentum with Mr. Kerry’s 2004 presidential campaign.

“It’s very much like the question of abortion itself, which many politicians wish would just disappear,” added Monsignor Thorburn, stating that the perceived reluctance to confront politicians on this issue is “a question that the clergy and the laity very rightly ask the church’s leadership.”

Mr. Dunnigan, whose San Antonio-based foundation was founded in 1984 to help Catholic laity address their concerns within the church’s internal legal system, said another key factor dating from the Kerry campaign was the leadership of Archbishop Raymond Burke of St. Louis, one of about a half-dozen U.S. bishops who warned Mr. Kerry not to come to Communion in his diocese.

Mr. Dunnigan recalled attending a 2004 address by Archbishop Burke, during which the bishop, himself a canon lawyer, publicly took himself to task for not having addressed the subject sooner.

“He said that he had not realized the applicability of Canon 915 sooner,” Mr. Dunnigan said.

AfterArchbishop Burke recognized the issue and produced his first edict on the subject in 2004, he shared his legal analysis in Periodica de Re Canonica, a quarterly journal published by canon law professors at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. The article was widely read within Catholic circles and several U.S. bishops and canon lawyers then jumped on the bandwagon, Mr. Dunnigan said.

Still, there are countervailing issues and canon lawyers warned against expecting wholesale application of Canon 915, saying that carefully considered prudential decisions against particular politicians, such as Mrs. Sebelius, are likelier.

“We need to be more definitive in how we spread this and how far we allow this practice to go,” said Patricia M. Dugan, a Philadelphia lawyer who practices canon and civil law. “Denial of the sacraments is the equivalent of being shunned in the Amish community, or being expelled from your Jewish congregation.”

Miss Dugan, although she is not opposed to denying Communion in some cases, also notes that because 915’s original context was not this issue, general church principles call for caution and for a precise definition of the offense.

“Canon law calls for a restrictive interpretation whenever someone’s rights are being denied,” she said. “Any time you impose a penalty, it has to be supported by the legal definition of the act that is illegal.”

The Rev. William Woestman, an Oblate of Mary Immaculate priest and a retired professor of canon law, said Bishop Naumann handled the Sebelius situation with such proper care.

“Bishop Naumann spoke to the governor first, and explained to her that her actions were sinful” before denying her Communion, he said. “The same is true with Cardinal Egan, who asked Rudy Giuliani not to take Communion.”

Father Woestman and other canon lawyers also noted that the denial of Communion is meant to be a therapeutic intervention, not a punishment, like excommunication.

The Catholic Church teaches that the consecrated host is the body and blood of Jesus Christ and that to take it while consciously in a state of sin is, citing the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 11:29, “to eat and drink your own damnation.”

The penalty “has to be done for the redemption - and not the public humiliation - of the individual,” Miss Dugan said.

Father Woestman said that such decisions likely will and should remain in the hands of an individual bishop, who is in the best position to judge each case of wayward Catholic politicians.

“They have the grace of state and they have to make the judgment,” Father Woestman said. “Each bishop knows what is more beneficial for the welfare of the faithful in his diocese.”

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