Now that the turbulence surrounding the 2004 presidential election has abated, it is critical to revisit a question that deeply divided both the Catholic bishops and the Catholic laity during the heated months of summer: Should Catholic public officials who endorse the continued legalization of abortion be ineligible to receive the Eucharist? This issue will not go away. If ignored, it will merely simmer until the next cycle of national elections, when it will emerge in the same volatile, divisive and unfocused manner that characterized the debate of 2004. Whether or not the leadership of the church in the United States chooses to resolve this explosive issue during the relative calm of the next two years will have immense implications for Catholicism’s future as a voice for justice within the American political system. The issue of eucharistic sanctions holds within it a unique symbolic power to mold the image of the church in the public square for decades to come.
Sanctions for Scandal
The theological starting point for those who advocate eucharistic sanctions is a sound one: the continuing support of Catholic political leaders and voters for abortion rights is a scandal in the life of the American church. No nuances in the relationship between legislator and constituent, no recognition of the mediating institutional questions lying between the act of abortion and specific legislative formulations can eradicate the fact that political action designed to retain or expand current abortion rights is morally unacceptable. The continuing decision of American Catholic politicians and voters to contravene the tenets of their faith is a major failure in church life.
How is the church to respond to this failure of its mission? Here those who advocate eucharistic sanctions for political action advance a novel and open-ended theory. They propose that those who have voted for legislation favoring abortion have, in doing so, separated themselves from the fullness of the body of Christ. Archbishop John J. Myers of Newark wrote in his pastoral statement “A Time for Honesty” (5/15/04):
That some Catholics, who claim to believe what the Church believes, are willing to allow others to continue directly to kill the innocent is a grave scandal. The situation is much much worse when these same leaders receive the Eucharist when they are not objectively in communion with Christ and His Church. Their objective dishonesty serves to compound the scandal.
As a consequence, the advocates of sanctions argue, Catholic political leaders and voters who depart from the church’s teaching on abortion are automatically deprived of the right to receive the Eucharist.
But the sanctions camp’s interpretation of the church’s theology of the Eucharist provokes many questions. First of all, it casts aside all the limitations and admonitions to pastoral solicitude that the church has traditionally demanded in cases of denial of the Eucharist.
Second, since the sacramental theology being advanced provides for a separation from the Eucharist whenever believers have abandoned the fullness of Catholic faith, it seems likely that the number of teachings to which adherence is deemed mandatory for eucharistic eligibility will proliferate. Indeed, during the debate in 2004 on eucharistic sanctions the number of issues classified as leading to automatic unworthiness for the Eucharist in some dioceses of the United States grew to include euthanasia, cloning and the nature of marriage, in addition to abortion.
Third, it is manifestly unclear in this new eucharistic theology what level of action is necessary to activate the penalty of eucharistic sanctions. Legislative action for positions contravening major church teachings? Voting for a candidate who opposes church teachings? Statements by citizens in public discussions?
Finally, the sanctions position ignores the fact that Pope John Paul II has on many occasions given Communion to political leaders he knew were in favor of the legalization of abortion.
But the most significant question that must be put to those who wish to impose eucharistic sanctions for political action in the United States is this: Why, when dealing with a pastoral situation that they have clearly defined as a case of scandal in the life of the church, have they chosen to amend the church’s mainstream eucharistic practices rather than turn to the church’s traditional theology of scandal?
Prudence, the Charioteer
The ancient tradition of Catholic moral theology holds that in deciding how to confront scandal, it is essential to insure that any action taken will make the situation better rather than worse. That is, it demands prudence before action. The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines prudence thus (No. 1806):
Prudence is the virtue that disposes practical reason to discern our true good in every circumstance and to choose the right means of achieving it. It is not to be confused with timidity or fear, nor with duplicity or dissimulation. It is called auriga virtutum, the charioteer of the virtues; it guides the other virtues by setting rule and measure. With the help of this virtue we apply moral principles to particular cases without error and overcome doubts about the good to achieve and the evil to avoid.
The virtues of the Christian life—such as faith, hope, love, zeal, compassion, generosity, fortitude and patience—are all magnificent qualities of the heart and soul, but any one of them in isolation can be taken to excess and thus yield actions that in the end are harmful. Prudence is the balancing virtue that gives each virtuous impulse its due in selecting the right course of action. It is thus particularly critical in delicate judgments like those called for in cases of scandal.
