Communion for Politicians

Parish Diary

Fr. Peter J. Daly

April 30, 2004


            This is a political year.

            Like the rest of America, Catholics are divided on many issues. In just about equal numbers, we straddle the political divide. The heads of both major parties, Ed Gillespie of the Republicans, and Terry McAuliffe of the Democrats, are Catholics. Catholics are represented on both sides of the aisle in Congress. One Catholic, John Kerry, is running for president.

            Our ethical responsibilities vary according to our role in society and church.       Topic A for Catholic bishops in this political year is whether or not Catholic politicians who do not support the moral teaching of the Church on some specific issues (i.e. “abortion”) should be allowed to receive the Eucharist. In other words, should they be publicly “excommunicated” for their public policy positions?

            Some bishops have taken a hard line. Archbishop Raymond Burke, of St. Louis has said that he would refuse communion to John Kerry if he presented himself in the communion line in his diocese because of the Senator’s stand on abortion.

            Other bishops have taken a more nuanced stand. Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington, DC, told Fox News on Easter Sunday, that he does not want to use the Eucharist as a sanction. He said he would first like to have a conversation with Senator Kerry or any other politician before imposing any sanctions.

            This is a complicated question. It certainly cannot be fully explored in a single short column. A lot depends, as always on the details.

            But it is not a new question. Fifteen years ago, I wrote my thesis on the relationship between Catholic politicians and Catholic bishops in the American political milieu.

            Basically there seem to be three possible stances. I call them the “separationist,” the “interventionist,” and the “tranformationist.”

The first two, it seems to me, are unacceptable either to a faithful church or to religiously neutral state.

The third view, the “tranformationist,” while not perfect, offers the best way for us to co-exist as people of faith and as citizens in a religiously diverse society.

            The “separationist” view was expressed by John Kennedy in his 1960 presidential campaign in a speech in Houston to Protestant ministers. He said, “I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute, where no Catholic prelate would tell a president (should he be a Catholic) how to act and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote.” He went on to say that religion was a “private affair”.

            As Richard John Neuhaus has observed, many Catholics were willing to accept that position in 1960 for the sake of seeing a Catholic in the White House. Today, however, no serious Catholic would find such an absolute “separationist” position acceptable.

            The interventionist view is the opposite. It says that Catholic bishops can tell Catholic politicians what public policy positions they should take. It is “policy specific.”

            Everybody denies that they are religious interventionists, but there are lots of examples, mostly Protestant, from Pat Robertson on the right to Jesse Jackson on the left. 

Some Catholic bishops have been interventionist. It is often counter productive. In 1989 Bishop Leo Maher of San Diego notified a California Assembly Woman, Nancy Killea, that she was barred from communion if she did not change her position on abortion. His ban probably energized her supporters and got her re-elected in a tight race.

The interventionist model does not recognize the legitimate and separate competence of the laity in their own sphere, as the Second Vatican Council and Pope John Paul II have recognized.

The “transformationist” model is the hardest to describe and to live, but it is the right model, for both church and state. It is basically the view of the late John Courtney Murray, S.J., who said that the Church must be part of the “civil conversation.”

            A “conversation” is not a monologue. The church has to listen as well as speak.

A civil conversation must be carried on without threats and bullying.

In the transformational view, faith influences politicians but does not dictate public policy. Faith provides motivation and guidance. 

Since a conversation is two-way, religious politicians have also have an obligation to listen to the church and to take their faith seriously. Catholic politicians should be expected to give an accounting of their views when they disagree with the Church and explain how they justify themselves. Church leaders have a right to point out when their views are not in accord with Christian morality. 

The tranformationalist view recognizes that sanctions are not part of a free dialogue. Withholding the Eucharist is the ultimate sanction of the Church.

Pastors should be loathe to refuse the Eucharist to anyone. After all we recognize that no one is fully worthy. Jesus ate with sinners and tax collectors. He even ate with Judas and Peter on the night that they would betray and deny Him.

Withholding the Eucharist is a sanction of last resort.  The communion line is not the place to try to debate policy or pressure politicians. Like Cardinal McCarrick, I would want to have a conversation with that politician, outside of church.