More on Rudy and the Vatican

In today's paper, I looked at what some cardinals in the Roman Curia, the governing body of the Roman Catholic Church, thought about Rudy Giuliani's abortion position. ("That's not very acceptable to us," said Cardinal Edmund Casimir Szoka.)

But this is far from a clear-cut issue, and there is a great deal of nuance behind the church's reasoning on whether or not a pro-choice Catholic politician should be denied communion.

The Vatican and Pope Benedict XVI have suggested that church teaching exempts pro-choice politicians from communion and is "not negotiable," yet they are not exactly emphatic in enforcing the doctrine. While the threat of excommunication is not a realistic one, the pope does believe that communion and a pro-choice Catholic are "incompatible," and that the politician should "exclude themselves" from communion. Still, the Holy See has also endorsed the longstanding church practice of leaving such complicated matters to the national bishops conferences that understand a country's religious and political climate best.

In the United States, where the church is mindful of the traditional separation between church and state, the bishops have warned against a heavy-handed intrusion into politics. In 2004 the leaders of the American church released a statement disagreeing with the dozen or so bishops who publicly said they wouldn't offer John Kerry communion. Part of the reasoning was based on a doctrinal debate within the church over how directly responsible, and complicit, a pro-choice Catholic politician is with an abortion.

In June 2004, a task force of top American bishops examining the question met at a conference in Denver to discuss their findings. One of the most significant interventions on the subject came from Cardinal William Levada, who Pope Benedict would later pick to take his place as prefect for the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith.

Cardinal Levada reflected the church’s longstanding teaching by pointing out that not all moral issues have the same weight as abortion and euthanasia, and that “a Catholic, to be in full communion with the faith of the Church, must accept this teaching about the evil” of the two.

He also addressed the key theological question in asking “Can a politician be guilty of formal cooperation in evil?”

If the politician’s motive in supporting abortion rights is an actual intention of “killing of innocent life” then the verdict would have to be yes, he said, and the same would be true for any voter who casts a ballot in support of such an intention.

After dismissing such a situation as unlikely, Cardinal Levada seemed to buttress the Giuliani position that the matter of communion is a personal one when he said that it ultimately falls to the politician’s pastor to determine the motives for his position.

“This is the point of a pastor's solicitude for this member of his flock,” wrote Cardinal Levada. “He will need to inquire of his fellow Catholics about their intentions, about their understanding of their faith obligations, about their concept of their role in living out their faith in political life.”

He added that “The practice of the Church is to accept the conscientious self-appraisal of each person” and that “the practice of the Church does not per se exclude such persons from the reception of the sacraments.”

But that position is not universal. Speaking generally, Cardinal Szoka also discussed with me the role pro-choice politicians like Mr. Giuliani played in the actual act of the abortion.

"It’s a very complex question, because in the canon it says that those who procure an abortion, or are necessary cooperators. Now you have to decide if this politician votes in favor of this, is he a necessary cooperator, is he an approximate cooperator," said Cardinal Szoka.

In the end, he agreed that the conscience and awareness of the politician must be taken into account, but pointed out that "if to procure an abortion needs a law, then if somebody votes for that law, he certainly is cooperating."

In any case, Giuliani is in for a lot of this sort of thing if he manages to get the Republican nomination. As one veteran Church watcher suggested to me, the easiest political alternative for him may be to take the pope's instruction and just exclude himself from communion. The thrice-married former mayor, who has never received an received only one annulment, may have already done this, as his campaign refuses to comment on when was the last time he accepted the sacrament.

[The Giuliani campaign originally responded to a question by saying that the former mayor never received an annulment, but said subsequently that they had made a mistake.]