As you know, the week of June 13th the United States Bishops gathered in Denver for some time of fraternal communion and spiritual reflection together, to consider the future auditing processes with regard to the Charter For the Protection of Youth to which we are committed, the review of which will begin in the near future, and to formulate a policy on the proper Eucharistic behavior of Catholic politicians who appear to be publicly and chronically pro-choice, that is their political activity consistently and publicly supports the availability of abortion on demand.
Many of you probably noted the interview which the Capital Times sought from me the Wednesday after I returned from Denver. That interview was published in the Capital Times on Friday, June 25th, and I am grateful to the Capital Times for their willingness to help me make the teaching of our Church more readily available in this instance.
In the first place, the official policy statement of the Bishops in this matter from the Denver meeting was published in the Catholic Herald issue of June 24th, and I would refer back to the text of that statement which I see as a fine, clear, and solid statement.
Salvation of people is highest concern
Let me amplify by saying in the first place that Bishops, priests, deacons, the ordained, do not find ourselves in the business of telling people for which candidate to vote or which party to support. We do our best to stay away from such matters, thus our entry into this sphere is not motivated by political concern or concern to promote some ideology.
Our concern is that our Catholic people and all people of good will know the demands of God's law with regard to human life so that we might find light in that law and in finding God's light, find our salvation. As Bishops, priests, and deacons we are interested in the salvation of people not in political or ideological victories, and so we speak out of what is very properly a concern of pastors.
One conscience must dictate actions
Secondly, let me observe that it is not possible for Catholic politicians to resort, in the matter of promoting the availability of abortion on demand, to "Well I'm personally opposed to this but I must act in accord with my public duty." As I have said so often, each individual is allotted one conscience, and that conscience does not allow that public official formally to cooperate in serious evil, that is promoting the availability of abortion on demand.
Furthermore it is not possible to appeal to the separation of Church and State to justify the promotion of availability of abortion on demand. The dignity of human life from conception to natural death is for people of good will a basic requirement of the common good - it is not a Catholic issue or a religious issue. It is a human law of reason (natural law) for which, because it embodies the law of God, we have a special responsibility as believers. The State ought to protect every human life from conception until natural death - that's what the State ought to do and that's what the State's responsibility is. To act otherwise is to act unjustly and we find ourselves victimized by unjust civil laws at this particular moment in the history of our country.
Refraining from receiving Communion
All of that having been said, it has always been the teaching of the Church that Catholics who are not properly disposed to receive Holy Communion should not present themselves for Holy Communion. If a Catholic is aware of some mortal or serious sin which has not been confessed and repented of, the Catholic should not present himself or herself for Communion.
For a Catholic legislator, or other elected public official, or judge publicly or consistently to promote the availability of abortion on demand is a serious sin. If that sin is not repented of, the individual does not have the proper disposition for Communion and should voluntarily refrain from approaching Holy Communion because of the great sacredness of the act until the individual has chosen to confess and to repent. But this is the discipline of the Church which has always applied to all Catholics in the case of awareness of serious sin.
Somehow in recent years the practice of freely refraining from the reception of Holy Communion has fallen by the wayside. If and when individuals who should freely refrain from receiving Communion, refuse to refrain, and are guilty of consistent manifest and public sin, it is the responsibility of the Bishop or the priest to speak with them patiently, lovingly and at length, and as a last resort, if they remain persistent, to deny the reception of Holy Communion precisely in order to protect the sacredness of the sacrament and the teaching of the Church about abortion lest it become confused.
Denial of Communion as last resort
If a Bishop is forced as a last resort to deny Communion to the Catholic politician, the Bishop cannot be said to be imposing a penalty or sanction, or using the Eucharist as a weapon, or the altar as a place of confrontation.
The denial of Communion as a last resort is not seen in Church practice as a sanction or a penalty. It is seen as the observance of the discipline of the sacrament of Holy Communion which the Bishop by solemn oath is obliged to uphold. Canon Law does provide penalties and sanctions for certain sorts of behavior but the denial of Communion in this particular context is not an example of such a sanction or a penalty.
