There had been a little off track betting going on among pro-life Catholics (a tautology, for sure) as to whether or not Vice President Joe Biden and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi would receive Holy Communion at the Mass of Installation for Pope Francis, in Rome on Tuesday. The yeas far out-polled they nays and the yeas proved to be right. It was really a no-brainer!
Biden and Pelosi and other pro-choice politicians have been thumbing their noses at church teaching for many years now. Even though it has been repeated ad infinitum that their behavior is contrary to the Catholic teaching regarding the sanctity of human life from conception to natural death, they have continually presented themselves at the altar rail. They have never been denied the sacrament.
Some bishops have personally advised them not to receive Communion, since their public stand aids and abets a heinous crime.
These warnings are, however, deemed pastoral and have no teeth. There is no unanimity among the bishops as to their imposition and whether or not an offending politician can be denied the sacrament if he or she presents themselves for Communion.
The timidity of the bishops stems from the lack of agreement as to how Canon 915 is to be interpreted and used. The canon states, Those who are excommunicated or interdicted after the imposition or declaration of the penalty and others who obstinately persist in manifest grave sin are not to be admitted to Holy Communion.
This becomes problematic for two reasons: first, because many bishops are loathe to accuse politicians of grave sin; and second, because excommunication is a formal juridical act which effectively cuts off the offender from the sacramental life of the church. It also means the denial of a Catholic funeral. Since there is no direct mandate from the Vatican, most bishops don't want to take the risk of not being supported in their decision.
No doubt, there would also be a strong public outcry protesting freedom of conscience and the obligation of politicians to represent their constituents. Of course, there will also be references to the Mario Cuomo mantra, "I am personally opposed to abortion but ..." given at Notre Dame, in 1984, in which he cleverly tried to separate religious belief and public morality.
This speech was condemned by Cardinal John O'Connor, since it violated traditional Catholic teaching on the importance of public officials to form their consciences in light of the church's moral teachings and the obligation to enact legislation in accord with it. Cuomo, however, was never counseled not to receive Communion. Ever since more and more Catholics have decided that they can make their own decisions as to what is right and wrong.
Politicians like Biden and Pelosi have been stubborn and contumacious in their pro-choice policies and in presenting themselves for reception of the Eucharist. They know that the American bishops, for the most part, prefer a "pastoral approach" which means, basically, let's talk to them and help them to see the error of their ways.
It has not worked and there is no indication that it will. The topic of this essay is proof enough!
They also know that Catholic priests are instructed not to cause a scene on the Communion line and that the person be permitted to receive. Both of them take advantage of these charitable loopholes.
There is a solution and, perhaps, some hope for stronger enforcement of church policy on offending pols. The Vatican should clearly state that politicians who promote a culture of death, abortion and euthanasia, are subject to excommunication by their bishop.
Pope-Emeritus Benedict XVI made an unofficial statement on a trip to Mexico, in 2007, stating that excommunication for pro-choice legislators was not arbitrary and is part of Canon Law. This would strengthen Canon 915 and some bishops' back-bones. It is well known that Pope Francis forbade pro- choice politicians from receiving Holy communion in his diocese, in Argentina. Perhaps, the new Pope can move this project along?
By the bishops refusing to take strong action, such as excommunication, politicians will continue their "in your face" attitude toward the church and her leaders.
Such a failure will also continue to allow Catholics and people of good will to be scandalized. Even worse, it gives the impression that others may follow the behavior of wayward politicians with impunity.
Biden and Pelosi only did at the Vatican what they have been allowed to do at home. As the great Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonheoffer stated so well, dear bishops; Not to act is to act!
Editor's Note: Reverend Michael P. Orsi is Research Fellow in Law and Religion, Ave Maria School of Law