Signs of the Times

Vatican Dismayed Over Memo on Communion

When Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger sent out a brief memo in June about politicians and Communion, he probably never imagined it would ignite a heated discussion about Catholics and voting. The document, leaked to an Italian reporter but never officially acknowledged by the Vatican, focused on the grounds for denying Communion to pro-abortion Catholic politicians. Almost as an afterthought, it added two sentences about Catholic voters:

First, it said, a Catholic who deliberately voted for a candidate precisely because of the candidate’s pro-abortion (or pro-euthanasia) stand would be guilty of formal cooperation in evil and should exclude himself from receiving Communion.


Second, when a Catholic does not share a candidate’s stand in favor of abortion but votes for that candidate for other reasons, it is considered remote material cooperation, which is permitted in the presence of proportionate reasons.

Reaction to those two sentences has been simmering all summer, fueled in part by election-year politics. One self-styled traditional Catholic publication criticized Cardinal Ratzinger, who heads the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, saying his words would be taken as a license to vote for pro-abortion politicians.

In a New York Daily News column headlined Catholics Can Vote for Kerry, the Rev. Andrew Greeley said Cardinal Ratzinger had correctly underlined that Catholics should not be single-issue voters, but should weigh all the issues. Some conservative Catholic Web sites have criticized Father Greeley’s column and disputed the idea that Cardinal Ratzinger has given a greenor at least yellowlight to Catholic voters who intend to vote for pro-abortion candidates.

At the Vatican, officials are dismayed for several reasons, starting with the fact that a private communication was leaked. Moreover, they say, the ensuing discussion has mixed up two very different issuesthe public actions of Catholic politicians and the private moral decisions faced by Catholic voters.

The one-page memo that started the discussion was sent with a letter from Cardinal Ratzinger to Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick of Washington, D.C., who heads the U.S. bishops’ Task Force on Catholic Bishops and Catholic Politicians. Sources described the memo as an unsigned staff document aimed at summarizing basic principles. They said it did not begin to explore the complexity of the issue of voting and sin, which, in the words of one official, is pretty much terra incognita for moral theologians.

The memo was certainly not intended to clear the way for Catholics to vote for candidates who are in favor of laws permitting abortion or euthanasia, but rather to clarify that the simple act of voting for such candidates might not per se justify one’s exclusion from holy Communion, said Augustine DiNoia, O.P., the American who is undersecretary of the Vatican’s doctrinal congregation. The problem is that it is difficult to determine the purpose, or moral object, of an act of voting, Father DiNoia said.

The only thing we could say is, a person might come to be in the state of mortal sin and therefore unworthy to receive Communion if they voted precisely with the moral object of extending abortion or the provision of abortion, he said. But that would be the only case where that would happen, he said.

For the church, there is no question about the sinfulness of abortion, but there are serious questions about how far culpability extends beyond those directly involved in abortion. That is where the concepts of formal and material cooperation come in. These are traditional terms in theology, although their application to the act of voting is quite new. Cooperation in evil concerns people who are drawn into the bad act of another person. In general, formal cooperation means culpability, whereas material cooperationbeing more remotedoes not, Father DiNoia said.

The recent doctrinal memo’s mention of proportionate reasons has led some people to suggest a set of reasons that could justify voting for pro-abortion politiciansor to argue that no proportionate reason can exist in such a case. Father DiNoia said one obvious proportionate reason would be when, as often occurs, Catholic voters must choose between two candidates who support legalized abortion but to widely differing degrees. But further defining what may or may not be proportionate reasons in these cases is extremely difficult, Father DiNoia said. In the end, then, theology is not able to say categorically in every circumstance whether a Catholic voter sins or does not sin. What it can doand what the recent memo attempted to dois offer principles that are applicable to the different situations.

More Bishops Speak Out on Catholics and Voting

Continuing the debate that began last spring, bishops in various parts of the United States weighed in with advice for Catholics on how they should decide for whom to vote in November. Writing on Sept. 17 in The Wall Street Journal, Archbishop John J. Myers of Newark, N.J., said a candidate’s stand in favor of abortion cannot be outweighed by any other issue. Certainly policies on welfare, national security, the war in Iraq, Social Security or taxes, taken singly or in any combination, do not provide a proportionate reason to vote for a pro-abortion candidate.

