As you read today’s column, you may be tempted to say, have we not been down this road many, many times? The answer is yes, we have. But since the question continues to be raised of how bishops should respond to Catholics in public life who support abortion legislation, I thought it would be helpful once again to highlight a number of issues for the record. All of these points have been addressed before by me, and collectively by the bishops of the United States.
The first is the Church’s position on abortion. In my column in the Catholic Standard this past Nov. 15, 2007, I reminded all of us that, "The teaching is clear. Abortion and support for abortion are wrong. No informed Catholic can claim that either action is free of moral implications, and certainly no one should be led to believe, because of someone else’s voting record, that this teaching about abortion is uncertain.
"All of us have an obligation to be informed on how critical the life-death issue of abortion is, and how profoundly and intrinsically evil is the destruction of unborn human life. Our political actions, out of which come the laws of this country, must be based on the natural moral law and on the most basic of all human rights, the right to life."
As a priest, and as a bishop for more than 22 years, I have taught with persistence and insistence, as have priests and bishops nationwide, that abortion is an intrinsic evil. One of the more visible efforts locally is the annual Mass and Rally for Life that the Archdiocese of Washington sponsors at the Verizon Center every January. This year more than 25,000 young people from around the country, both at the Verizon Center and at events at neighboring churches, were encouraged and affirmed in their efforts to promote the dignity of all human life.
An altogether different yet related issue is how to respond to those in public office who support abortion legislation. In June 2004, the bishops of the United States issued a statement entitled "Catholics in Political Life" in which they addressed the question of whether Holy Communion should be denied to some Catholics in political life because of their support for abortion on demand. The bishops concluded that the responsibility to assess this situation within a bishop’s own diocese [I looked up the address of Nationals Stadium. It seems to be in Washington, DC.] and the proper application of canon law clearly rests with the individual bishop. Bishops may arrive at different conclusions based on their local situations.
The bishops’ statement says, "Given the wide range of circumstances involved in arriving at a prudential judgment on a matter of this seriousness, we recognize that such decisions rest with the individual bishop in accord with the established canonical and pastoral principles. Bishops can legitimately make different judgments on the most prudent course of pastoral action. Nevertheless, we all share an unequivocal commitment to protect human life and dignity and to preach the Gospel in difficult times."
In 2004, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, wrote a letter affirming the conformity of the bishops’ position with that of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in which he stated that, "The statement ["Catholics in Political Life"] is very much in harmony with the general principles ‘Worthiness to Receive Holy Communion’ sent as a fraternal service to clarify the doctrine of the Church on this specific issue in order to assist the American bishops in their related discussion and determinations." (Letter dated July 9, 2004 and made public on July 12, 2004 by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops) [What I would ask at this point is, does the statement of the USCCB reflect the actual text of the letter sent by Card. Ratzinger? Your might remember that the text of the letter was somewhat fudged when presented to the bishops.]
A critical role of the bishops is to teach, to try to persuade and convince others of the truth of the Church’s teaching and the implications of that teaching in their lives and to encourage Catholics to live out their faith. The bishops of the United States addressed their role in the formation of conscience, the obligation of Catholics to follow the Church’s teaching and the challenge of living out our Catholic faith in the world of political choices in the November 2007 document Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship. This document is available online at www.usccb.org.
A decision regarding the refusal of Holy Communion to an individual is one that should be made only after clear efforts to persuade and convince the person that their actions are wrong and bear moral consequences. Presumably this is done in the home diocese where the bishops and priests, the pastors of souls, engage the members of their flock in this type of discussion. In the case of public figures who serve in Washington as representatives of other parts of the nation, this dialogue and any decisions would take place within their home diocese. [I believe canon law suggests that these people have some level of domicile in the Archdiocese of Washington, or nearby Arlington, etc.]
I have always respected the role of the local Church and the ministry of the individual bishop as shepherd of the Church entrusted to his care. For that reason, I have not accepted the suggestions that the Archdiocese of Washington or episcopal conferences have some particular role that supersedes the authority of an individual bishop in his particular Church. [Who is suggesting that taking a stand on this issue somehow violates the authority of a bishop of another diocese?]
While this issue will continue to be raised, it is important to recognize that in this archdiocese the teaching on the evil of abortion will continue to be an important part of our ministry as will the effort to convince and persuade others to accept that teaching.
Just as Catholic voters are not asked to leave aside the most deeply held moral convictions of our faith when they enter a voting booth, so Catholic elected officials are not asked to deposit the moral and ethical convictions of the Church at the door of Congress or at the State Assembly where they serve. [A good way to put it. I would make it a little stronger and say "Catholic voters must not leave aside… Catholic elected officials must not deposit the convictions of the Church…" ]
Our task as pastors of souls is to help form consciences so that out of a rightly formed conscience Catholics will carry out their responsibilities in daily life. As Pope Benedict XVI just recently encouraged us, "The one who has hope lives differently." (Spe salvi 2)