Day One: Benedictís ënow-you-see-it, now-you-donítí hard line on pro-choice politicians

São Paulo, Brazil

During a news conference aboard the papal plane from Rome to São Paulo today, Benedict XVI appeared to significantly tighten the screws on pro-choice Catholic politicians, saying, in effect, that legislators who support pro-abortion measures should be considered excommunicated under church law.

It was the first time a pope directly asserted that by virtue of voting in favor of a measure expanding abortion rights, a politician excommunicates him or herself.

Vatican efforts to soften this hard line, however, were quick in coming.

Just moments after Benedict finished his brief in-flight news conference, Vatican spokesperson Fr. Federico Lombard played down the significance of the statement, saying it was not Benedict’s intent to issue a new policy on the vexed question of communion for pro-choice politicians. Instead, Lombardi said, Benedict’s views are best expressed in the recent document Sacramentum caritatis, which does not deal with excommunication, but rather with the individual responsibility of a Catholic lawmaker to be “coherent.”

This morning’s off-the-cuff papal comment on abortion and excommunication came in response to a question about Mexico City, where a liberal abortion law was recently approved. Benedict was asked if he shared the position of Mexican bishops that legislators who voted in favor of such a law were excommunicated.

“Yes, this excommunication is not something arbitrary, but it’s part of the Code [of Canon Law],” the pope replied. “It’s based simply on the principle that the killing of an innocent human child is incompatible with going in communion with the Body of Christ.

“Thus, [the Mexican bishops] didn’t do anything new, anything surprising or arbitrary. They simply announced publicly what is contained in the law of the church, and the law of the church is based upon the doctrine and the faith of the church, which expresses our appreciation for life, that human individuality, human personality, is present from the first moment [of life].”

Taken literally, the implication of Benedict’s words seemed to be that politicians who support pro-abortion laws fall under canon 1398 of the Code of Canon Law, which stipulates that anyone who “procures” an abortion is automatically excommunicated. If the pope’s position were to become official, that would settle what has long been a point of dispute in both moral theology and canon law – what exactly does “procure” mean? Specifically, are politicians who make abortion legal guilty of “procuring” an abortion?

Initially, many aboard the papal plane took the pope’s statement as a definitive “yes.”

Lombardi, however, insisted this was not what Benedict meant.

Lombardi told NCR that in the first place, Benedict simply wanted to offer his support to the Mexican bishops – who, Lombardi added, have actually said that they did not intend to excommunicate anyone.

Second, Lombardi said, Benedict did not intend to move the church’s position beyond what he expressed in his 2007 apostolic constitution Sacramentum caritatis. In that document, Benedict wrote: “Catholic politicians and legislators … must feel particularly bound, on the basis of a properly formed conscience, to introduce and support laws inspired by values grounded in human nature. There is an objective connection here with the Eucharist.”

How, then, should one navigate the cognitive dissonance between the face-value meaning of the pope’s words, and the gloss placed upon them by his lieutenants? One possible reading is to see it as yet another instance of the difference between Joseph Ratzinger the Catholic theologian, and Benedict XVI the Holy Father.

Given how deeply cautious Benedict usually is about personnel and policy decisions, it’s difficult to imagine that he actually intended to issue a new ruling on something as sensitive as the excommunication of Catholic politicians “off the cuff,” and in response to a reporter’s question. Instead, it seems possible that, without stopping to flag it as such, Ratzinger was speaking out of his own experience as a bishop and a theologian, without intending to commit the magisterium of the church a formal reading of canon law.

Once aides realized the potential policy implications of the pope’s comments, on this reading of events, they did what they could to back-pedal.

In any case, what seems clear is that it would be dangerous to draw a direct line between the pope’s casual remarks on the way to Brazil, and the line the Vatican will take the next time this issue comes up someplace in the world – for example, in the 2008 elections in the United States. How the pope’s remarks this morning will, or won’t, be translated into new Vatican teaching or disciplinary action remains to be seen.

This morning’s episode may illustrate one other point.

While Benedict distinguishes between his private opinions and the exercise of his public office, in reality the difference is not air-tight. Every pope brings relies to some extent on his own biography, his own instincts and experience. That means the pope’s “gut” can be an important element in framing policy – and if one wants a sense of what Joseph Ratzinger really feels about a Catholic politician who votes pro-choice, his unrehearsed comments today on the papal plane probably come as close as we’re likely to get.

That may not tell us much about official Vatican policy, but at a minimum, it’s a pretty good indication that things are not moving in the direction of greater tolerance for politicians whose voting records are at odds with the Catechism.

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