Pope Benedict XVI may have been flying to Brazil and speaking about Mexico City, but his in-flight words to reporters on May 9 have caused a stir here in the United States. Initial headlines raised the specter of papal excommunication for Mexico City politicians who voted to expand abortion rights. Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi quickly clarified the Pope’s comments; such politicians were not excommunicated, but “legislation in favor of abortion is not compatible with participation in the Eucharist.”
Even with excommunication headlines missing the mark, the story hits home here in the United States. It raises questions for pro-choice Catholic candidates in both the Republican and Democratic primaries. Reporters brought up the issue last week with Rudy Giuliani. His response, “I don’t get into debates with the pope,” is unlikely to be the last word we hear on the subject.
The trinity of abortion, politicians, and the Eucharist is sure to remind Americans of the communion controversy that shook the American Catholic community during the 2004 Presidential campaign. As Senator Kerry ran for the White House, a small but vocal group of American bishops called for refusal of communion to him and other lawmakers who had voted for abortion rights.
Now is as good a time as any to revisit lessons learned from the 2004 debate.
In spite of the agitation from conservative Catholic activists, the vast majority of US Bishops acted with admirable pastoral prudence in 2004.
Guided by the now-retired Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the bishops declared that, ‘Bishops can legitimately make different judgments on the most prudent course of pastoral action [in these cases],’ and that the Eucharist must not be ‘misused for political ends.’ This McCarrick approach drew support from then-Cardinal Ratzinger, who called it ‘very much in harmony’ with Church teaching on the matter.
In 2004, the American Bishops showed prudence because they recognized the danger of dragging their Church’s central sacrament into a partisan political fight. In fact, they recognized that selective involvement of the Church in political fights does not elevate politics, but lowers the Church.
Throughout our history, our Church has been strongest when it rises above politics, urging politicians of all stripes and partisan leanings to understand and embrace the full spectrum of Catholic teaching.
We can expect conservative activists, who were so vocal in condemnation of Senator Kerry in 2004, to respond similarly to pro-choice Catholics in this campaign season. But we hope our Bishops respond with similar prudence this year and speak out on the full spectrum of Catholic teaching.
The rest of the Pope’s comments aboard the papal plane demonstrate this full spectrum, and may provide the framework for bishops to demand more from all politicians. While many reporters seized on Benedict’s excommunication non-comments, fewer noted his praise for the heroic social justice leadership of Archbishop Oscar Romero in El Salvador and Benedict’s call for the Church to engage in “evangelization at the service of the cause of peace and justice.”
This call to secure peace and justice in our world remains an indispensable element of Catholic thought. Those who want Catholic politicians taken to task for public policy decisions related to abortion have a difficult time explaining why the ethical standard should be lowered for policy decisions that impact humans after birth, or that impact the health of mothers as they seek prenatal care.
Pope John Paul II spoke out in clear opposition to preventative war in Iraq, a fact of which President Bush was reminded as he prepared to speak at St.
Vincent’s College in Latrobe, Penn., where students and faculty alike protested his presence at the Catholic College and his policies in Iraq as inconsistent with Church teaching. That teaching also remains clear in opposition to the use of the death penalty in the United States. It is clear that government should responsibly secure the common good rather than protect the interests of a select few. These are not optional teachings that Catholic public officials pick and choose; they are core concerns for Catholics acting in America’s public square.
Pope Benedict’s airborne interview is another reminder of the challenge facing elected officials who want to bring rigorous Catholic principles to public policy debates. Talk of excommunication and withholding of sacraments might grab headlines, but the sensationalism misses the difficult process of evaluating the sincerity with which decision-makers apply their faith to public policy challenges. That is the real challenge for Americans as our next Presidential election season takes flight.
Denis McDonough is Senior Fellow and David Buckley is a Research Associate at the Center for American Progress.