By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
São Paulo, Brazil
Confusion created today on the papal plane – after Pope Benedict XVI appeared to say that politicians who vote in favor of abortion rights should be considered excommunicated, only to have Vatican officials back away from that interpretation – is nothing new. Attempts to discern the mind of Joseph Ratzinger on this question have long been complicated.
During the 2004 presidential election in the United States, roughly 15 American bishops stated publicly that they would not administer communion to the Democratic candidate, U.S. Senator John Kerry, on the grounds that he is politically pro-choice. Several cited a 2003 “doctrinal note” from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, titled “On Some Questions Regarding the Participation of Catholics in Political Life,” to support their position.
That document asserted that “no Catholic can appeal to the principle of pluralism or to the autonomy of lay involvement in political life to support policies affecting the common good which compromise or undermine fundamental ethical requirements.”
As the debates over Kerry and communion gathered steam, many Catholics naturally cited Ratzinger as their authority for a restrictive position.
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In mid-June 2004, Ratzinger sent a confidential letter on the issue to Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the head of a task force of the U.S. bishops studying the question, and then-Bishop Wilton Gregory, at the time the president of the conference.
In a presentation to the June 14-19, 2004, meeting of the U.S. bishops, McCarrick characterized the Ratzinger letter as providing flexibility.
“I would emphasize that Cardinal Ratzinger clearly leaves to us as teachers, pastors and leaders whether to pursue this path” of denying Communion, McCarrick told the bishops. In part on the strength of that assurance, the American bishops voted 183 to 6 in favor of a statement titled entitled “Catholics in Political Life,” which left to each individual bishop the decision of whether or not to give communion to pro-choice politicians.
On July 3, 2004, Italian Vatican writer Sandro Magister published the full text of Ratzinger’s confidential letter to McCarrick and Gregory, titled “Worthiness to Receive Holy Communion,” which seemed to strike a much more firm line than McCarrick had suggested.
“There may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about waging war and applying the death penalty, but not however with regard to abortion and euthanasia,” Ratzinger wrote.
“Regarding the grave sin of abortion or euthanasia,” Ratzinger wrote, “when a person´s formal cooperation becomes manifest (understood, in the case of a Catholic politician, as his consistently campaigning and voting for permissive abortion and euthanasia laws), his pastor should meet with him, instructing him about the Church’s teaching, informing him that he is not to present himself for Holy Communion until he brings to an end the objective situation of sin, and warning him that he will otherwise be denied the Eucharist.”
“When these precautionary measures have not had their effect or in which they were not possible, and 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,” Ratzinger continued, citing a ruling of the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts regarding communion for Catholics who are divorced and civilly remarried with an annulment.
Based on those statements, some accused McCarrick of having deliberately misled the American bishops about Ratzinger’s position.
The waters were further muddied just a few days later, on July 12, when the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops released the text of another letter from Ratzinger to McCarrick, this one dated July 9. In it, Ratzinger thanks McCarrick for sending him the text of the statement adopted by the U.S. bishops at their June meeting.
The key line of that July 9 letter was the following: “The statement is very much in harmony with the general principles ‘Worthiness to Receive Holy Communion,’ sent as a fraternal service – to clarify the doctrine of the Church on this specific issue – in order to assist the American Bishops in their related discussion and determinations.”
In other words, the Ratzinger of July 9 appeared to be endorsing the “softer” line pioneered by McCarrick and overwhelmingly endorsed by the American bishops.
The perplexing result is that for the last three years, both sides in the communion controversy have cited Ratzinger in favor of diametrically opposed positions. Today’s developments on the papal plane seem certain to add more heat, if little new light, to this standoff.
Carefully studying the various statements that are now on the record, perhaps the best summary of Benedict XVI’s position can be phrased as follows.
In the abstract, Benedict clearly seems to feel that a Catholic politician who knowingly and consistently supports legislation that expands access to abortion is in violation of church teaching, and thus should not receive communion. Moreover, the pope seems prepared to support bishops who apply this principle to specific cases; that was the premise of his answer to this morning’s question about the Mexican bishops. (Even though Cardinal Norberto Rivera has said he has no intention of excommunicating anyone.)
Whether Benedict is ready to impose this position on bishops convinced of the wisdom of a different pastoral course in other cases, however, is the $64,000 question. His July 9 letter to McCarrick, endorsing the stance of the U.S. bishops, indicates that at least so far, he’s not ready to take that step.
That may not be a fully satisfying position for anyone, but it seems the best summation of the pope’s thinking based on the available evidence.