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Catholic participation in political life, revisited

October 10, 2004

Participation in the Church is based upon Baptism and the profession of the Catholic faith. The common faith shapes personal consciences, so that a Catholic conscience, even as it directs an individual believer’s actions, is never individualistic. Centuries ago, Blessed Isaac of Stella summed it up: "The Church is incapable of forgiving any sin without Christ, and Christ is unwilling to forgive any sin without the Church. The Church cannot forgive the sin of one who has not repented, who has not been touched by Christ; Christ will not forgive the sin of one who despises the Church. Do not destroy the whole Christ by separating head from body, for Christ is not complete without the Church, nor is the Church complete without Christ. The whole and complete Christ is head and body."

The Church’s moral teaching therefore shapes a believer’s conscience as he or she participates in political life. Both officeholder and voter, if they profess the Catholic faith, evaluate their political choices in the light of that faith. Nevertheless, the faith is not sectarian; it supports moral positions in matters of life and death, war and peace, wealth and poverty that can be come to by people of no faith, positions that rely upon the light of right reason.

Catholic concern for the defense of human life, the safeguarding of global peace, the protection of the poor and similar concerns construct what Catholic moral teaching calls "the common good." It’s a phrase that captures what the preamble to the United States Constitution speaks of when explaining the purpose of the federal union: to "establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare and secure the blessings of liberty."

The U.S. Bishops put out a small booklet every four years on how current political controversies relate to the common good. It is entitled "Faithful Citizenship" and is available on the USCCB Web site (www.usccb.org) or from the Archdiocesan Office for Peace and Justice. Always basic to every other consideration of the common good is the defense of every human life. Pope John Paul II said at the end of his visit to this country 25 years ago: "If a person’s right to life is violated at the moment in which he is first conceived in his mother’s womb, an indirect blow is struck also at the whole moral order which serves to ensure the inviolable goods of man. Among those goods, life occupies the first place." The defense of every human life, no matter how weak or poor it may be, is not just one of a laundry list of moral concerns. It is key to pursuing the common good.

That abortion is intrinsically immoral is clear to many and is clearly taught to all Catholics. Some Catholics would argue, however, that not everything immoral need be illegal and that abortion, while always immoral, is so fundamentally ensconced in our American way of life that any attempt to outlaw it now would destroy social peace. It must therefore be tolerated precisely for the common good.

That argument makes its point, however, only if the one making it is working actively to change attitudes toward abortion with a view of eventually coming to protect in law every unborn child. Because it is hard to see how one can make the argument in good conscience while proclaiming abortion a "right" and vowing to protect it all costs, many Catholics have lost patience with politicians who claim to share their faith while piling up a completely "pro-choice" voting record. The U.S. Bishops last June, bringing once again the question of conscience to participation in political life, said that voting to protect legal abortion is a form of cooperating in the evil of abortion itself.

Do all Catholic politicians understand their obligations in conscience? Apparently not, which means that their pastors have to take the time to speak with them personally. A pastoral conversation about the formation of conscience is not an interference in the political process. It is an exercise in pastoral charity, motivated by a desire for a politician’s salvation. The politician will someday be asked by the Lord: "What did you do to the least of my brothers and sisters?" And the pastor will be asked by the same Lord: "What did you do to warn them? How did you help them form their conscience?" Like Lazarus, the poor man ignored by the rich man until it was too late for the rich man to be saved (Luke 16: 19-31), those killed in their mother’s womb will be at the gates of paradise but unable to come to the assistance of those condemned to hell because they killed unborn children or supported their being killed.

It is easy to become cynical about a political process which lends itself to manipulation on all sides. But God is not mocked. Nor is his Church. Because receiving Holy Communion is a public profession that one holds the Catholic faith, the question of "pro-choice" politicians receiving Communion is disputed these days. Not all the talk is itself free of partisan politics in an election year, nor is this election simply a referendum on abortion; but the objective "disconnect" between professing the faith and voting "pro-choice" creates tension in the community of faith, even at the altar. Only if one is in good faith can one receive Communion, and the judgement on one’s preparedness for receiving the Body of the Lord rests normally with each believer, as it should. If one’s sin is manifest and obstinate, however, the minister of Holy Communion may and sometimes must refuse to give Communion.

Should Catholic "pro-choice" politicians receive Holy Communion? Objectively, no; but subjectively a politician may have convinced himself he is in good conscience. The burden of helping politicians form their consciences falls back upon their pastors. Such a conversation about personal conversion is hard to have in the midst of the pressures of electioneering. As the conversations, both public and private, go on, however, "pro-choice" politicians will inevitably find themselves ever more estranged from their own community of faith. This is tragic, not only for politicians, most of whom went into public service for generous motives, but for the faith community itself.

Should a minister of Holy Communion give a "pro-choice" politician the Body of the Lord? If a voting record is evidence of "manifest and obstinate" sin, no. The objection is raised that voting for abortion isn’t the only political sin, even though abortion and euthanasia are the moral bottom line. Nevertheless, a firm case can be made that refusing Communion, after pastoral counseling and discussion, is a necessary response to the present scandal. Some bishops have made that case. If I haven’t made it in this Archdiocese, it’s primarily because I believe it would turn the reception of Holy Communion into a circus here. Who should be excluded? Is a special list to be published or will the Communion minister make the determination, supposing that a particular politician is even recognized by the minister. Will the media be invited in to watch a confused or disobedient minister give the Eucharist to a politician making a point? What happens next?

The Eucharist is the most priceless gift we have received from the Lord, his very own Body and Blood. Its celebration is our highest, most perfect, from of worship of God. It should be manipulated by no one, for any purpose. Politicians, priests and bishops, every faithful lay man or woman takes his or her very self in hand as they receive Communion. With complete moral seriousness, they unite themselves to the Lord who receives them; and God is not mocked. May the Lord be good to us and give us the courage to participate in political life with consciences truly formed by the faith that comes to us from the apostles. God bless you.

Sincerely yours in Christ,

Francis Cardinal George, OMI

Archbishop of Chicago

Priests for Life
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