Despite a 2004 order from the future Pope Benedict XVI barring pro-choice Catholic politicians from the Communion table, a quintet of elected officials flouted his wishes twice during his recent six-day visit here by partaking of the sacrament right before his eyes.
The bishops whose job it is to enforce the pope’s wishes have been all over the map in responding. While New York Cardinal Edward Egan publicly chastised former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani for taking Communion during an April 19 Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, the bishops of Washington, Boston and Norwalk, Conn., have not disciplined members of their flock who partook April 17 at Nationals Park.
In fact, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, a liberal Massachusetts Democrat, got a personalized delivery of Communion, said Dan Skehan, a businessman from Lancaster, Pa., who sat in Section 216 directly above the senator.
Minutes before the rest of the enormous crowd lined up to receive the sacrament, Mr. Skehan and his two sons spotted a priest making his way down the steps to the senator to hand him the consecrated host.
“It was obviously prearranged,” Mr. Skehan said, “maybe out of regard for his girth and lack of mobility. I turned immediately to both my sons and said, ‘Oh my gosh, look at that.’ Everyone in my section, which was filled with people from Lancaster, said, ‘That is outrageous. How could they do that?’”
They were aware that Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger — now Pope Benedict XVI — had told American bishops in 2004 that pro-choice Catholic politicians should first be privately admonished to cease their activism on the abortion issue and then — if there was no change — to refuse the sacrament.
At first, on April 30, archdiocese spokeswoman Susan Gibbs denied that Mr. Kennedy had partaken, saying such a scenario “wouldn’t be possible.”
Then on May 1, Mr. Kennedy’s office e-mailed The Washington Times a one-sentence statement saying the senator had indeed received Communion at the Mass.
Mr. Skehan was incredulous that the archdiocese would plead ignorance.
“They know which priest was assigned to distribute Communion in that section,” he said. “Those priests couldn’t wander around. They had 47,000 people receive Communion in 15 minutes. That was orchestrated. They knew who was where.”
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 other pro-choice Catholic politicians who took Communion at Nationals Stadium were House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat; Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, Connecticut Democrat; and Sen. John Kerry, Massachusetts Democrat.
As word of Cardinal Egan’s chastisement spread, the Washington archdiocese released an April 28 statement explaining why Washington Archbishop Donald W. Wuerl said nothing.
“The decision concerning the refusal of Holy Communion to an individual can best be made by the bishop in the person’s home diocese with whom he or she presumably is in conversation,” it said. “Archbishop Wuerl respects the role of the local bishop as each bishop grapples with this decision.”
As criticism mounted, the archbishop defended himself in the May 1 issue of the Catholic Standard, the archdiocesan newspaper.
“I have not accepted suggestions that the Archdiocese of Washington or episcopal conferences have some particular role that supersedes the authority of an individual bishop in his particular church,” he wrote.
The Washington Times then contacted the home dioceses of Mrs. Pelosi, Mr. Kerry, Mr. Kennedy and Mr. Dodd to ask whether those bishops had taken any disciplinary action against the politicians.
No response came from the Archdioceses of San Francisco and Boston, nor the Norwalk, Conn., diocese.
Boston Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley announced in April 2004 that pro-choice politicians should abstain, an instruction Mr. Kerry ignored at an April 11, 2004, Easter Mass in Boston. Four days later, Mr. Kerry met with Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick, archbishop of Washington and chairman of a U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops task force on bishops and pro-choice Catholic politicians.
The contents of that 45-minute meeting were not publicized, but the senator has continued to take Communion.
In the days before Benedict’s visit to the U.S., the American Life League (ALL), based in Fredericksburg, Va., ran newspaper ads with photos of pro-choice politicians along with a note to the pope: “Don’t give these people Holy Communion because there’s blood on their hands, and here are pictures so you can identify them.”
“Archbishop Wuerl is right that it’s up to the bishop to discipline their members,” said ALL spokesman Michael Hichhorn. “But to deny Communion is not a disciplinary action; it is a defense of the Holy Eucharist.”
Robert Royal, president of the Faith and Reason Institute, said local Catholics were discussing Archbishop Wuerl’s predicament and that he knows “several” cardinals and bishops who have told pro-choice Catholics to stay away from the altar.
“Wuerl is right in that legislators who work here in Washington are really under the jurisdiction of their home bishop and that’s where this should be dealt with,” he said. “But you could argue these people live a lot of their lives here in D.C.”
“I suppose the archbishop of Washington could decree that pro-abortion Catholics not partake,” he said. “But he’d need strong backing from his brother bishops. You could argue against Wuerl’s position to say these people are highly public but the entire dynamic of the Catholic Church is that the bishop in his own diocese is sovereign.”