Cardinal Dulles on Communion and Pro-Abortion Politicians

Outlines What Actions Should Be Taken

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NEW YORK, JUNE 29, 2004 (Zenit.org).- Cardinal Avery Dulles is encouraging U.S. bishops to dialogue with dissenting Catholic politicians about their moral responsibilities before advising them to not receive Communion.



Cardinal Dulles, the Laurence J. McGinley Professor of Religion and Society at Fordham University, shared with ZENIT what important steps need to be taken to defend human life, protect the sacraments, uphold the teachings of the Church and respond to pro-abortion politicians.

Q: What are the practical steps a bishop could or should take to encourage a Catholic politician to forgo support for abortion, euthanasia and embryonic stem-cell research?

Cardinal Dulles: The first step should probably be to make sure that the politicians understand the doctrine of the Church and the reasons for it. Many politicians, like much of the American public, seem to be unaware that abortion and euthanasia are serious violations of the inalienable right to life.

These are not just "Church" issues but are governed by the natural law of God, which is binding upon all human beings. The right to life is the most fundamental of all rights, since a person deprived of life has no other rights.

The Church does not herself frame civil laws, but she admonishes lawmakers that the laws must be designed to support justice, including the rights of the unborn child. Bishops should try to get into dialogue with politicians and other persons in public life to remind them of their moral responsibilities.

If, after dialogue, the bishop finds the politician incorrigibly opposed to Catholic teaching on this matter, he may have to advise or order the politician not to receive holy Communion, which is by its very nature a sign of solidarity with the Church.

Other steps might also be considered. For instance, the bishop could instruct Catholic parishes and institutions not to invite such politicians to speak on Church premises, not to give them roles in the liturgy and not to honor them with rewards and honorary degrees.

Q: Some have questioned the insistence on the abortion question when there are other matters -- such as the conflict in Iraq and the death penalty -- in which there are contrasts between some politicians and the Church position. Why is abortion being singled out?

Cardinal Dulles: The three cases you mention are quite different. The Church recognizes that there are occasions when war and the death penalty are justified, even though such measures are undesirable and should be kept to the necessary minimum.

The present Holy Father has made it clear that he thinks that certain, particular wars and executions are wrong and unnecessary. Catholics will respect this as the prudential judgment of a wise and holy pastor.

But Catholics who fully accept the doctrine of the Church can sometimes disagree about whether a given war or death sentence is morally defensible.

Abortion is in a different class. As the deliberate taking of innocent human life, direct abortion can never be justified. About the moral principle, there can be no debate in the Church. The teaching has been constant and emphatic.

The civil law should not authorize, let alone encourage, such moral evils. It should protect human life and dignity to the maximum degree possible. But in assessing how to proceed, there may be differences of opinion. If it is impossible to obtain passage of a law banning all abortions, or if such a law would be unenforceable, it might be best to work for a law that restricts access to abortion as much as possible, while continuing to work for full justice.

Politics, after all, is the sphere of the possible, not the ideal. Provided that the moral principles are kept clearly in view, bishops and politicians will do well to keep in dialogue about matters of strategy.

Q: What are the risks the Church faces if it enforces stricter penalties against politicians?

Cardinal Dulles: In imposing penalties, the Church is trying to protect the sacraments against the profanation that occurs when they are received by people without the proper dispositions. Dissenting politicians often want to receive Communion as a way of showing that they are still "good Catholics," when in fact they are choosing their political party over their faith. But the imposition of penalties involves at least three risks.

In the first place, the bishop may be accused, however unfairly, of trying to coerce the politician's conscience.

Secondly, people can easily accuse the Church of trying to meddle in the political process, which in this country depends on the free consent of the governed.

And finally, the Church incurs a danger of alienating judges, legislators and public administrators whose good will is needed for other good programs, such as the support of Catholic education and the care of the poor.

For all these reasons, the Church is reluctant to discipline politicians in a public way, even when it is clear that their positions are morally indefensible.

The Church's prime responsibility is to teach and to persuade. She tries to convince citizens to engage in the political process with a well-informed conscience.

The bishops hope that the electorate and the government will strive for a society in which every human life is protected by law from conception to natural death.

Q: A corollary: Is the Church risking its tax-exempt status if it pushes this issue? Could bishops' actions be construed as political? Should that be a consideration at all?

Cardinal Dulles: Since the United States prides itself on its tradition of religious freedom, the country will probably continue to recognize the Church's right to speak out on the moral aspects of civil law and public policy.

The Catholic Church has generally tried to avoid endorsing any particular party or candidate for office. Churches that uphold moral principles in political life do not forfeit their status as religious institutions and their entitlement to tax exemption.

To be sure, some people misunderstand the non-establishment of religion in the Bill of Rights as though it meant the exclusion of religion from public life. In point of fact, this clause was intended to secure the freedom of the church from interference by the state.

It goes with the second clause, which guarantees the freedom of churches to teach and worship in accordance with their beliefs. In carrying out her God-given mandate to labor for morality and justice, the Church renders an inestimable benefit to civil society.

Christians should do their utmost to rectify misconstructions of the non-establishment principle and to safeguard the right of churches to teach and bear witness to what they see as pertaining to the faith.

Q: What should a priest do when confronted with a publicly dissenting politician who appears in the Communion line?

Cardinal Dulles: In that situation, the priest has limited options. Often, to avoid an ugly scene that would disrupt the ceremony, the priest will feel obliged not to refuse Communion. In the absence of some formal decree excluding a person from the sacraments, most priests will be very cautious about turning Catholics away at the altar.

The primary responsibility rests on those asking for Communion to examine themselves regarding their dispositions, as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 11:27-29. Only God can know with certitude the state of the communicant's soul at the moment.

Q: Some observers wonder why canon law stipulates excommunication for a woman who has an abortion -- under certain conditions -- yet doesn't apply the same penalty to a politician whose votes might help to finance thousands of abortions. Is there a loophole in canon law?

Cardinal Dulles: In moral theology an important distinction is made between ordering or performing an action and cooperating in the action of another. Where the cooperation is remote, its influence on the effect may be very slight.

To vote for an appropriations bill that includes some provisions for funding abortions would not be so gravely sinful as to warrant excommunication under Canon 1398. The vote might arguably be licit if the funding for abortion were only incidental and could not be removed from a bill that was otherwise very desirable.

The legal problem about abortion in the United States does not come primarily from legislators but from the judiciary, which interprets the Constitution as giving a civil entitlement to abortion practically on demand. This interpretation of the Constitution, we believe, is erroneous and should be corrected.

Q: How should the politicians and the public at large view the penalty of excommunication? What is the Church's intention with the penalty?

Cardinal Dulles: Excommunication is not expulsion from the Church. The excommunicated person remains a Catholic but is barred from access to the sacraments until the penalty has been lifted by competent Church authority. This spiritual penalty, the most serious that the Church can inflict, is, so to speak, a last resort.

In extreme cases, the Church finds herself obliged to declare that a given person is no longer in communion with the Church. The purpose of such an excommunication is to protect the sacraments from profanation, to prevent the faithful from being confused about the force of Catholic teachings, and to assist the excommunicated person to reconsider, to repent and to be healed.