Signs of the Times

Gregory: Denying Communion Over Abortion Is Last Resort

"Denying Communion to a politician like Senator John F. Kerry, who supports legalized abortion, must be the last resort in a process to persuade the politician to uphold moral truths when voting," said the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. In the nature of the church, the imposition of sanctions is always the final response, not the first response, nor the second nor maybe even the tenth, said Bishop Wilton D. Gregory of Belleville, Ill.

The bishop spoke to Catholic News Service in Rome on April 23, the day the bishops’ conference in Washington released a statement he made regarding Catholics in political life. The statement came in response to remarks made on April 23 by Cardinal Francis Arinze, prefect of the Congregation of Divine Worship and the Sacraments, at a press conference about a new Vatican document concerning abuses associated with the liturgy and the Eucharist.


The document reaffirmed church teaching that a Catholic who is in a situation of serious sin must go to confession before approaching the Eucharist. Cardinal Arinze was asked whether this meant that Kerry, the probable Democratic nominee for U.S. president and a supporter of legalized abortion, should be denied Communion unless he goes to confession and repents of his position.

The norm of the church is clear, Cardinal Arinze answered. The church exists in the United States. There are bishops there; let them interpret it. However, when asked more generally if a priest should refuse Communion to a politician who is unambiguously pro-abortion, Cardinal Arinze said: Yes. If the person should not receive Communion, then he should not be given it.

Citing Cardinal Arinze’s response to the specific question about Kerry, Bishop Gregory’s statement said, Each diocesan bishop has the right and duty to address such issues of serious pastoral concern as he judges best in his local church, in accord with pastoral and canonical norms. At the same time, he wrote, the U.S. bishops have established a task force headed by Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick of Washington, D.C., to discuss issues with regard to the participation of Catholics in political life, including reception of the sacraments, in the cases of those whose political advocacy is in direct contradiction to church teaching.

In the CNS interview, Bishop Gregory said it would be difficult to answer the hypothetical question of what he would do in the unlikely event that Kerry showed up at a Mass he was celebrating. One thing I would do, he said, would be to preach on the integrity and sanctity of human life, because it would be a great opportunity to proclaim clearly and in a public way what the church teaches.

Bishop Gregory said the U.S. bishops’ task force studying the question of Catholics in political life would try to offer some options and perspective to bishops so that we can respond with a certain degree of unanimity. However, he said, individual bishops still will need to determine how to handle particular cases in their own dioceses.

In a separate interview, Cardinal McCarrick said that while church law foresees situations in which Communion should be denied, interpreting the law is a delicate question. I think the canons [of church law] remind us that we have to tell our people that if they are not in communion with the church, they should not go and receive Communion. But that doesn’t say to us that we should deny them Communion when they come, he said. I would be very uncomfortable to have a confrontation at the altar, because it implies that I know precisely what’s in a man’s heart or in a woman’s heart, and I’m not always sure, he said.

European Bishops Slow to Deny Communion

Several European bishops interviewed by Catholic News Service said they would be very hesitant to announce publicly that a Catholic politician could not receive the Eucharist because of a political stand, even one in favor of legalized abortion. They cited a number of reasons, including a reluctance to stigmatize individual Catholics and a reluctance to use the Eucharist as a sanction for a political position. European bishops and a pro-life activist said that while some Catholic politicians on the continent have supported legislation opposed by the church, they could not recall an instance in which a politician had been denied Communion.

Bishops in Great Britain would absolutely not take the route of announcing a ban on Communion for politicians voting contrary to church teaching, said Archbishop Peter Smith of Cardiff, Wales, chairman of the bishops’ Department of Christian Responsibility and Citizenship. Bishops have to be very careful about making public statements about an individual, Archbishop Smith said. We do not believe it is our task to tell M.P.’s how to vote, although we hope and expect that they would bring their faith to bear on the political decisions they are asked to make, he said. Even when a politician supports something as clearly immoral as abortion, the archbishop said, I am not sure denying the Eucharist is the right way to go. You do not know why they voted the way they voted.

Bishop Vincenzo Paglia of Terni, Narni and Amelia in Italy said, The situations in the United States and in Italy are so different; people here would not understand a bishop doing such a thing. Bishop Paglia said the most effective way for a bishop or priest to help a politician enact policies in accordance with church teaching is through a personal relationship in which issues can be explained and even debated.

But when the politician enters Parliament, he said, matters get more complicated. Faith is one thing. Legislation is another, he said. In drafting and passing laws, he said, success usually means compromise and often means accepting a lesser evil, trying to restrict practices the church considers immoral rather than refusing to participate and losing all influence. Announcing that a politician cannot receive Communion is a pastoral choice that I would not make, he said. Maybe if a Catholic politician actually promoted abortion or divorce, I would tell him not to come to Communion, but I would tell him only in private and only after speaking with him personally, the bishop said.

