By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
At least three times during Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to the United States, a prominent pro-choice Catholic politician has received communion during a papal Mass. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Massachusetts Senator John Kerry, both Democrats, took communion during the Mass on Thursday at Nationals Park in Washington, and former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, a Republican, received communion in St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Saturday.
In none of these cases did the politicians receive communion directly from the pope, but it nonetheless happened during a papal Mass, and it took no one by surprise. Pelosi, for example, announced her intention to take communion in response to a question I asked her during a conference call with reporters the day before the Thursday Mass.
While it would be a stretch to say that Benedict XVI authorized what happened, one can at least infer that the pope did not issue strict instructions to the contrary. The cumulative effect of these events will likely be to weaken the case that the Vatican wants the American bishops to take a stricter stance against communion for pro-choice Catholics in public life.
During the 2004 elections, several American bishops announced that they would deny communion to Kerry because of his stance in favor of abortion rights. A majority of bishops, however, shrunk from that stance, worrying that it could politicize the Eucharist.
Eventually, a commission of the bishops’ conference led by Cardinal Theodore McCarrick reached the conclusion that a uniform policy on the question could not be reached, and that it would be up to each bishop to set policy in his own diocese.
Since that time debate has continued, with both sides citing broad statements of principle from the Vatican in order to bolster their case. For example, when Benedict appeared to support Mexican bishops who had threatened excommunication for politicians who supported a measure legalizing abortion in Mexico City last May, some observers attempted to connect those remarks to the American situation.
During his six-day American swing, Benedict XVI has never directly addressed the question of communion for pro-choice Catholic politicians. In part, that’s likely because it’s considered a matter for local bishops to resolve; in part, it’s probably also because staying above the fray of the 2008 elections in the United States has been a major objective of the pope’s trip.
Nevertheless, it has long been observed that the question of denying communion to politicians who don’t follow church teaching is, in some sense, a uniquely American debate that rarely arises in other cultures. During the Jubilee Year in 2000, for example, Pope John Paul II personally administered communion to Rome’s pro-choice mayor on several occasions, and when former Prime Minister Tony Blair attended Mass in John Paul’s private chapel, he too received communion. (At that stage, Blair had not yet formally converted to Catholicism but was understood to be undergoing preparation.)
Certainly Benedict XVI has not announced any new ruling or policy on the communion issue during his days in America, which suggests that debate will continue. Given what’s happened during his public Masses, however, it will at least be more difficult to make the case that the pope is trying to push the American church into a more hard-line position.