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Jim McDermottNovember 08, 2021
Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., speaks during a news conference at the U.S. Capitol in Washington Feb. 2, 2021. (CNS photo/Brandon Bell, Reuters)

Last month on a flight home to Rome, Pope Francis told America’s Gerard O’Connell, “I have never denied Communion to anyone.”

“What must a pastor do?” Francis asked Mr. O’Connell. “Be a pastor,” the pope answered. “Don’t go condemning. Be a pastor because [you are] a pastor also for the excommunicated.” And by pastor, Pope Francis clarified, he means in “God’s style, which is closeness, compassion and tenderness.”

The pope’s words mark the latest in a series of interventions in recent months from Vatican officials on the topic of the pastoral treatment of Catholic politicians, during which some members of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops continue to criticize Catholic President Joe Biden because of his stance on abortion.

“If we’re going to start down this road of denying Communion, where do we stop?”

Senator Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, the No. 2 Senate Democrat, has been working in Congress for almost 40 years. Originally from East St. Louis, Ill., Mr. Durbin is a practicing Catholic who completed all of his schooling from kindergarten through law school in Catholic institutions.

He is known for his work on immigration issues. He co-introduced the Dream Act, which offers undocumented minors the opportunity to attain permanent residency, and developed principles for comprehensive immigration reform with the Gang of Eight, a bipartisan group of senators who worked on immigration. In 2016 then-President Barack Obama said he would never have been elected to the Senate without Durbin’s support.

For the last 17 years, Senator Durbin has been unable to receive Communion in Springfield, Ill., the diocese where he grew up. In April 2004 his pastor Monsignor Kevin Vann (now the bishop of Orange County, Calif.) said he would be “reticent” to give Mr. Durbin Communion on the basis of his pro-choice political voting record. At the time, then-bishop of Springfield, Ill., George J. Lucas, supported Father Vann’s action. Current Bishop Thomas J. Paprocki has maintained that position and banned other local pro-choice politicians from receiving Communion as well.

In June the U.S. bishops voted 168 to 55 to draft a teaching document on the Eucharist. With the U.S.C.C.B. preparing to review that document next week at its annual fall meeting, I reached out to Mr. Durbin to discuss his experiences as a Catholic politician and how he assesses the decision of some bishops to deny Communion to some Catholics. He spoke frankly about how being denied Communion in his own diocese has made going into any church a fraught and uncomfortable experience and of his frustration with the way the bishops seem to be using the Eucharist for political purposes.

For the last 17 years, Senator Durbin has been unable to receive Communion in his home diocese in Springfield, Ill.

This interview, which has been edited for length and clarity, was conducted on Oct. 5 by Zoom.

J.M. The pope recently commented about not refusing anyone Communion. And I’ve been wondering what it’s been like to be a Catholic politician who has been refused Communion because of a pro-choice voting record. How has that experience been for you?
D.D.: It’s not a happy experience. I found another Catholic venue, the Archdiocese of Chicago, and a church where they were willing to let me in and allowed my wife to join me. So it’s become my new faith home.

But now that’s been complicated again. Three out of four Catholic bishops voted in June to consider a document on the Eucharist, which makes me concerned that three quarters of the U.S. bishops think this should be the official policy of the Catholic Church in America.

I was told by many to wait, because the pope had his last word on the subject coming, and as you mentioned a few weeks ago he said as much. But it is uncomfortable. I am careful when I go to a church that I have never been to before for any kind of occasion. You just don’t quite know what kind of reaction you’re going to get from local clergy.

I found another Catholic venue, the Archdiocese of Chicago, and a church where they were willing to let me in and allowed my wife to join me. So it’s become my new faith home.

And it may not be just the priest, it could be members of the congregation. I’ve had occasions where they’ve written letters and showed up to protest and such. I don’t want to be the subject of that any more than I have to be. So I keep a lower profile.

What role would you say your faith plays in your life as a politician?
It is a part of my life. I rely on it. And many of the things that I’ve learned over my years from my faith have become a part of my value system, I’m glad to say. But in terms of the open demonstration of religious participation, I’ve got to be careful. And that’s all right. I can do it; I can deal with it, and I understand it.

Are you saying you have to be careful because of these issues, or just in general as a politician?
No, I have to take care when participating in Catholic ceremonies. For instance, after I was disinvited from the Diocese of Springfield in Illinois, I’ve not attended their churches. And I’ve had Catholic pastors appeal to me and say, “Come to my church. I don’t feel the way the former bishop did and the current bishop does.” But I don’t feel comfortable about that. I don’t want to be the center of attention for religious purposes, despite the fact that some want to make me that.

It sounds very complicated.
It is.

Can you understand the position of the bishops in Springfield or other Catholics who feel that abortion is such a serious issue that Catholic politicians who are pro-choice shouldn’t be receiving Communion?
I respect those who disagree with me on the issue of abortion. I understand that position. Many of my friends are in that category. So I start with that premise of mutual respect.

But it is the individual decision of these specific bishops that this is the one take-it-or-leave-it issue for participating in Communion.

