Why a Catholic Bishop Refuses to Serve Vice-President Biden Communion
Every election cycle the controversy hits the news again. A Catholic bishop publicly declares that he will not serve communion to a politician who supports laws that allow abortion. Most recently (HT: Aquila Report) Bishop Michael Sheridan of the Diocese of Colorado Springs has declared that he will not serve the body and blood of the Lord to Vice-President Joseph Biden, a very devout, consistently practicing Roman Catholic.
The Catholic bishops are unified on the issue of abortion like they are unified on no other political issue. And pro-choice Catholic politicians generally affirm this teaching, as Vice-President Biden did in the debate with fellow Catholic Paul Ryan when he declared,
With regard to — with regard to abortion, I accept my church’s position on abortion as a — what we call de fide [dogmatic teaching]. Life begins at conception. That’s the church’s judgment. I accept it in my personal life.
But I refuse to impose it on equally devout Christians and Muslims and Jews and — I just refuse to impose that on others, unlike my friend here, the congressman.
I — I do not believe that — that we have a right to tell other people that women, they — they can’t control their body. It’s a decision between them and their doctor, in my view. And the Supreme Court — I’m not going to interfere with that.
The distinction to which Biden is appealing is a distinction between a sin and a crime, or between the truth which he affirms that abortion is murder, and the moral obligation of the state to punish murder as a crime. It is the same distinction that most Christians make when they say that sexual immorality is wrong but that it should not be punished by the state, or that worshiping a false god is a sin that should nevertheless be protected as a right by the state because of the principle of religious liberty.
Contrary to what conservatives sometimes claim therefore, there is nothing inherently contradictory about Biden’s distinction. The question, however, is whether the state has the prerogative not to punish murder, or not to protect a human being’s right to life. To put it another way, is it ever moral for a state to make murder – the killing of an innocent – legal? Or is the right to life so foundational to the very purpose of the state as established by God that a magistrate or legislator cannot abandon his or her obligation to protect that right without sinning?
Note that the question is not ultimately about how sinful the practice in view is. Idolatry is generally portrayed in Scripture as the gravest sin of all, and yet few Christians believe the state should prohibit idolatry. The reason for this is that most Christians believe (though this was not always the case) that the state should be particularly concerned to prevent injustice against human beings rather than impiety against God. The state’s obligation to secure the most basic level of justice, however, they believe to be non-negotiable.
In any case, the Roman Catholic Church has made its position on abortion quite clear, and it has affirmed its judgment that politicians who support laws legalizing murder may not receive communion. In 1974 the Vatican Declaration on Abortion declared:
A Christian can never conform to a law which is in itself immoral, and such is the case of a law which would admit in principle the licitness of abortion. Nor can a Christian take part in a propaganda campaign in favor of such a law, or vote for it. Moreover, he may not collaborate in its application.
More recently, in 2004, then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI) sent a memorandum to the American clergy which declared that unlike other moral and political issues matters pertaining to the right to life of innocents are non-negotiable for Catholics, and that Catholics who support the legality or practice of abortion must be denied the right to communion. On some issues, Ratzinger acknowledged, there is a distinction between principle and policy. Not so on this issue:
For example, if a Catholic were to be at odds with the Holy Father on the application of capital punishment or on the decision to wage war, he would not for that reason be considered unworthy to present himself to receive Holy Communion. While the Church exhorts civil authorities to seek peace, not war, and to exercise discretion and mercy in imposing punishment on criminals, it may still be permissible to take up arms to repel an aggressor or to have recourse to capital punishment. 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 went on to apply the issue specifically to Catholic politicians who vote pro-choice:
Regarding the grave sin of abortion or euthanasia, 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.
It is on the basis of instruction like this that many Catholic bishops have denied various politicians communion, including Vice-President Biden.
But what about Catholic voters? Does this mean that the church should excommunicate anyone who votes for a pro-choice candidate? Ratzinger clarified that there is a difference between voting for a candidate who happens to be pro-choice and voting for a candidate for the reason that he or she is pro-choice.
A Catholic would be guilty of formal cooperation in evil, and so unworthy to present himself for Holy Communion, if he were to deliberately vote for a candidate precisely because of the candidate’s permissive stand on abortion and/or euthanasia. When a Catholic does not share a candidate’s stand in favour of abortion and/or euthanasia, but votes for that candidate for other reasons, it is considered remote material cooperation, which can be permitted in the presence of proportionate reasons.
It is obvious from Catholic history that Ratzinger’s purpose here is not to pander to the Christian Right or to American conservatism. The concern is clearly to place the church in opposition to an evil so grave that it may never be tolerated. For that, I think, the Catholic Church should be lauded. There are some principles of moral obedience binding on a disciple of Christ that simply cannot be compromised, even if (or especially if) that disciple is a civil magistrate
Posted on October 19, 2012, in 2012 election, Abortion, Church Discipline, Roman Catholic Church and tagged Benedict XVI, Cardinal Ratzinger, Diocese of Colorado Springs, excommunication, Joseph Biden, Michael Sheridan, Nancy Pelosi. Bookmark the permalink. 29 Comments.