In our culture there is a phenomenon occurring that I call "misplaced victimhood," where the real victim in a particular situation is forgotten. For example, the real victim in the sin of abortion is the baby though the woman having the abortion could well be victimized in many ways, but the woman becomes the focal victim in the matter while the baby is forgotten.
When we accept talk of the denial of the Eucharist as a penalty or as a sanction, we allow an undercurrent to develop where the Catholic politician is seen as the focal victim, and the Bishop or priest who denies the Eucharist is somehow the offender. The focal victim in this matter is not the Catholic politician. The Catholic politician refuses to obey the discipline of the Church. The focal victim is the sacredness of the Eucharist and the discipline of the Church.
Vote with properly formed conscience
Catholic voters, that is those who do not seek public office themselves but exercise properly the responsibility of their citizenship, have an obligation to vote in accord with a properly formed conscience for various candidates or other proposals. For a Catholic to vote for a pro-choice candidate in order to promote the pro-choice agenda - that is the availability of abortion on demand - is a serious sin, and the Catholic who votes in this way should not receive Communion until he or she has confessed that sin and repented. He or she should freely refrain from receiving Communion until such time as there is confession and repentance, for such a Catholic cooperates formally in serious evil.
The Catholic voter who votes for a pro-choice candidate not because he or she is pro-choice, but rather regretting that he or she is pro-choice, and wishing that he or she would change their pro-choice position but honestly perceiving some proportionate reason for tolerating the pro-choice position does not sin seriously, and may be admitted to Communion provided that there are no serious sins in other spheres of which the individual is conscious. This is the traditional doctrine of remote material cooperation in evil which is tolerable for a proportional reason, a doctrine which has been recently reaffirmed by Cardinal Ratzinger.
Bishop's right to determine specifics
The Bishops' Conference did not give to the individual Bishop the right to determine the specifics of this particular matter in his own diocese. Each Bishop has the right as the Vicar of Christ in his own diocese to determine these specifics and that right can only be curtailed with the approval of the Holy See. My short term thus far in Madison would suggest that I am not sufficiently aware of the subtleties of the political landscape nor have I had time to engage in a genuine pastoral dialogue with individuals which is my obligation, all of which would have to be the case before I would see myself denying anyone Communion.
Thus at the moment while I am not considering denying anyone Communion or encouraging others to do so, I do want to encourage everyone to renew himself or herself in the correct understanding of the Church's discipline with regard to receiving Holy Communion - that is again if one is not properly disposed to receive, as has been said at the beginning of this reflection, then he or she should exercise his or her own responsibility in conscience and voluntarily refrain.
Cannot be Catholic and pro-choice
Lastly, I will be meeting with our priests later in the summer to discuss our new liturgical document (The Sacrament of Redemption) and also this particular matter of catechesis regarding the proper dispositions for reception of Holy Communion. If Catholics are publicly and consistently pro-choice, they should take this matter to heart because the Holy See and our Bishops' conference has taught repeatedly that it is not possible responsibly to claim both to be Catholic and to be pro-choice. If someone is consistently and publicly pro-choice and is serving as reader, extraordinary minister of Holy Communion, president of the parish council, or in some other public leadership position in a parish, this poses the possibility of serious scandal and confusion among God's people, and this is something about which we all need to reflect as well in the near future.
The people of God asked of the Bishops some very specific questions before our Denver meeting with regard to the pro-choice position and the approach to Holy Communion. These questions are very good and very timely and we continue to do our best to answer them.
Thank you for the wonderful faith that is lived by so many in the Diocese of Madison which continues to encourage, strengthen, and inspire your Bishop. I hope that these days of summer are treating you and your loved ones very well, and I hope and pray that we will keep each other very much in prayer for health, safety, and most importantly an always deeper faith. Thank you for reading this, and God bless each one of you. Praised be Jesus Christ!