Published July 1, 2021
It has been thirty-seven years since Mario Cuomo’s infamous Notre Dame speech – the Magna Carta for pro-choice Catholics – in which the former governor of New York laid out the argument that personal opposition to abortion might be compatible with a refusal to “impose” those personal beliefs in law. It was never a very good argument, effectively reducing the divine law and natural law to a kind of private piety. But for more than a generation, it has provided sufficient cover for pro-choice Catholic politicians (of both parties, for what it’s worth) looking to obfuscate the inconsistency of professing the Catholic faith while refusing to uphold the basic demands of justice.
It has been seventeen years since Cardinal Ratzinger, then-prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, wrote to then-Cardinal McCarrick, clarifying the Church’s teaching regarding worthiness to receive Communion: pro-choice politicians should not present themselves for Communion and those who obstinately persevere in opposition to Church teaching must be denied Communion.
John Kerry, a pro-choice Catholic, was the Democratic nominee for president that year and suggestions that he be denied Communion were being denounced as (what else?) a politicization of the Eucharist. McCarrick misrepresented Ratzinger’s letter to his brother bishops to maintain the political peace. The result: interminable dialogue without discipline.
Now, questions about “Eucharistic consistency” and Communion for politicians who oppose Church teaching are once again in the news. As the USCCB doctrine committee begins drafting its document on the Eucharist, it’s worth asking: has the dominant pastoral strategy of the last several decades, a strategy of perpetual dialogue unmatched by meaningful pastoral discipline, produced the hoped-for good fruits? Have things improved since 1984? Or since 2004? Or has the pastoral approach taken by most of our bishops, however well-intentioned, enabled the ever-worsening divisions we see around us?
Have pastoral dialogue and accompaniment, of the tepid sort, moved pro-choice Catholic politicians closer to defending the unborn? Have they produced unity? Quite the opposite. Generations of Catholic politicians, President Biden among them, have responded to the gentle pleas of their pastors by growing even farther from Church teaching about the imperative of defending innocent life.
Have Catholics in the pews (and non-Catholics watching from afar) learned that Church teachings on the dignity of human life, justice, and the common good are to be taken seriously? That our moral life is tied to ecclesial communion and sacramental life? Or have they learned that, if public officials can exempt themselves from moral scrutiny by even the most specious appeals to conscience, then the rest of us can too?
The unwillingness of various bishops to show, with more than just words, that certain actions are incompatible with faithful discipleship and ecclesial communion has not brought wayward Catholics home. It has led to an ever-broadening expansion of “tolerable” dissent from Church teaching on fundamental issues.
The old Cuomo Compromise – “I’m personally opposed to abortion, but I won’t impose my personal beliefs on others through law” – is passé. As the recent letter from sixty pro-choice Catholic lawmakers made resoundingly clear, the expectation of many Catholics is that Church’s authority to speak about the demands of justice must not carry over into the public sphere. To them, abortion is not just an injustice to be tolerated out of political necessity, it is a positive good – a human right – to be supported, reinforced, and subsidized.
If we are to take seriously the protestations of many pro-choice Catholics, we must conclude that they hold what is perhaps the most monstrous of all positions on abortion:
Abortion is the direct killing of innocent human beings, an attack against inter-generational justice, and the destruction of the most intimate bonds of family, all of which happens in this country on an industrial scale. And yet somehow, professing to believe all that, these same politicians insist that the abortion license is to be defended at all costs, expanded where it can be, and abortion subsidized and promoted as a human right.
The utter incoherence expressed in that letter from pro-choice lawmakers is the fruit, in part, of the Church’s pastoral strategy of the last 40-plus years. It has been a disaster for the formation of consciences, a disaster for our poisoned politics, a disaster for the common good, a disaster for Church unity, and a disaster for those tens of millions of lives who have been wiped out precisely because many Catholics in public office have decisively supported the slaughter.
This is the rotten status quo: a festering moral incoherence left unchecked has metastasized into ecclesial and sacramental incoherence.
The goal in all of this, it ought to go without saying, is not to drive people away, nor to punish sinners, still less to exact a partisan toll on political opponents. The true goal – and on this the bishops are in appearance unanimous – is to defend the innocent and to bring souls closer to God’s mercy. If those are the pastoral goals of the bishops, then they ought to be unanimous in recognizing the utter failure of the pastoral status quo to accomplish them.
The way forward is not to replace accompaniment and dialogue with severity and censure. But surely, continuing to pursue a pastoral strategy that has caused so much damage and borne so little fruit is folly. The Church’s discipline of withholding Communion from those who persevere in manifest, grave sin is an act of charity; a call to repentance and mercy when other measures have proven fruitless. Our bishops must know this, even if the media and many Catholics do not.
The status quo will not be improved simply by denying Joe Biden (or anyone else) access to the Eucharist. But bishops weighing the pastoral costs of taking a clear stance on Eucharistic coherence ought to weigh those costs against the cost of perpetuating the manifest failures of the last several decades – pastoral failures – that have led us to precisely this moment of division and strife.
© 2021 The Catholic Thing.
Stephen P. White is executive director of The Catholic Project at The Catholic University of America and a fellow in Catholic Studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.