The Vatican Has Few Indulgences For You, Rudy!

LAST MONTH, FOR THE FIRST TIME since some high-powered Vatican cardinals indirectly criticized Democratic nominee John Kerry in the 2004 election for his pro-choice position, these esoteric questions about Catholic doctrine moved out of the theology classroom and onto the tabloid front pages. On a plane to Brazil, Benedict suggested to reporters that “excommunication” was a viable option for pro-choice Catholic politicians. (“Rudy vs. Pope” was the resulting Daily News headline.) The pope’s spokesman immediately clarified the position, emphasizing Benedict’s argument that such a position was “incompatible” with receiving communion.

Mr. Giuliani, who is the only pro-choice Republican candidate for President and the only pro-choice Catholic among the leading candidates in either major party—addressed the question by saying it was between him and his pastor. “Issues like that for me are between me and my confessor,” he said. “I’m a Catholic and that’s the way I resolve those issues, personally and privately.”

But that statement reflects only one aspect of a fundamental debate now occurring in the church between those members of the worldwide Catholic hierarchy who, like Mr. Giuliani, believe that the matter of communion is a private matter of conscience between an elected official and his confessor, and those who believe that the question of administering the sacrament to a public supporter of abortion rights is, as the pope recently wrote, “not negotiable.”

No matter what conclusion is reached, another question—of equal political significance—is how the church should apply its decision to Catholic elected officials who share Mr. Giuliani’s views. Cardinal Kasper, for example, laughed at the prospect of summarily excommunicating pro-choice Catholic politicians, a policy that would lead to the canonical expulsion of most elected officials in the traditionally Catholic countries of Western Europe.

“I don’t want to excommunicate all types of people,” he said. “But it’s a serious thing. The church has to take serious its own positions. It cannot be without consequence when a Catholic publicly departs from these positions. The church has to take serious its own position.”

That matter will soon come to a head once again in a highly visible debate with consequences for the candidacy of Mr. Giuliani, who is seeking the nomination of a party that has voted in every Presidential election in the past three decades for openly religious Christians. In November, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops will finalize its position on political responsibility for Catholic politicians. And for the first time, the proceedings will be discussed in open session and opened up to the floor, so that any of the roughly 400 bishops can weigh in or propose an amendment to the conference’s statement.

Already this year, Providence’s bishop, Thomas Tobin, has publicly characterized the abortion stance of the thrice-married Mr. Giuliani as a gross “incongruity.” And one of the group’s leaders, Baltimore Cardinal William H. Keeler, protested in the past about Mr. Giuliani’s delivering a commencement address at the Loyola Jesuit College in Maryland.

Many bishops in the conference will be looking for guidance in the pope’s recent comments, especially a Feb. 22 apostolic exhortation called “Sacramentum Caritatis,” in which Benedict gave his final reflections on an October 2005 synod of bishops that met to discuss the Eucharist, or holy communion. The 83rd paragraph of the document specifically addresses the question of whether Catholic politicians who advocate laws inconsistent with church teaching can partake in communion.

The severity of what Benedict wrote took many veteran Vatican watchers by surprise.