PODCAzT 54: Pro-Abortion Politicians and Communion; St. Ambrose and Emperor Theodosius

The apostolic visit of Pope Benedict XVI sparked off more debate about what bishops ought to do in the face of self-professed Catholic politicians who in a public manner act and speak contrary to the Church’s teachings and practices.  Should they be permitted to receive Holy Communion?  Clearly, in most circumstances, the answer is "no", and they should be so instructed.

This came to the fore when certain famously pro-abortion Catholic politicians received Holy Communion at Pope Benedict’s Masses in Washington D.C. and New York City.  They received and subsequently the bishops of Washington and New York remained publicly silent, though they may have acted privately.  The silence, however, drove Robert D. Novak to write a piece in the Washington Post taking Archbp. Wuerl and Card. Egan to task. 

Subsequently, Card. Egan, the same day as Novak’s op-ed appeared, issued a very good press release.

We hear Novak’s article and Card. Egan’s press release and my comments.

The blogosphere was full of discussion of these controversial events, and WDTPRS also also involved.

However, one commenter raised the memory of how St. Ambrose of Milan (+397) "faced down", as it were, the Emperor Theodosius and denied him Holy Communion until he should do public penance. 

So, we drill into the question of whether that famous scene is an apt parallel for today’s controversy about bishops and pro-abortion politicians.  To help we we enlist an ancient biographer of St. Ambrose, Paulinus of Milan, as well as two modern book, Boniface Ramsey’s Ambrose, and JHWG Liebeschuetz’s Ambrose of Milan: Political Letters and Speeches.

Also, I have a question via my voicemail from a reader/listener about the color of cassocks worn by servers at Papal Masses.



About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. Guy Power says:


    Thank you for a very informative lecture! By the way, I’ve never heard “New York New York” sung in German! I wonder, though, if they shouldn’t have said Neu York Neu York instead? :^D


  2. Jordanes says:

    Well, I didn’t expect my comment would prompt you to look into the story of St. Ambrose and Theodosius like that. I’m glad that, even though the episode to which I referred had been dramatically embellished over the centuries, still you agree that there are important parallels and lessons to be drawn for our situation today. St. Ambrose’s public stature and relationship with the emperor are also important aspects to consider, as it no doubt helps to explain why he, rather than any other bishop, was the one to confront Theodosius — even if the confrontation wasn’t anywhere as dramatic (let alone as confrontational) as I’d heard. (It’s a pity, as I rather like the dramatic embellished version of the episode — much as a Hollywoodised Life of St. Ambrose might tell the tale. Whether or not there was ever a confrontation on the steps of Milan’s cathedral, though, and whether or not Theodosius was ever barred from entering churches until he’d completed his penance, I think it was the general discipline in the ancient church that excommunicates would not be allowed to enter a church.)

    Anyway, since you delved into Paulinus of Milan and recent historians, I thought I’d do some of my own looking. It seems the dramatic version is found in (where else?) the Legenda Aurea‘s life of St. Ambrose. In The Golden Legend, the greatly embellished story is told at some length, with Theodosius being turned away at the church door and St. Ambrose really giving Theodosius what for. The emperor withdraws “groaning and weeping,” and then Rufinus, commander of the army, tries to intercede with St. Amrbose on the emperor’s behalf — but he just gives Rufinus more of the same rebuke he’d given Theodosius. Finally Theodosius comes to St. Ambrose so eh can “shame me to my face as I deserve!” Then comes the part where Theodosius mentions David’s sin, and Ambrose says, “You have followed him in sin, follow him in repentance.” So the emperor does his penance and is readmitted to Communion and again allowed to enter the church.

    The Golden Legend includes a follow-up incident, though. After being allowed to enter the church again, the emperor “stood inside the gates of the chancel,” a space reserved for priests. St. Ambrose tells him, “The purple makes emperors, not priests,” and Theodosius humbly leaves the chancel. Back in Constantinople, however, the bishop invited him to stand inside the chancel, but he declined, saying, “It was hard for me to learn the distinction between emperor and priest, and it took time to find someone to teach me the truth. Now Ambrose is the only one I would call bishop.” The story is perhaps a didactic fable illustrating the importance of the distinction between the ecclesiastical and secular realms and showing the error of Caesaropapism.

    I apologise for the length of this comment, but I can really get long-winded once I get started on these kinds of subjects . . . .

  3. Jordanes says:

    Whoops — the WaPo column was by Robert Novak (as you say in the podcast), not Michael Novak.

  4. Kieran says:

    Yes the Irish College have got the best green cassocks, white birettas and orange sashes in Rome ;)
    No, I’m afraid not just black cassock with red piping and no cincture. .
    This link has all the choir dress of the colleges.

  5. ALL: I went back and increased the volume on a few of the original audio clips that made up the PODCAzT.

  6. Francesco says:

    Thanks for another amazing podcazt! I enjoyed this one very much, especially your in-depth treatment of Ambrose and the Emperor.

    I have a question on a related matter. In this article on this topic (here’s the link: http://chiesa.espresso.repubblica.it/articolo/200122?eng=y) Sandro Magistro writes that

    “In Europe and in Italy, such questions are not even raised. The fact that ‘pro-choice’ politicians should receive communion does not raise any particular reactions. Their decision is left to their personal conscience.”

    Is this the official policy of the bishops in Europe and Italy? Do Catholics there really not care if a pro-abortion politician receives Communion? It seems to me to be incredible given the Holy Father’s teaching on the matter, especially his 2004 note. I didn’t know it applied only to the U.S.

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