Saturday, April 24, 2004

Archbishop's attack on Kerry harms Catholics

American Archbishop Charles Chaput has been writing about the gap between personal belief and public policy choices of Catholic politicians. Cardinal Arinze, prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments, announced on April 23rd that politicians who support abortion must not go to communion, and priests must refuse them the Sacrament. These pronouncements have been received as effectively withholding the Eucharist from John Kerry and other Catholic politicians who are pro-choice. The reasoning is clear enough; those public figures who advocate positions in their public life that are sinful according to the Catholic Church are themselves in a state of sin that precludes their taking Communion. By the same logic, those who advocate equal rights, or marriage, for gays, those who favor stem cell research, or who advocate any position contrary to the moral teachings of the Holy Apostolic Catholic Church may likewise imperil their immortal souls.

This decision is based upon recent the Papal Instruction, Redemptionis Sacramentum, or "On certain matters to be observed or to be avoided regarding the Most Holy Eucharist", of which Cardinal Arinze was one of the authors, and various interpretations of Canon Law. Certainly, one could hardly imagine greater earthly authority for a position regarding Catholicism than the words of the Pope and Prefect Arinze. There are surely those who are already convinced by the authority of these men to a degree of moral certainty. But using nothing but the words of these men, the Pope, and Canon Law, I hope to convince readers that it is in the interest of the Church to denounce, and, indeed, to despise such practices.

The Catholic Church, built upon the Rock that was Simon, relies upon the words and minds of divinely inspired men to create order here on earth. The Catholic Church is far more than the sum of her human members, of course, for if that were the case, the Church would surely have fallen long ago. The most important member of the Church is her head, Christ the Lord. That dichotomy between infallible divinity, and all too fallible humanity, makes the Church fallible too. History confirms it; the Inquisition, the Crusades, the persecution of Jews in the Middle Ages, the persecution of Galileo for promulgation of Helio-centrism, the denouncement of evolutionary theory, the list is long and painful. This latest incident is another example of error by those within the Church.

To the extent that the Church is a human institution, it makes errors. It is prone to the passions and the prejudices of the people who populate it. But that doesn’t mean that God is wrong. God is connected to humanity through the Church. The Church therefore shares in the nature of both man and God, and the nature of man is fallibility. Discipline requires the faithful to accept the guidance of the Church, but God requires more than that. God requires communion with the believer. This rite of Communion is the very heart of the Church, as expressed by Canon 897:

"The most venerable sacrament is the blessed Eucharist, in which Christ the Lord himself is contained, offered and received, and by which the Church continually lives and grows. The eucharistic Sacrifice, the memorial of the death and resurrection of the Lord, in which the Sacrifice of the cross is forever perpetuated, is the summit and the source of all worship and Christian life. By means of it the unity of God's people is signified and brought about, and the building up of the body of Christ is perfected. The other sacraments and all the apostolic works of Christ are bound up with, and directed to, the blessed Eucharist."


The Church, in its role as intermediary between God and man, sometimes must refuse to be the conduit of the divine Communion because of the state of the believer’s soul. This is the gravest act the Church can take to discipline the faithful, and it is not a power to be used lightly. Canons 915 and 916 explain the circumstances under which the Church must take such a step:

Can. 915 "Those upon whom the penalty of excommunication or interdict has been imposed or declared, and others who obstinately persist in manifest grave sin, are not to be admitted to holy communion."


Can. 916 "Anyone who is conscious of grave sin may not celebrate Mass or receive the Body of the Lord without previously having been to sacramental confession, unless there is a grave reason and there is no opportunity to confess; in this case the person is to remember the obligation to make an act of perfect contrition, which includes the resolve to go to confession as soon as possible."


Canon law suggests that in order for Communion to be withheld from politicians who advocate against legal bans on actions that constitute sins in the eyes of the Church, they must either be obstinately persisting in grave sin, or they must be conscious of grave sin in themselves that they have failed to confess or Communion could not be withheld.

I could certainly contest the idea that public advocacy of any position in itself is a grave sin, but I will accept as legitimate the idea of advocacy as sin for the sake of disputation. The Pope’s latest Instruction of the matter, Redemptionis Sacramentum, upon which those who advocate withholding communion from John Kerry and others base their assertions, clearly indicates that 916 is the source of concern in Chapter IV, (1)(81):

"The Church’s custom shows that it is necessary for each person to examine himself at depth, and that anyone who is conscious of grave sin should not celebrate or receive the Body of the Lord without prior sacramental confession, except for grave reason when the possibility of confession is lacking; in this case he will remember that he is bound by the obligation of making an act of perfect contrition, which includes the intention to confess as soon as possible."


