Catholic bishops: Say yes when you mean yes

Commentary by Judie Brown

Having been frequently described by my fellow pro-lifers as lacking all understanding of political nuances and innuendo, you will pardon me for being overly simplistic in what I am about to tell you. But truth be told, my mind is spinning and my heart is troubled over the recent action of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops regarding reception of Holy Communion by Catholics in the public arena who support abortion.

For several years we at American Life League have pleaded with our bishops to lead their sheep out of the quagmire that has led to more than 50 percent of Catholics feeling (and perhaps honestly believing) that they can support abortion and abortion-minded public officials and still remain good, upstanding Catholics. When I use the statistic, which is borne out in many surveys, the first thing people say to me is: “What kind of Catholics are these? Maybe they never go to Mass; maybe they were baptized and never actually practiced their faith; maybe you should check out the numbers.”

My response is always the same. Regardless of what kind of Catholic we are discussing, the mere fact that any Catholic would think he or she can support the act of murdering a preborn child while still claiming to be a “good Catholic” should concern us. At the end of the day, it is souls we are working to save, educating to save and praying to save. Every kind of Catholic is a human being worthy of our effort. Every kind of Catholic has the right to hear the truth, to be aware of the truth and to act on it. And since that is the case, aren’t all these kinds of Catholics deserving of leadership that inspires, motivates and compels?

Each of us faces moral choices every day. We are aware that every choice we make can either be a good one or a bad one. Every person has a free will; but if a person is confused about the difference between good and bad or right and wrong because of what they see around them, then who is to blame for the bad choices they make? For example, if Catholics see a pro-abortion senator such as John Kerry or a pro-abortion talk show host such as Chris Matthews receive the body and blood of Christ in Holy Communion, what kind of message are they getting? Could they be thinking, “It must be OK to support abortion because they are receiving Holy Communion just like me?”

If the people in the pew are thinking that, scandal is created, and potentially souls are at risk. Now maybe that doesn’t bother you, but it deeply troubles me. And that is why the recent news from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops blew me away. Who would have ever guessed that the bishops would come out of their meeting without a unanimous agreement on how to instruct the faithful, and how to enforce Canon 915 of the Catholic Church’s Code of Canon Law?

No, that is not exactly what the news reports said, but that is in fact what the bishops decided. The Code of Canon Law is a voluminous set of laws that govern a wide variety of subjects in the Catholic Church. One of the books of Canon Law is devoted to the sacraments and how they are to be administered. It is in that volume that we find Canon 915, which states:


Those … who obstinately persist in manifest grave sin are not to be admitted to communion.


This applies not only to elected officials but to any Catholic in public life who is using his influence to mislead people by suggesting that there is nothing wrong with abortion and there is nothing wrong with dissenting from Church teaching on abortion. This canon should be the basis upon which each bishop gives instructions to his priests, deacons and extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion regarding who in public life will be refused the body and blood of Christ in the Eucharist.

This is the basis for what should have come from the USCCB: a unanimous declaration by the American bishops that each and every one of them will enforce Canon 915 … period!

Now let it be clearly understood that before any bishop would hand down such an instruction, he would — with charity and love — do everything he could to privately convince the public figure to cease support for the crime of abortion. But should those persistent efforts fail, as Bishop Thomas Olmstead of Phoenix made perfectly clear, “then I think the priest or deacon should not give them Communion in that case. But we should try to make the efforts beforehand to be in conversation with them.”

Indeed that is the Christian approach, borne out by scripture. To my mind this is not debatable, nor should it be. St. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians (11:27-29) makes it perfectly clear: “Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord… For any one who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself.”

These are the words that should inspire every bishop, every priest, every deacon and every extraordinary minister of Holy Communion. To give the sacrament of Holy Communion to someone is to give Christ Himself who is truly present in the sacrament. And to give Christ to someone who you know is publicly advocating the direct killing of innocent little children in the womb is to create sacrilege. That is a fact. It is a fact known to every single bishop of the Catholic Church.

The entire reason for the existence of Canon 915 is to protect Christ from sacrilege, and in the process to help those who are obstinately persisting in manifest grave sin to see the error of their ways and hopefully repent.

As hard as it is for me to believe, I suppose one could say that bishops don’t all see it that way, and so a pragmatic decision had to be made that would placate the entire group and create consensus. But if that is the case, then I have to ask what could be so terribly divisive about a united effort to protect Christ from sacrilege? Such unity would surely not be based on political agendas or partisan politics, would it? Such a unified manifestation of respect for Christ in the Eucharist could not possibly be a cause of unrest among the people or negativity among the media, could it?

Sadly, I think the answer to all three hypothetical questions is yes. The few bishops who have stood up and publicly enunciated a clear teaching on Canon 915 have been the butt of derision both inside and outside the USCCB. In fact, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick’s parting shot at the end of the bishops’ most recent meeting was to suggest that some of his fellow bishops were delving into “partisan politics.” And one newspaper in St. Louis, where the heroic Archbishop Raymond Burke leads his flock without apology, described the archbishop as a man whose strategy was “High Noon at the altar rail.”

We are indeed living in troubling times. For as one of Archbishop Burke’s faithful wrote in a letter to the editor of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, upon reading the verbal assault on His Excellency, “I think he educated everyone on the issues including politicians. If people choose to ignore him, did he fail? No, because each individual is responsible for his or her actions. His job is to teach us. Our responsibility is to accept it if we want to be Catholic in a state of grace and ready to receive Our Lord through the Sacrament of Holy Communion.”

Which makes my point: Archbishop Burke said yes to Christ, yes to his obligation to teach, yes to his flock whose souls mean more to him than anything a newspaper might say in attacking him. Likewise, a handful of other bishops have taken the same stand. Unfortunately, those shepherds are an embarrassingly small minority.

What about all the rest of the bishops? I guess only time will tell; it just sorrows me that so many souls may be lost forever while so many bishops continue to meet, greet and retreat.

Release issued: 23 Jun 06