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Public dissenters should themselves refrain from Communion

Archbishop John Vlazny
Archbishop of Portland in Oregon
05/06/2004

Late last month Cardinal Francis Arinze, Vatican’s Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, was asked several questions about the reception of Holy Communion by Catholic politicians who in public are frequently either inconsistent with or in opposition to the teachings of the Church. This matter has troubled many of you, as has been obvious from my correspondence this year. It is also troublesome to me. The matter takes on particular significance during the current election year.

The cardinal stated that it was the responsibility of the bishops of the United States to deal pastorally with the situations under question. It is true that each diocesan bishop has the right and a need to address matters of serious pastoral concern and to make the best judgment possible in his local church, in keeping with pastoral and canonical norms. You should know that last fall the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops agreed to establish a task force to discuss such matters involving the participation of Catholics in political life, particularly with regard to the reception of sacraments when their political advocacy is in direct contradiction to church teaching.

We bishops, like most Catholics, hope and expect that our fellow Catholics in political life will be guided by and live out the truths of the faith which God has given us. But many prominent Catholics in the political realm continue to fail to deliver on these hopes and expectations. Some probably do this to pursue political advantage. After all, it is difficult to take an unpopular position, particularly when one is seeking the votes of a majority of citizens. But integrity is a quality all people rightfully expect from their political leaders. In my judgment, Catholics who publicly ignore or oppose clear church teaching in serious matters fail the litmus test with respect to integrity. This becomes a problem for Catholic and non-Catholic voters alike.

What about the reception of Holy Communion by those who stand in public opposition to church teaching? Some of you have called upon me to establish a policy whereby such Catholics would be refused the sacraments if they seek them. Speaking as a pastor, it is less abrasive to refuse to baptize a child or to marry a couple when the request is made beforehand than it is to refuse Holy Communion during a public liturgical service. The latter places a questionable burden on all who are ministers of the Eucharist, both ordinary and extraordinary. Public perception will inevitably weigh heavily in favor of the "victim" of the refusal rather than the church minister trying to be faithful to church policy.

Let me say this. Catholics who publicly disagree with serious church teaching on such matters as abortion or same-sex marriage should refrain from receiving Holy Communion. These women and men need to understand what the reception of a sacrament means in the life of the church. The reception of Holy Communion is a sign that a person not only seeks union with God but also desires to live in communion with the church. Such communion is clearly violated when one publicly opposes serious church teaching. Reception of Holy Communion by such public dissenters betrays a blatant disregard for the serious meaning and purpose of the reception of the Eucharist.

We pastors, as teachers of the faith, must make this matter clear. Catholics who are not in communion with the Church (for example, divorced and remarried Catholics who have not received annulments from previous Catholic marriages) must similarly refrain from receiving the Eucharist. All Catholics in the state of mortal sin who are unrepentant also should refrain from the reception of the Eucharist. This does not mean that these people should refrain from a life of prayer, even in the company of the rest of the church community. But the prayer of the church will be for their conversion, not for the acceptance of their dissent.

As a pastor, I find it difficult to make a public judgment that any person is "unfit" or "unworthy" for the reception of the sacrament. But I know I can make that judgment about myself and I believe every person can do the same. As a teacher, on the other hand, I can clearly state that, when individuals choose not to be in communion with the Church by their public dissent in serious matters, they should refrain from the reception of Holy Communion.

This will be a matter of scrutiny in Catholic communities across the nation during this election year and beyond. I recognize that there is serious disagreement among Catholics about the pro-choice positions of some Catholic politicians. Should Catholics who choose to vote for pro-choice politicians refrain from reception of the Holy Communion? If they vote for them precisely because they are pro-choice, I believe they too should refrain from the reception of Holy Communion because they are not in communion with the Church on a serious matter. But if they are voting for that particular politician because, in their judgment, other candidates fail significantly in some matters of great importance, for example, war and peace, human rights and economic justice, then there is no evident stance of opposition to Church teaching and reception of Holy Communion seems both appropriate and beneficial.

Catholics who do support pro-choice politicians still have serious responsibilities with regard to their stance on this matter. They must make it very clear to these politicians and governmental leaders that their support is in no way based on the pro-choice advocacy of these political leaders. Catholic pro-choice politicians themselves would serve Gospel justice more adequately if they were to speak out more clearly against abortion and mitigate their strident advocacy of choice as a matter of human rights. Unfortunately they wind up caving in to the demands of their political supporters and fail to stand before the nation as people of integrity whose faith does impact their values but whose church membership is a consideration altogether separate from their US citizenship.

The bishops’ task force on Catholic Politicians is presently being chaired by Theodore Cardinal McCarrick of Washington, D.C. This matter is so important that we bishops want to act pastorally in this matter as collaboratively and consistently as is humanly possible. Please pray for the guidance of the Holy Spirit. The call to faithful citizenship on the part of all Catholics is an important and challenging one. I am grateful to all of you who take these matters seriously and who both hope for and expect what is best from those who serve us in political life, particularly our own Catholic leaders.

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