ROME — Each bishop must decide whether to allow pro-abortion politicians to receive Holy Communion rather than the U.S. Bishops’ Conference (USCCB), Jesuit Cardinal Michael Czerny said Thursday.
In the midst of debate over a common U.S. policy regarding Communion for President Joe Biden, a Catholic who has actively sought to expand abortion rights and funding, Cardinal Czerny told Religion News Service (RNS) that the USCCB is not the body to make that ruling.
“It’s not up to bishops in general to make these decisions, it’s the bishop of the person,” said Czerny, the undersecretary of the Vatican’s office for Migrants and Refugees.
In situations “where the government is claiming that it has the church’s support for some measure that we really can’t accept at all, that would be an example where the bishop would have to stand up,” the cardinal said, “but it’s up to the bishop.”
Joe Biden’s presidency has thrust into the limelight the issue of Holy Communion for pro-abortion Catholics in public office, a debate that last raged with such fierceness in 2004 when John Kerry — a professed Catholic but also a supporter of abortion rights — was running for president.
On April 23, 2004, Bishop Wilton Gregory, who was president of the USCCB at the time, announced the formation of a “Task Force on Catholic Bishops and Catholic Politicians” and named Cardinal Theodore McCarrick to head up the team. McCarrick, who was opposed to refusing Communion to pro-abortion politicians, deftly moved the discussion in that direction.
As a 2004 article in the Christian Century noted, although Vatican Cardinal Francis Arinze had stated that Catholic teaching is clear about denying communion to a politician who supports abortion rights, “two key U.S. bishops say withholding the sacrament from a dissenting Catholic like Massachusetts Senator John Kerry is not a likely option.”
Those two bishops were Wilton Gregory, now the cardinal archbishop of Washington D.C., and Theodore McCarrick, who held the same post from 2001 to 2006.
An article in the Washington Post observed that in late April 2004 Sen. John Kerry had had a 45-minute private meeting with Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, despite the fact that McCarrick was not his own bishop. The Post said the reason for the meeting was that “McCarrick heads the task force on Catholic participation in public life established by the U.S. bishops.”
“About to become the first Catholic since John F. Kennedy to be nominated for president, Kerry was lobbying McCarrick against being denied Holy Communion as an unwavering pro-choice abortion advocate,” the Post article declared.
“Whether his lobbying helped, Kerry likely could not have been more pleased by the interview McCarrick published,” the article added, in which McCarrick downplayed the importance of abortion, noting it was one of many issues to be weighed in the balance.
In an address on June 15, 2004, McCarrick told his brother bishops that “based on the traditional practice of the Church and our consultation with members of our conference, other episcopal conferences, distinguished canonists and theologians, our Task Force does not advocate the denial of Communion for Catholic politicians or Catholic voters in these circumstances.”
For his part, Gregory agreed fully with McCarrick’s position, insisting that denying Communion to a politician who supports legalized abortion must be the last resort.
“In the nature of the church, the imposition of sanctions is always the final response, not the first response, nor the second nor maybe even the 10th,” said Gregory, who was then the bishop of Belleville, Ill.
The Vatican, however, did not agree.
A serious problem emerged that summer, when the prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, issued specific instructions regarding when to withhold Communion, instructions that McCarrick intentionally misrepresented to the bishops.
In a letter sent to then-Cardinal McCarrick and then-Bishop Gregory in early June, 2004, Cardinal Ratzinger said that regarding the grave sin of abortion or euthanasia,
when a person’s formal cooperation becomes manifest (understood, in the case of a Catholic politician, as his consistently campaigning and voting for permissive abortion and euthanasia laws), his Pastor should meet with him, instructing him about the Church’s teaching, informing him that he is not to present himself for Holy Communion until he brings to an end the objective situation of sin, and warning him that he will otherwise be denied the Eucharist.
“When these precautionary measures have not had their effect or in which they were not possible, and the person in question, with obstinate persistence, still presents himself to receive the Holy Eucharist, the minister of Holy Communion must refuse to distribute it,” Ratzinger wrote (emphasis added).
This decision, properly speaking, “is not a sanction or a penalty,” Ratzinger added. “Nor is the minister of Holy Communion passing judgement on the person’s subjective guilt, but rather is reacting to the person’s public unworthiness to receive Holy Communion due to an objective situation of sin.”
When McCarrick presented to the body of U.S. bishops a summary of Cardinal Ratzinger’s instructions, which were known in full only to McCarrick and Gregory, he correctly observed that “Cardinal Ratzinger speaks about WHAT constitutes ‘manifest grave sin’ and ‘obstinate persistence’ in public life, stating that consistently campaigning for and voting for permissive laws on abortion and euthanasia could meet these criteria.”
McCarrick then told the bishops something that was manifestly untrue.
“I would emphasize that Cardinal Ratzinger clearly leaves to us as teachers, pastors and leaders WHETHER to pursue this path,” McCarrick said.
“The question for us is not simply whether denial of Communion is possible, but whether it is pastorally wise and prudent,” he said. “It is not surprising that difficult and differing circumstances on these matters can lead to different practices. Every bishop is acting in accord with his own understanding of his duties and the law.”
In point of fact, Ratzinger did not state that in these cases Communion could be denied, but rather that “the minister of Holy Communion must refuse to distribute it” (emphasis added).
Bishop Gregory, who was present at the meeting, was the only other person in the room who knew that McCarrick was misrepresenting what Ratzinger had said, leading one commentator at the time to query: “Is it possible that after so much scandal and hurt in the Catholic Church, Bishop Wilton Gregory and Cardinal Theodore McCarrick would withhold and distort an important memo written by the head of the Vatican’s second most important dicastery of the Roman Curia?”
Last fall, Wilton Gregory, now McCarrick’s successor as the archbishop of Washington, has confirmed his intentions to continue following the McCarrick Doctrine with regard to Holy Communion for pro-abortion Catholic politicians such as Joe Biden, saying he will not “veer” from prior practice in the archdiocese.
“The kind of relationship that I hope we will have is a conversational relationship where we can discover areas where we can cooperate that reflect the social teachings of the church, knowing full well that there are some areas where we won’t agree,” Gregory said.