Wednesday, April 28, 2004

News and Views

Politics, Excommunication, and the Separation of Church and State

A recent MSNBC poll asks the question, “Should the Catholic Church refuse sacraments to pro-abortion politicians?” As this is being written, the results of this “unscientific” poll show that 41% of those responding say, “Yes,” 52% say, “No,” and 7% have replied, “I don’t know.”

The issue has arisen to the attention of the major media in this country because it has a direct bearing on the presidential election this year. Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, the presumed nominee of the Democratic Party, is a self-proclaimed “practicing Catholic” (a statement with which I take no issue); and also a supporter of a woman’s “right” to an abortion. This position is directly contrary to his church’s position on the question of the morality of abortion. The Roman Catholic Church, as does the Orthodox Church, considers the aborting of an unborn child to be a deliberate and intentional taking of a human life – something we usually call, “murder.”

According to an article at, the issue of Kerry’s potential excommunication was raised by Raymond Burke, the Catholic Archbishop of St. Louis. Burke said that Kerry should not be given communion while campaigning in his diocese, because of Kerry’s pro-abortion position. The article continues by noting that Cardinal Francis Arinze, the Vatican’s “Prefect of Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments,” speaking at a news conference, responded to questions about what should happen with regard to communing “an unambiguously pro-abortion politician” by saying that such a politician “is not fit,” and that, “If they should not receive, it should not be given.” When pushed to make a statement specifically addressing Sen. Kerry, Cardinal Arinze replied, “The norm of the church is clear. The Catholic Church exists in the United States and there are bishops there. Let them interpret it.”

The article, noting that Catholics, with 65 million people, constitute about 25% of eligible voters, then asks the question, “How can the separation of church and state be maintained when politicians are forced to choose between religion and government?” Having raised the specter of the Pope controlling the President of the United States, the article also asks, “Do the bishops really want to unleash a civil war of opinion among their believers, in a country that was built on the freedom to choose its means of worship? Or will they find it wiser (and safer) to remember that the ultimate judge of moral behavior for Catholics has always been the conscience of the individual?” (The last sentence of the article actually ended with a period. Ever the editor, I fixed it…)

Once upon a time, we thought that it was a good thing for the people who govern us to have a moral direction to follow. Even when we did not always agree with the specifics of their moral imperative, we could, at least, count on them following their beliefs; and so we could have an idea of what direction our leaders were likely to try to go. Looks as if this has changed; and not for the better.

Have people, such as Stephen Weeke, NBC Bureau Chief in Rome, under whose byline the above-referenced article runs, really lost track of the argument for the separation of church and state made by the founding fathers? The first clause of the first amendment to the U.S. Constitution states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Last time I read it, there was nothing in the Constitution that limited the ability of a church authority to discipline a member when that person departs from the standards established by that church. There is no “exemption” clause for politicians!

Would it be too extreme for me to say that, from where I am, it seems as if the folks at NBC are concerned because the Roman Catholic Church is attempting to influence the election of an American President? Let me suggest that what is actually happening here is a genuine concern for the salvation, and ultimate fate in eternity, of the soul of John F. Kerry, and others who attempt to influence others to support positions contrary to what the Roman Catholic Church has declared to be moral and ethical. Is there something wrong with a bishop or a priest saying to an unrepentant sinner, “I’m sorry, but if you receive the Body and Blood of Christ without repenting of your sin, you receive to your condemnation – and I cannot aid and abet you in that?” Is there something wrong with a Church saying that a particular action is morally unacceptable; and that those who engage in that action, or support others in doing so, have sinned? I’m not suggesting that a church should say, “Vote for this candidate,” or, “Don’t vote for that candidate.” But that’s not the same as saying, “Abortion is wrong; and those who support it are not ‘members in good standing’ in this body – and so cannot partake of the Mysteries.”

What do you think? Should the Church make known what is acceptable, and what is not? And is this trying to influence an election?