Carlo Casini, president of Italy’s Pro-Life Movement, said that when abortion was legalized by the Italian Parliament in 1978 unfortunately, there were Catholics, known as Catholics, who said they were against abortion, but that a law regulating abortion was necessary. He said Pope Paul VI and the Italian bishops expressed their disappointment with the politicians and the vote, but made no move against individuals.

The bishops must enlighten the faithful clearly and strongly, but making a drastic pastoral decision [like denying Communion], I do not know that I would do that, Casini said. Should abortion be the decisive and exclusive value? Casini asked. Stopping abortion should be a priority for Catholics, he said, but the death penalty, war and other attacks on human life also are important issues, and Catholic voters must make their own decisions.

On the other hand, Cardinal Adrianus Simonis of Utrecht, Holland, said: If a politician says he supports the right to abortions, he isn’t a good Catholic.... But I’m lucky enough never to have faced a concrete situation in which I was embarrassed by having to refuse Communion. Bishop Tadeusz Pieronek, rector of the Theological Academy in Krakow, Poland, said: If politicians say they are personally against abortion, but don’t wish to impose their convictions on others, they are right. However, if they declare themselves Catholic but disregard church rules by saying they favor abortion, the bishops are entitled to criticize and impose sanctions on them, he said. In such cases, the withdrawal of the right to holy Communion can be used to show a person is not fully within the community of the church, said the bishop, who had served as secretary general of the Polish bishops’ conference.

Document Lists 28 Grave Abuses Against Eucharist

In an instruction warning against a wide range of abuses against the Eucharist, the Vatican Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments singled out 28 grave matters that put at risk the validity and dignity of the most holy Eucharist. The 65-page instruction, titled Redemptionis Sacramentum [The Sacrament of Redemption], was approved by Pope John Paul II and released on April 23. The instruction’s concerns range from avoiding such crimes as blasphemous desecration of the Eucharist to assuring that the liturgical roles of priests and laity are kept clearly distinct and that priests wear the proper vestments when celebrating Mass. The abuses condemned as especially serious range from using forbidden materials for eucharistic bread or wine to the celebration of Mass by laicized priests, from changing the officially approved words of the eucharistic prayers to celebrating Mass in a non-Christian temple or shrine.

Oddly, Paragraph 49, was included among the 28 singled out as references to serious abuses. That paragraph makes no mention of any illicit, reprobated or abusive practice that is not allowed. It simply offers advice that it is "appropriate" to include some parts from the fraction of the large eucharistic bread in the distribution of Communion to the faithful and adds that ordinarily "small hosts requiring no fraction ought customarily to be used for the most part" for distributing Communion to the faithful.

Here are the other 27 actions or practices highlighted by the instruction as grave abuses:

Using any grain other than wheat for the host, or "introducing other substances, such as fruit or sugar or honey" into the bread for the hosts -- a "grave abuse."

Using anything other than wine made of fermented grapes, "pure and incorrupt, not mixed with other substances," in the chalice. "Other drinks of any kind ... do not constitute valid matter."

Using any eucharistic prayer not in the Roman Missal or not approved by the Holy See for use where the Mass is being celebrated; or making any changes in the text of that prayer.

Recitation of any part of the eucharistic prayer by anyone other than the priest -- deacon, lay minister, an individual in the congregation or the whole congregation. The eucharistic prayer "is to be recited by the priest alone in full."

Omitting the name of the pope or the local bishop in the eucharistic prayer -- violating "a most ancient tradition" that is "a manifestation of ecclesial communion."

While church norms fittingly recommend celebration of other sacraments in the context of Mass, "it is not permissible to unite the sacrament of penance to the Mass in such a way that they become a single liturgical celebration." This does not preclude priests from hearing confessions while Mass is going on, however.

Celebration of Mass "is not to be inserted in any way into the setting of a common meal." If "grave necessity" requires celebrating Mass at a table or in a dining hall or banquet room, "there is to be a clear interval of time" between the end of Mass and the meal, and other food is not to be brought in before the Mass is over.

It is "strictly ... an abuse" to introduce into the Mass "elements that are contrary to the prescriptions of the liturgical books and taken from the rites of other religions."

"It is not licit" to deny Communion to "any baptized Catholic who is not prevented by law" from receiving the sacrament.

Communion is to be distributed on the tongue to anyone who desires it anywhere and in the hand to anyone who desires it in places where that has been approved as a practice. However, it should be consumed in the presence of the minister of Communion and it should not be given to someone in the hand "if there is a risk of profanation."

"It is not licit" for lay people to administer Communion to themselves or for them to hand Communion on from one to another instead of it being distributed by designated ministers. In particular, at weddings the "abuse" of the new spouses giving Communion to one another "is to be set aside."

"The practice is reprobated whereby either unconsecrated hosts or other edible or inedible things are distributed during the celebration of the Mass or beforehand after the manner of Communion."