In Atlanta, Archbishop John F. Donoghue said a vote intended to restrict insofar as possible the evil that another candidate might do if elected could have a good purpose. Earlier, he had issued a joint letter with two other bishops telling Catholics whose beliefs and conduct do not correspond to the Gospel and to church teaching not to come to Communion.

In the September edition of his diocesan newspaper, The Catholic Spirit, Bishop Gregory M. Aymond of Austin, Tex., outlined seven issues that Catholic voters should consider: the life and dignity of the human person, the call to family and community, the rights and responsibilities of people and institutions, an option for the poor and vulnerable, the dignity of work and rights of workers, global solidarity and care for God’s creation. He said there is no one candidate that would fit the bill’ on all of these issues.

His fellow Texan, Bishop John W. Yanta of Amarillo, said in a column for The West Texas Catholic newspaper that any Catholic politician who continued, after pastoral counseling, to support keeping abortion legal should be denied Communion.

Tucson Diocese Seeks Bankruptcy Protection

Facing 33 plaintiffs in 22 pending sexual abuse lawsuits, the Diocese of Tucson, Ariz., filed for federal bankruptcy protection on Sept. 20. Tucson was the second diocese in the nation to seek court-supervised reorganization under Chapter 11 of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code to resolve multimillion-dollar claims against it by alleged victims of childhood molestation by priests. In July the Archdiocese of Portland, Ore., became the first major church body in history to make a Chapter 11 filing.

In a letter to his people, Tucson’s Bishop Gerald F. Kicanas said he believed that this represents the best opportunity for healing and for the just and fair compensation of those who suffered sexual abuse by workers for the church in our diocesethose who are currently known and those who have not yet made the decision to come forward.

Under a Chapter 11 proceeding, a federal bankruptcy court oversees an organization’s finances and has veto power over any major financial transaction. Initially the court must even approve decisions on paying the regular salaries and other benefits of the organization’s employees. Like Portland, the Tucson Diocese settled a number of clergy abuse lawsuits in 2002-3 for millions of dollars but found itself faced with new claims seeking many millions more in damages. The diocese’s audited financial report for the 2002-3 fiscal year showed $20.7 million in assets but $21.9 million in liabilities.

News Briefs

Bishop Leonard P. Blair of Toledo, Ohio, announced on Sept. 17 that a task force has recommended the diocese close 33 of its 157 parishes.

A Hampden Superior Court judge has upheld Massachusetts’ charitable immunity law, designed to prevent money donated to charities from being dissipated on liability settlements. Dioceses cannot be required to pay liability damages for any negligence that occurred before Sept. 16, 1971. A charity found negligent for something it did after that date can be required to pay at most $20,000.

Saudi Arabia, Vietnam and Eritrea were among the countries singled out for the first time by a U.S. State Department report for severe abuses of religious freedom. Myanmar, China, Iran, North Korea and Sudan again were designated as countries of particular concern in the State Department’s sixth International Religious Freedom Report, issued on Sept. 15. Preeta D. Bansal, chairwoman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, criticized the State Department for not listing Pakistan, India and Turkmenistan.

In the year since the Archdiocese of Boston reached its $85 million settlement with more than 550 victims of sexual abuse, another 140 people have come forward in Boston claiming to be victims of sexual abuse by members of the clergy.

Abstinence education programs run by Catholic Charities of Buffalo, N.Y., and the Diocese of Orlando, Fla., recently received grants totaling $3.2 million from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Tariq Ramadan, a Muslim scholar whose visa to teach at the University of Notre Dame was revoked shortly after the start of the school year, is being given support by Christians and Muslims who say he would add a valuable voice to religious understanding.

A bill that seeks to cut off outside funding of nongovernmental organizations is a serious threat to Zimbabwe’s Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace, said the commission’s national director Alouis Chaumba.

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14 years 5 months ago
Would America magazine please contact the Vatican official who admitted that the issue of voting and sin is “terra incognita” for moral theologians? when you find him, give him two messages. First, I hope that the Vatican does not regard voting as inherently sinful. I regard it as both a civic duty and a God-given right. Second, We have been voting in this country for 227 years. Has the church actually been able to ignore this for all this time?

14 years 5 months ago
Would America magazine please contact the Vatican official who admitted that the issue of voting and sin is “terra incognita” for moral theologians? when you find him, give him two messages. First, I hope that the Vatican does not regard voting as inherently sinful. I regard it as both a civic duty and a God-given right. Second, We have been voting in this country for 227 years. Has the church actually been able to ignore this for all this time?


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