The criterion of prudence requires that the advantages and perils of implementing eucharistic sanctions be carefully weighed in the concrete situation. The primary benefit of imposing eucharistic sanctions is that they will point to the absolute central position abortion occupies in the church’s quest for justice in the social order in America today. Sanctions will function as a moral call to arms, by which individual Catholics will be forced to choose whether they value more their Catholic faith or the political/philosophical commitments that tie them to political action supporting abortion. The denial of the Eucharist will say in a unique manner that the church cannot continue to be a house divided any longer, half pro-life and half pro-choice.
Important as this benefit might be, however, it is heavily outweighed by four unintended consequences that the imposition of eucharistic sanctions will certainly have in contemporary America. These are:
1. The denial of the Eucharist to political leaders who support abortion legislation will inevitably be perceived by Americans, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, as coercive. The church has presented itself to American society as a witness to the values of the Gospel in the social order, seeking to convert minds and hearts to defend the dignity of the human person. Eucharistic sanctions will be seen as a repudiation of this role in the public square and the adoption of a radically new stance based upon the coercion of minds rather than the conversion of minds. It does not matter that eucharistic sanctions would be fully within the legitimate moral and civil rights of the church to adopt, and that those who have attacked them as a violation of the separation of church and state are totally in error in their understanding of the constitutional tradition of the United States. What does matter enormously is that Americans will in general recoil from the use of the Eucharist as a political weapon, and will reassess their overall opinion of the church’s role in the political order. Not only will sanctions not increase support for pro-life legislation; they will also undermine support for the church’s entire effort to bring Gospel values to the structures and policies of American government and society.
2. Eucharistic sanctions will further identify abortion as a sectarian Catholic issue and thus play into the hands of those who falsely accuse the pro-life movement of imposing specifically religious tenets upon the American people. One of the most damaging and mistaken charges leveled against pro-life political leaders and groups is the assertion that the commitment to protect human life from the moment of conception is a specifically religious principle and should not be enshrined in law in a religiously free society. The pro-life movement has worked arduously to refute this assertion and to build a coalition that crosses religious boundaries, embracing men and women of all religions and no religion. The imposition of eucharistic sanctions will cripple this effort.
3. The use of eucharistic sanctions for political action will inevitably breed a reductionist outlook in defining the church’s social agenda. One of the greatest strengths of the church’s teaching in the social and political orders has been the breadth of vision the Catholic tradition brings to the monumental problems of our times. Repeatedly, the church has refused to countenance any effort to reduce this social teaching to fit categories imposed by particular political systems or structures. In its Doctrinal Note on Some Questions Regarding the Participation of Catholics in Political Life (November 2002), the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith powerfully attested to the full spectrum of these moral imperatives for Catholics. Yet the sanctions movement has already made clear that it advances a two-tier notion of political imperatives for Catholics, one that centers upon life issues and another for all other political and social questions. The life issues will be deemed essential to the fullness of Catholic faith and thus to participation in the Eucharist; all other issues–including war and issues of economic justice, over which the United States exercises unparalleled influence because of its political and economic power—will be relegated to secondary status.
4. The imposition of eucharistic sanctions will cast the church as a partisan actor in the American political system. One of the great tragedies of American politics in the present day is that the Democratic and Republican parties have evolved in a way that makes it virtually impossible for candidates who follow Catholic social teaching in its major elements to win party primaries and thus to be elected to office. In the main, this means that Republican political leaders in the United States are more reflective of the church’s stance on abortion, euthanasia, cloning and marriage, while Democratic political leaders are more likely to reflect Catholic values on issues pertaining to war and peace, the poor, the death penalty and the environment. Such a schism in our political culture places Catholic voters who wish to follow church teaching in a very difficult position. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has handled this dilemma by emphasizing the importance of the wide spectrum of critical social issues, while simultaneously pointing to the particularly critical role that abortion has in the present day. The imposition of eucharistic sanctions solely on candidates who support abortion legislation will inevitably transform the church in the United States, in the minds of many, into a partisan, Republican-oriented institution and thus sacrifice the role that the church has played almost alone in American society in advocating a moral agenda that transcends the political divide.
Beyond the Partisan Divide
In the wake of the bitter and partisan campaign we have recently endured and the divisions within the church that it inflamed, it is tempting to let the question of eucharistic sanctions lie dormant in the months ahead. But in this matter we can learn from a piece of wisdom that political leaders of all views endorse: it is far easier to face truly divisive policy questions before the advent of a new political season than in the heat of an impending election. The leadership of the church in the United States will best serve the Catholic community if it achieves consensus on this critically important public policy question soon, and if it roots that consensus firmly in the ancient theological tradition of prudence as virtue’s charioteer.