On his recent trip to Brazil, a reporter asked Pope Benedict XVI a question that actually dealt with the Church’s spiritual role in making clear her teaching and guiding the faithful. The reporter questioned a warning given by bishops in Mexico to politicians who support abortion. The Pope gave an answer that upset some people. He said that supporting “the killing of an innocent child is incompatible with receiving communion, which is receiving the body of Christ." And he referred to Church law that allows for excommunication.
The reaction was immediate. How could the Pope be so strong? How dare he say that there are some truths that the Church teaches definitively? How dare he say there are objective criteria by which a Catholic forms his or her conscience? How dare he even suggest that someone may not be worthy to approach Holy Communion?
During the last presidential election campaign, much controversy surrounded the Catholic Church’s teaching on abortion. Not that the Church has not been clear. Anything but! The Church vigorously teaches that “Human life must be respected and protected absolutely from the moment of conception. From the first moment of his existence, a human being must be recognized as having the rights of a person—among which is the inviolable right of every innocent being to life” (CCC, 2270).
The Church has always taught that a procured abortion is a moral evil. Abortion is murder. Abortion is the barbarous killing of the innocent child in the womb of the mother. A woman has the privilege to be a mother. She does not have the right to take the life of her innocent child. The Church’s teaching is clear. What is disputed now is the Church’s right to speak this truth.
In response to the Holy Father’s recent statement on his trip to Brazil, 18 of the 88 Catholic Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives were quick to defend their political position. They spoke out against the Holy Father on May 10. They strongly chastised the Pope. They said his words “offend the very nature of the American experiment and do a great disservice to the centuries of good work the church has done.”
Their position was clear. It would be totally un-American to deny Holy Communion to Catholic politicians who support legalized abortion. The 18 Democratic politicians said, "The fact is that religious sanction in the political arena directly conflicts with our fundamental beliefs about the role and responsibility of democratic representatives in a pluralistic America--it also clashes with freedoms guaranteed in our Constitution."
In no way did the Pope’s statement offend American pluralism. In a pluralistic society, people disagree. It is arrogant to insist that the Church does not have the right to her own teaching. Certainly, a politician has the freedom to reject Church’s teaching. But let’s be honest. To choose to be pro-choice is to reject the Gospel of life. It is to be not faithful to Church teaching.
The Church teaches that the right to life is fundamental. Without life, there are no other rights. To support abortion is a grave moral evil. Why would a Catholic be surprised when the Pope says that anyone who freely and knowingly commits a serious wrong, that is, a mortal sin, should not approach the Eucharist until going to Confession? The Eucharist is the summit and source of the Church’s life. The Church guides the faithful in the correct formation of their conscience. She offers both the objective norms of morality and the norms for worthy reception of the Eucharist.
In his response to the reporter’s question, the Pope was not placing religious sanctions in the political arena, as these politicians stated. He was teaching religious doctrine in a religious context, that is, the worthiness to receive the Eucharist, the Body of Christ, who is the Lord of life. He is right when he insists that supporting abortion is incompatible with the reception of Holy Communion.
In recent guidelines provided by the bishops of the United States to help Catholics to prepare for the worthy reception of Holy Communion, the bishops said, “If a Catholic in his or her personal or professional life were knowingly and obstinately to reject the defined doctrines of the Church, or knowingly and obstinately to repudiate her definitive teaching on moral issues, however, he or she would seriously diminish his or her Communion with the Church. Reception of Holy Communion in such a situation would not accord with the nature of the Eucharistic celebration, so that he or she should refrain” (Happy Are Those Who Are Called to His Supper, 4). By steadfastly choosing to be pro-choice, a Catholic -- politician or not -- excludes himself or herself from communion.
Today not only is the taking of so many innocent lives alarming, but no less unsettling is the darkening of conscience among so many who find “it increasingly difficult to distinguish between good and evil in what concerns the basic value of human life” (Evangelium Vitae, 4).
Why should the Church not have a right to voice her teaching on this important issue in the public square? She must speak and speak often. Abortion may be for some just a political issue. But, for the innocent child, it is a matter of life or death.
Ultimately, the statement of the 18 politicians who publicly blasted the Holy Father is simply a refusal to allow the Pope freedom of speech and the Church freedom of religion. Now how American is that?