SINCE 1976, THE U.S. CONFERENCE OF Catholic Bishops has met every four years, about a year before the Presidential elections, to clarify its position on what constitutes “faithful citizenship.” In 2003, the bishops expressed a desire for affordable and accessible health care, pursuing social justice and protecting the environment. But it is the protection of pre-natal human life that has proved most divisive.
During the 2004 Presidential election, more than a dozen American bishops publicly declared their unwillingness to administer communion to Mr. Kerry, because he was pro-choice.
Many of them cited a November 2002 doctrinal note issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, headed by then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, titled “On Some Questions Regarding the Participation of Catholics in Political Life.”
In the note, Cardinal Ratzinger argued that politics was inseparable from morality and that a rampant relativism had created a climate in which every possible outlook on life was judged equal. The Catholic viewpoint on the dignity of human life was increasingly suppressed in the name of a false tolerance, he said.
“Those who are directly involved in lawmaking bodies have a ‘grave and clear obligation to oppose’ any law that attacks human life,” wrote Cardinal Ratzinger, citing the words of Pope John Paul II. “For them, as for every Catholic, it is impossible to promote such laws or to vote for them.”
In light of the doctrinal clarifications and the public opposition to Mr. Kerry expressed by a vocal minority of bishops, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops set up a task force on Catholic politicians that looked specifically at the communion question.
In June 2004, the task force met in Denver to discuss its findings, which seemed to represent a significant intervention on behalf of the Kerry—and Giuliani—positions. Cardinal William Levada, who Pope Benedict would later pick to take his place as prefect for the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, concluded that the matter of communion is a personal one that ultimately falls to the politician’s pastor to determine the motives for his position.
“The practice of the Church is to accept the conscientious self-appraisal of each person,” said Cardinal Levada, adding that “the practice of the Church does not per se exclude such persons from the reception of the sacraments.”
The final word at the June 2004 meeting came from Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, then the Washington, D.C., archbishop, who said that he had received guidance on the matter from none other than Cardinal Ratzinger.
“He has offered some observations for our work which he specifically asked not be published, but which I wish to share with you,” he said in a statement. “The first is a recognition that it is up to us as bishops in the United States to discern and act on our responsibilities as teachers, pastors and leaders in our nation.”
Cardinal McCarrick said that while Cardinal Ratzinger told him that an “obstinate persistence” in campaigning or voting for abortion constitutes grave sin, he also advised against any rash judgments against such politicians, and called for precautionary measures, meetings and warnings before a communion is denied.
“I would emphasize that Cardinal Ratzinger clearly leaves to us as teachers, pastors and leaders WHETHER [his emphasis] to pursue this path. The Holy See has repeatedly expressed its confidence in our roles as bishops and pastors. The question for us is not simply whether denial of Communion is possible, but whether it is pastorally wise and prudent.”
Cardinal McCarrick then concludes that “Our Task Force does not advocate the denial of Communion for Catholic politicians or Catholic voters in these circumstances.”
If things had been left there, Mr. Giuliani’s standing might not today be the subject of continuing debate in the American church. But they weren’t left there.
In July 2004, an Italian Vatican reporter, Sandro Magister, published the letter that Cardinal Ratzinger had actually sent to Cardinal McCarrick. It seemed to provide for much less leeway than the Washington cardinal said it did.
According to the letter, which was published on the Web site of L’espresso magazine, Cardinal Ratzinger wrote that when precautionary measures have not had the desired effect, and the politician persists in presenting himself to receive communion, “the minister of Holy Communion must refuse to distribute it.” And Cardinal Ratzinger based some of his reasoning on another Vatican ruling against offering communion to Catholics who divorced and remarried without an annulment.