This means that if confession or contrition were performed before the Communion, there would be no reason to withhold Communion under Church law. But is it acceptable to force John Kerry and other like him to confess to a sin for their advocacy, even under the seal of confession, in order to partake in the deepest ceremony of their religion? Are political advocacy or active tolerance of an activity that the Church considers sin so incompatible with fiath in the Church’s doctrine as to effectively excommunicate him from his Church and cut him off from the society of his deity? The very same Papal Instruction suggests an answer in Chapter III (4)(78):

"It is not permissible to link the celebration of Mass to political or secular events, nor to situations that are not fully consistent with the Magisterium of the Catholic Church. Furthermore, it is altogether to be avoided that the celebration of Mass should be carried out merely out of a desire for show, or in the manner of other ceremonies including profane ones, lest the Eucharist should be emptied of its authentic meaning."


The language of this instruction has the purpose to avoid making the Eucharist a political spectacle, a photo op, or the subject of scandal, but isn’t that exactly what denying high-profile public officials Communion based on their beliefs does? It cheapens the touch of the divine, and turns it into mere red meat for the attack dogs of the political arena. Denying Communion specifically to politicians or public figures, but not denying it to all Catholics who believe in and advocate sins, unavoidably, and perhaps purposefully, turns Communion into a political football. It is divisive, crassly political, and it violates the spirit of the Pope’s own Instruction.

Vatican II, specifically the Dignitatis Humanae, many Catholics will know, told Catholics to be loyal to their own conscience. The Council encouraged Catholics to listen to their own souls, wherein they are alone with God, when deciding matters of morality. A man following the deepest dictates of his conscience should not be condemned for exercising one of God's gifts to man - moral choice. Archbishop Chaput defends his politically charged pronouncements on behalf of the Church in his weekly column, saying,

"Vatican II can never be invoked as an alibi for Catholics ignoring grave public evil or failing to act on their faith in the political sphere. That's a distortion of the council's message. It also misreads the U.S. Constitution. America's Founding Fathers did not say, and never intended, that religious faith should be excluded from civic debate. They intended one thing only: to prevent the establishment of an official state church. A purely secular interpretation of the "separation of church and state" would actually result in the "separation of state and morality." And that would be a catastrophe for real pluralism and the democratic process."


The Archbishop is correct that that Vatican II mustn't be read as an albi for ignoring evil is society, such as the Holocaust; ensuring the Church would never again be complicit in such an atrocity was the purpose of Vatican II. But that does not justify Church divines use ecclesiastical powers to condemn political figures who disagree with Church doctrine. The point of Vatican II is not to thrust the Church into the midst of every policy debate which concerns an issue of theology, but to prevent the moral paralysis of the Church when grave evil threatens society. The Church must speak against the evil and contest the morality of policy; but that does not include attacking particular politicians on the basis of thier faith and beliefs.

I actually find the remainder of what the Archbishop says to be completely unobjectionable, but for one word. I would insist that "the separation of church and state" be replaced with "the separation of God and state". His statement then makes sense, but the change makes the whole argument fail. The Catholic Church is not the sole source of morality in the world, and his statement assumes it is. He claims that without using the moral authority of the Catholic Church to punish sinners in the public sphere, that morality will disappear from the State. Such a view is intolerantly sectarian, insulting to every other great religious, moral, and philosophical tradition, and is the same totalizing rationale under which religious regimes such as the Taliban and the Mullahs of Iran operate.

I haven’t any problem with churches participating in civic debate; I encourage and celebrate it. But using the power to withold God from a politician’s soul because you don’t like his policies is not debate; it is coersion. Worse, it is likely to reverse all the gains which Catholics have made in public life over the past 40 years. It was once feared that a Catholic in a position of authority would acceede to the Pope’s authority over that of the Constitutional order. It is this fear exactly that the Cardinal and Archbishop seek to bring to fruition. It is a thin edge of the wedge of churches seeking to directly control politicians and the political process.

Some Conservatives claim that allowing every church into governmental affairs is acceptable to the first amendment, as it does not establish an official church. Wrong. Given opportunity, the strongest church will eagerly establish itself as the official one without any assistance. I reject injecting the doctrines of any church into the affairs of the State. Every man is welcome to let his God guide his conscience and his work in service to the public, but no man is welcome to impose his church’s view on the public and call it a mandate from God. The Archbishop and others who seek to use their religion as a weapon against their political foes should be rejected sharply by Catholics everywhere. They are a danger to our political process, a danger to Catholics seeking to participate in public affairs, and a danger to the mission of the Church itself.

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