In a diocesan bishops decision on the circumstances under which Communion can be distributed under both kinds, "it is completely to be excluded where even a small danger exists of the sacred species being profaned."

The practice of Communion under both kinds for the entire congregation should be avoided when there is such a large number that "it is difficult to gauge the amount of wine for the Eucharist and there is a danger that more than a reasonable quantity" will remain to be consumed after Communion.

In the practice of intinction, or receiving Communion under both kinds by dipping a host into the wine, "the communicant must not be permitted to intinct the host himself in the chalice nor to receive the intincted host in the hand. ... It is altogether forbidden to use nonconsecrated bread or other matter."

"The pouring of the blood of Christ after the consecration from one vessel to another is completely to be avoided, lest anything should happen that would be to the detriment of so great a mystery. Never to be used for containing the blood of the Lord are flagons, bowls or other vessels." This instruction prohibits the widespread U.S. practice of placing one or more pitchers of wine on the altar before the consecration when Communion is to be distributed under both kinds, and then pouring that wine into chalices before Communion. A related instruction says there is no problem with placing multiple chalices filled with wine on the altar before the consecration, but for the sake of "sign value" the main chalice should be larger than the others.

Mass can never be celebrated "in a temple or sacred place of any non-Christian religion."

Bishops must stop "any contrary practice" to church norms that require commendatory letters not more than a year old vouching for a visiting priests faculties to celebrate Mass or a prudential judgment by local authorities that he has such faculties.

Celebrations of the Mass must never be suspended "on the pretext of promoting a fast from the Eucharist" as a way to heighten awareness of the importance of the Mass.

Sacred vessels for the Lords body and blood "must be made in strict conformity with the norms of tradition and the liturgical books," assuring that people of the region consider them "truly noble." Since all risk of diminishing the doctrine of the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist must be avoided, use of any more common vessels is "reprobated."

Celebration of Mass by priests wearing "only a stole over the monastic cowl or the common habit of religious or ordinary clothes, contrary to the prescriptions of the liturgical books" is strictly prohibited and a "reprobrated" abuse.

Reservation of the Blessed Sacrament in any place "not subject in a secure way to the authority of the diocesan bishop or where there is a danger of profanation" is forbidden.

"No one may carry the most holy Eucharist to his or her home or to any other place contrary to the norm of the law." Removing or retaining the Eucharist for any sacrilegious purpose or casting them away is a church crime that only the churchs doctrinal congregation has authority to prosecute.

Priests, deacons or extraordinary ministers of Communion are forbidden to engage in any "profane business" while carrying the Eucharist to the sick or homebound.

Any time the Blessed Sacrament is exposed for adoration, it "must never be left unattended, even for the briefest space of time."

"It is never licit for laypersons to assume the role or the vesture of a priest or deacon or other clothing similar to such vesture."

It is never licit for a laicized priest to "celebrate the sacraments under any pretext whatsoever save in the exceptional case set forth by law" of hearing the confession of someone in immediate danger of death.

News Briefs

A poll of 1,209 Americans conducted by Zogby International on April 15-17 found that 56 percent of respondents said that abortion should never be legal or be legal only when the mother’s life is in danger or in cases of rape and incest. Forty-two percent of the respondents said abortion should be legal for any reason.

Pope John Paul II nominated Salesian Sister Enrica Rosanna, 65, to the third highest post at the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life. As under secretary, she will be the highest ranking woman in the Vatican.

Mary McGrory, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who wrote the column Washington Front for America from 1958 to 1973, died on April 23 at age 85.

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11 years 9 months ago
It appears that more bishops are joining the pro-life chorus against Catholic politicians who will not openly embrace the entirety of church teaching on abortion. But with teeth!—refusing holy Communion to them (Signs of the Times, 5/10). When I am asked to defend that action—something that as a committed, conscientious Catholic, I want to be able to do—I run into difficulty from at least two perspectives. First, an arguably valid interpretation of the bishops’ actions might find them in opposition to other dogmatic church teaching that suggests that if a public official’s moral decisions are in accord with his own personal conscience, he has a right to follow it and the bishop has an obligation not to interfere. The Catechism of the Catholic Church seems clearly to point that way: “Man has the right to act in conscience and in freedom so as personally to make moral decisions. He must not be forced to act contrary to his conscience. Nor must he be prevented from acting according to his conscience, especially in religious matters” (No. 1782).

Second, as Catholic Americans, don’t we owe some respectful consideration to the concept of church and state separation that our forefathers wisely taught? When a bishop directs—indeed attempts to force—specific legislative action on a Catholic elected public official, it is hard to call that anything other than church entrance into the state’s jurisdictional process. I pray fervently that our bishops will avoid the waiting traps that accompany this sort of action. By refusing Communion to those politicians who follow their consciences in a matter of such religious significance, the bishops would seem to place them in that same public niche reserved for those “who obstinately persist in manifold grave sin” (Canon 915). Pretty heavy.


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