The Altar Is Not a Battlefield
By Victoria Reggie Kennedy
Sunday, May 23, 2004; Page B07
As a Catholic, I am deeply saddened and concerned by the threatened denial of Communion to pro-choice Catholic politicians. This course of action takes both the church and political discourse in this country to a new and dangerous place, and I urge that it be rejected.
The Eucharist is "the summit and source of all worship and Christian life," and participation in it is fundamental to the practice of our Catholic faith. Canon law encourages Catholics to receive Communion "most devoutly and frequently" and makes clear that "[a]ny baptized person not prohibited by law can and must be admitted to holy communion." Thus, unless they have violated a specific provision of church law as "interpreted strictly," Catholics must not be denied the spiritual sustenance of Communion.
So, then, what is the alleged violation of church law that would subject some politicians to de facto excommunication? Essentially, proponents of this harsh penalty make the flawed and intellectually dishonest argument that a vote not to criminalize abortion is the moral and church law equivalent of the act of abortion itself. Then, building on that mischaracterization, they erroneously conclude that pro-choice politicians are "obstinately persevering" in the "manifest grave sin" of abortion and must therefore be denied the Eucharist. That argument not only misrepresents canon law, it also completely ignores the freedom-of-conscience provisions that are integral to the practice of our Catholic faith.
Pro-choice politicians -- or pro-choice citizens, for that matter -- do not support legislation to require or even encourage women to have abortions; they simply refuse to make abortion a crime punishable under non-church law. The pro-choice position recognizes that the United States is a diverse, pluralistic society where a woman has the constitutional right to make a decision based upon her own conscience, religious beliefs and medical needs. Would those who are trying to force non-Catholics by law to follow the teachings of the Catholic Church be willing to accept the governmental imposition of the laws of another faith on them?
As affirmed in "Dignitatis Humanae," the landmark Vatican II document on freedom of conscience, "the Christian faithful, in common with the rest of men, have the civil right of freedom from interference in leading their lives according to their conscience. A harmony exists therefore between the freedom of the Church and that religious freedom which must be recognized as the right of all men and all communities and must be sanctioned by constitutional law."
The flaw -- and apparent political ideology -- that underlies the threatened denial of Communion to pro-choice politicians becomes even more apparent when it is contrasted with the treatment of those who support the death penalty. Politicians who support the death penalty specifically authorize the government to take the life of a human being, even though the circumstances under which church law permits capital punishment "are very rare, if not practically nonexistent." Indeed, canon law makes clear that, in almost every conceivable circumstance, there are adequate, nonlethal methods to deter crime without having to deprive someone "definitively of the possibility of redeeming himself."
Despite this unambiguous church law, there has been no talk of withholding Communion from pro-death-penalty Catholics. Where is the logic or moral justice in punishing those who allow a person to make a private moral decision, while remaining silent about those who authorize the government to take a life and thereby deprive a human being of his God-given right of salvation?
The church also teaches that it is wrong to have "excessive economic and social differences" between the rich and the poor, and has even stated that a portion of the responsibility for abortion rests "on those who should have ensured -- but did not -- effective family and social policies in support of families." Yet there is no threatened penalty for those who do not vote for governmental policies that help the poor. It is patently wrong to single out an elected official who allows a woman -- and not the government -- to make a private decision, while remaining silent about those who authorize and encourage the government to follow economic and punitive policies that are so contrary to the teachings of the church.
We would all do well to follow the guidance of Vatican II: "All Christians must be aware of their own specific vocation within the political community. It is for them . . . to demonstrate concretely how authority can be compatible with freedom. . . . They must recognize the legitimacy of different opinions with regard to temporal solutions, and respect citizens, who, even as a group, defend their points of view by honest methods."
I urge that we step back from this dangerous precipice and not use the Eucharist to coerce governmental action. As Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin has said, "the altar, the Eucharist, should not become a political battlefield." I agree, and urge that we air our political differences outside the religious arena.
Victoria Reggie Kennedy, an attorney, works with non-profit groups to reduce violence and improve the quality of life for women, children and families. She is the wife of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company