And I think that is fundamentally unfair. I don’t think anyone should be judged in that matter. Unfortunately, unlike the vast majority of Catholics, my views on abortion are publicized regularly with my voting record. Other Catholics may share my point of view—statistics suggest they probably do—but they show up to Communion every week without any questions asked. They just don’t bring it up publicly.

What also troubles me is the disconnect between this and other church priorities: I went down to a meeting in Texas on immigration, and there was a local bishop there who started by saying how strongly he felt about immigration and how he had brought along a lot of his people who were involved in immigration issues. I’ve been pretty outspoken on that issue myself, and he said he wanted to thank me for visiting, on behalf of the Catholic Conference of Bishops and Archbishop [José H.] Gomez. [Archbishop Gomez is president of the U.S.C.C.B.]

I went up to him afterward and I said, “Archbishop Gomez was critical of Joe Biden on his inauguration day, and I thought that was entirely out of line.”

I don’t want to be the center of attention for religious purposes, despite the fact that some want to make me that.

I told him: “This new Catholic president who Archbishop Gomez has such strong feelings about is also thoroughly committed to the cause of justice in immigration. Otherwise we wouldn’t have a ghost of a chance to fight this battle.

“If you’re going to be criticizing Joe Biden, remember that his election was central to making immigration a viable issue.”

Why do you think some bishops have been so critical of Mr. Biden?
I think many of them were disappointed in the election. Trump supposedly carried Catholics 50 to 49 over Biden, and many of the bishops had subtly or directly instructed Catholic voters that they should be voting for Trump. I think there was a disappointment that there wasn’t a stronger showing for Trump, and so they wanted to make it clear to some people in the church that, in their eyes, Biden was still unacceptable.

So you would say it wasn’t just a matter of Biden’s stance on abortion, it was a way of speaking about who they thought should be president?
I think that’s part of it.

And here we have Trump in the closing days of his presidency executing more people on federal death row than any time in modern memory, just right and left, and we couldn’t stop it, the courts couldn’t stop it. [The Trump administration carried out 13 executions over its last seven months in office—five in its last month—the most executions authorized by any president in the last 130 years and the first federal executions in 17 years.] And to think that these same Catholic leaders didn’t express horror at that outcome, or at least as much as they should have from my point of view, is troubling.

In November the bishops will meet to discuss the document being drafted about the Eucharist, which may in part discuss who should be allowed to receive Communion. As a Catholic and as a politician, how would you advise them?
First, let me make this general observation: If you’re trained in politics, and I guess I qualify, they tell you right off the bat, “If you’re under attack, never defend yourself. Attack the accuser.”

I’ve said to several priests and bishops over the years, “Isn’t it interesting when you turn on Catholic Democrats on the issue of choice, how few if any of them turn the tables to attack the church?”

I didn’t realize that my political career would end up being a dominant factor in my personal life in that regard, but it has been.

Can we think of a few topics where the church is vulnerable? Yes, we can. And the fact is that many of us pull up short of it because we have built-in respect for the church and the good things that it’s done.

I don’t have any particular qualification to do this, but if I had to give advice to the church, it strikes me that one of the fundamental issues that they have to deal with is the role of women in the church. When you consider what has happened in the world and in the United States, with the emergence of women as leaders and co-equals with men, the church has a long way to go. And I think it’s at the root of some of the difficulties the bishops have, particularly when it comes to issues such as choice. To me, that needs to be a more open conversation.

I have a sister-in-law who was a nun. She left the ministry to marry a former priest. They are maintaining a parish in East St. Louis, Ill., almost single-handedly, the two of them, and virtually everyone I know in the area says what a waste that they couldn’t both be priests. They would have been doing this work and been happy to do it for the rest of their lives. They were just never given that chance.

What a waste of talent, of good people. They’re doing their best as laymen and -women, but that to me just betrays some of the arguments in the church about equality.

There should be much fairer treatment when it comes to women and people of different sexual orientations.

You speak with real feeling about these issues.
It means a lot to me. My faith has been a big part of my life and I’ve thought about it a lot because I have been forced to. I didn’t realize that my political career would end up being a dominant factor in my personal life in that regard, but it has been.

I imagine some Catholics reading this would say while they understand your frustration about being denied Communion, it is a consequence of your own choices to support pro-choice legislation. In your opinion, are there no circumstances under which people should be refused Communion because they are standing outside what is acceptable to the church?
Well, it’s been a long time since I took theology classes, but I think the standard for receiving Communion is a well-formed conscience, and where you come down as a result of that, and that is personal to the individual standing at the rail.

So I would say to categorize people based on anything else is to perhaps go too far beyond what Catholics have considered to be the appropriate standard. I can certainly raise questions about other people and the conduct in their lives and say, “Well, if we’re going to start down this road of denying Communion, where do we stop?”

Also there’s the fundamental concept as to whether Communion is a reward for good behavior or a medicinal experience.

In the end it is a personal decision to stand at that rail, and I think with very few exceptions, Communion is offered to anybody if the person believes that they are worthy of it.

Correction, Nov. 16: In the original editor’s note to this article, Senator Durbin’s home diocese was presented as the Diocese of Springfield. In fact that is the diocese in which he was raised. As he noted in the interview, he now practices his faith in the Archdiocese of Chicago.

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