This is a question that many Catholics are asking after hearing the recent statement of Bishop Sheridan of Colorado Springs that he would refuse to give commununion to a political candidate whose views are not in line with church teaching against abortion. Archbishop Burke of St. Louis has established a similiar policy, as have two bishops in New Jersey, but these seem to be a minority among the American bishops.
Archbishop Sean O’Malley of Boston said last summer that Catholic politicians who support legal abortion should stop receiving communion by their own choice. But Archbishop O’Malley added that the church does not deny communion to people who come to receive it, presuming that they do so in good faith. Cardinal McCarrick of Washington, D.C. declared that he is personally uncomfortable with the idea of priests or bishops barring public officials from communion.
Cardinal Mahony of Los Angeles, in the May 14 issue of The Tidings, commented that “the church has always been quite cautious about denying anyone the sacraments. And in fact, with respect to the Eucharist, it really is not possible for a priest or bishop to deny someone communion…the presumption is that if someone presents himself for communion, they are doing so with the belief that they are in the state of grace and receiving in good faith the Eucharist. That is the decision the communicant makes, not the person giving communion.”
The Cardinal noted that John Paul II’s 1995 encyclical, “Evangelium Vitae,” encourages Catholics to defend all threats to life, including abortion, euthanasia, and capital punishment. “If one were to begin cataloguing who should or should not go to communion, according to the Holy Father’s list,” bishops would also have to consider political figures who support the death penalty and other threats to life. Cardinal Mahony finally expressed his belief that the only way to reduce and eventually eliminate abortion is to convince people that it is wrong, and that the most effective means to do this is through education, not sanctions.
So much for communion and the pro-choice candidate. But what of the Catholic who votes for a candidate espousing a pro-choice position?
Archbishop Vlazny of Oregon offered these thoughts in the Portland Catholic Sentinel: “If they vote for pro-choice politicians precisely because they are pro-choice, I believe they, too, should refrain from the reception of Holy Communion because they are not in communion with the church on a serious matter. But if they are voting for that particular politician because, in their judgment, other candidates fail significantly in some matters of great importance, for example, war and peace, human rights and economic justice, then there is no evident stance of opposition to church teaching and reception of Holy Communion seems both appropriate and beneficial. Catholics who support pro-choice politicians still have serious responsibilities with regard to their stance on this matter. They must make it very clear to these politicians and governmental leaders that their support is in no way based on the pro-choice advocacy of these political leaders.”
In conclusion, I want to cite Cardinal Mahony’s words regarding the responsibility of bishops in an election year: “We cannot be giving the impression that we are tellng people to vote for this candidate or that candidate. That has never been our role, and if we give the impression that that is what we are doing, then we have failed our people.”