Wednesday, July 7, 2004

Washington Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick downplayed a letter to the U.S. Catholic bishops from the Vatican’s chief doctrinal watchdog on whether priests should refuse Communion to pro-choice Catholic politicians.

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger sent his letter in early June to Cardinal McCarrick and Bishop Wilton Gregory, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, in the context of dealing with Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry, a Catholic whose positions on several issues, including abortion, contradict church teachings.

But its full text, which was published Saturday in the Italian newspaper L’Expresso, contains much stronger language than Cardinal McCarrick used last month at a meeting of the country’s Catholic bishops near Denver.

Cardinal McCarrick’s nuanced speech during the meeting from June 14 to 19 paraphrased the Ratzinger letter to say that the Vatican had left the issue of Communion in the hands of the U.S. bishops.

As the chairman of a task force on Catholic Bishops and Catholic Politicians, it was his job to convey what Vatican officials had told him during meetings in Rome.

“I would emphasize that Cardinal Ratzinger clearly leaves to us as teachers, pastors and leaders WHETHER to pursue this path” of denying Communion, Cardinal McCarrick told the bishops in his speech, the text of which is posted at the U.S. bishops’ Web site, on

“The question for us is not simply whether denial of Communion is possible, but whether it is pastorally wise and prudent,” the cardinal said.

As a result, bishops voted 183-6 on a compromise statement allowing each bishop to decide whether to give Communion to pro-choice politicians.

Before the meeting, 15 bishops had released statements suggesting that pro-choice politicians refrain from taking the Eucharist, and four bishops forbade such politicians from doing so.

However, the Ratzinger letter says that denial of Communion is obligatory “regarding the grave sin of abortion or euthanasia.”

Cardinal Ratzinger also says a priest should warn “the person in question” of the consequences, including the denial of Communion.

If “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,” Cardinal Ratzinger wrote.

The letter’s last paragraph also takes on Catholics who vote for candidates because of their pro-choice stance.

“If he were to deliberately vote for a candidate precisely because of the candidate’s permissive stand on abortion and/or euthanasia,” that Catholic too “would be guilty of formal cooperation in evil and so unworthy to present himself for Holy Communion,” it reads.

That statement supports Colorado Springs Bishop Michael Sheridan, who on May 1 sent out a letter to his diocese saying Catholics who vote for candidates who support abortion, stem-cell research or euthanasia also should not take Communion.

But Catholics who vote for that politician on other grounds should not be penalized, the Ratzinger letter adds.

“Ratzinger’s letter was stronger and firmer than we were led to believe,” said Michael Novak, a Catholic theologian and author of many books on the church, who is in Italy this week. “It’s pretty dynamite stuff.”

Before leaving for Italy, he had heard of “dissatisfaction” in Rome over how Cardinal McCarrick was representing the church’s teachings.

“I had heard Rome was much tougher than Cardinal McCarrick was letting on,” he said. “Some people in the Vatican were upset that McCarrick was putting on too kind a face on it.”

Cardinal McCarrick was out of town yesterday, but a spokeswoman released a statement saying he had not read L’Expresso reporter Sandro Magister’s report on the letter.

“From what I have heard, it may represent an incomplete and partial leak of a private communication from Cardinal Ratzinger, and it may not accurately reflect the full message I received,” the cardinal said.

“Our task force’s dialogue with the Holy See on these matters has been extensive, in person, by phone and in writing. I should note I was specifically requested by the cardinal not to publish his written materials, and I will honor that request.”

Raymond Flynn, the ambassador to the Vatican from 1993 to 1997, said American prelates often downplay the Vatican’s instructions.

“The American church has been reluctant to speak out forcefully on a lot of these issues, whereas Pope John Paul II has instructed the Catholic Church to be more assertive,” said Mr. Flynn, a conservative Democrat and former mayor of Boston.

“A lot of these American bishops aren’t willing to get involved because of the backlash, because it’s not politically correct, and the criticism they will receive from the liberal media,” he said.

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