Can Pro-Abortion Politicians Receive Holy Communion?

Q: What does the Code of Canon Law say about pro-abortion politicians being allowed to receive Holy Communion?  –Jay

A: It’s tempting to reply, “It depends on whom you ask.” Theology and canon law can be, and already have been, cited to justify virtually every conceivable position on this very important and timely topic. Thanks particularly to the upcoming presidential election, this issue has increasingly come to the fore—so let’s take a look at what the code actually says and what the Church teaches, and then we should more easily be able to understand and appreciate the objective, spin-free, non-partisan answer to Jay’s question.

Here’s the stereotypic scenario, which we Americans unfortunately are all familiar with by now: John Doe, who was raised in a Catholic family and attends Mass regularly with his family, runs for political office and wins. He goes to his state legislature or to Washington, and proceeds to vote repeatedly in support of legalized abortion. Perhaps he also votes in favor of taxpayer-funding for abortions for women who cannot afford them. He may even vote for partial-birth abortion (which is simply infanticide under another name), and for legalization of and funding for stem-cell research using tissue from the bodies of aborted infants. And all the while he continues to attend Sunday Mass and receive the sacraments on a regular basis. When the time comes for his re-election, his campaign brochures and TV commercials contain shots of him leaving the local Catholic church with his family after Mass—emphasizing that he is a decent, Christian family man.

It doesn’t take much for questions like these naturally to arise: isn’t Representative/ Senator/ Governor Doe being hypocritical here? Isn’t it sinful to vote, as he does again and again, in support of the killing of innocent unborn children? Can John Doe vote this way and continue to consider himself a Catholic? Does he still have the right to attend Mass and receive the sacraments, or has he by his political actions removed himself from the Catholic fold?

The answers to a few of these questions are relatively straightforward. If Doe wants to enter a Catholic church and respectfully attend Mass, there is no particular theological objection to his doing so, regardless of his spiritual state. Anyone, saint or sinner, is welcome to join—or at least watch—Catholics publicly celebrating the Eucharist. And the Catholic faithful themselves are actively encouraged to do so. As the Catechism notes, “Mother Church earnestly desires that all the faithful should be led to that full, conscious, and active participation in liturgical celebrations which is demanded by the very nature of the liturgy” (CCC 1141). There is, in fact, good reason to hope that perhaps the graces that flow from the Holy Mass will strengthen the conviction of every one of us to avoid sin in the future, regardless of whether we are doctors, housewives, canon lawyers, or abortion-supporting politicians.

And certainly, if a pro-abortion Catholic politician wants to receive the sacrament of penance, he is heartily welcome to do so, as we all are! While we obviously cannot and should not be privy to the content of his confession, we can pray that John Doe is led to a greater degree of holiness by the grace of the sacrament. (It is entirely human that we might also hope that the issue of his voting record comes up in the confessional, and that the priest hearing his confession takes the opportunity to restate the Church’s teaching about the sanctity of human life, and the need for society to protect every person from conception until natural death. But we cannot read Doe’s heart and tell him what he ought to confess. Nor can we be sure that the priest hearing his confession will even recognize him, and take advantage of the occasion in order to counsel Doe pastorally on this critical issue.)

Well, if abortion-supporter Doe is permitted to attend Mass, and to receive the sacrament of penance, can he also receive Holy Communion? Now this is where things begin to get complicated.

The canon upon which the whole issue depends is canon 915, which states that those upon whom the penalty of excommunication or interdict has been imposed or declared, and others who obstinately persist in manifest grave sin, are not to be admitted to Holy Communion (my italics). On the surface, this may appear to constitute a pretty clear-cut answer to the question! One might say that politicians who repeatedly assert their support for the legalized killing of unborn children, and who vote again and again for laws to this effect, are playing with spiritual fire. If that doesn’t constitute “obstinate persistence in manifest grave sin,” then what does? So under this canon, how could a Catholic elected official who supports abortion possibly be permitted to receive Our Lord in the Eucharist?

Yet there are a number of fine distinctions that need to be made—and usually aren’t—before drawing any black-and-white conclusions about the sacramental life of Catholic politicians who vote in favor of abortion “rights.” This is not to suggest that the Catholic Church holds that there is any moral grey area when it comes to abortion. Deliberately murdering innocent children is never acceptable, nor is the willing acquiescence of anyone in their deaths. But before we point fingers and utter outright condemnations across the board, let’s be sure we can appreciate both the theological and canonical distinctions that first must be made.

1.) First of all, let’s note that as the canon clearly states, a person needn’t be under a sanction like excommunication in order to be denied Holy Communion. This cannot be stressed enough, because much paper and ink has been expended over the (entirely legitimate) question of whether pro-abortion politicians who claim to be Catholics are ipso facto excommunicated or not. But it is critical to keep in mind that this is a separate issue from that of whether or not they may receive the Eucharist.

For a distinction must be made between Catholics who are actually under a sanction like excommunication, and Catholics who “just” sin. While ordinarily it’s pretty safe to say that all excommunicated people have sinned, the reverse statement is untrue—since not all sinners are under excommunication.

And while an excommunicated person is not permitted to receive the Eucharist (c. 1331.1 n. 2), it does not follow that every Catholic who is not under excommunication may do so. Note that canon 915 is not limited to Catholics who are excommunicated (or interdicted, which does not concern us here). In other words, it is possible, under canon 915, for a Catholic to be refused Holy Communion without being under a sanction.

So is it safe to say that John Doe, by the very fact that he votes time and again in support of abortion, is a sinner? Well, there is no doubt that what he is doing is, according to Catholic teaching, morally wrong. It is objectively evil to cooperate in this way in the killing of the innocent.

But it is theoretically possible that politician Doe honestly doesn’t understand the evil inherent in abortion, or that promoting it politically is morally objectionable. It’s possible that in voting as he does, Doe is following his conscience, which is telling him that this is the right thing to do. And as Catholic moral theologians have taught for centuries, every man must follow the dictates of his conscience—he must not act contrary to them, no matter what they tell him to do. The Catechism says simply, “a human being must always obey the certain judgment of his conscience” (CCC 1790). Given the poor (or even nonexistent!) catechetical training that so many contemporary Catholics have received, there are countless Catholic adults out there who sincerely—but wrongly—think that their actions are acceptable when in fact the Church teaches that they are morally evil! True, they are following their consciences, but their consciences have not been properly formed. This is particularly common with regard to issues pertaining to human sexuality. To cite the most obvious example, how many of us know of Catholics who use artificial birth control, believing it to be morally permissible?

The point here is that we cannot castigate Elected-official Doe if he is not morally culpable for his actions. And since you and I cannot read his heart and mind, we cannot know for certain why he acts as he does. This is why it is so important for the pastors and/or bishops of pro-abortion politicians to counsel them privately about the moral implications of their political activities. If their consciences are wrongly leading them to vote for abortion, it’s our shepherds’ job to point this out and help them to inform their consciences correctly. The clergy cannot simply throw up their hands and sigh that John Doe apparently doesn’t know any better—they are obliged to ensure that he does.

Before withholding the Eucharist from him, it should first be apparent that John Doe is knowingly and deliberately continuing to act contrary to church teaching. It should be safe for the minister of the sacrament to conclude that Doe is, in other words, “obstinately persisting in manifest grave sin,” as specified by canon 915, before he denies him Holy Communion.

Back in 2004, during the Bush-Kerry presidential race, the US Bishops’ Conference issued a document that acknowledged this need for the clergy to be the teachers and leaders in these situations. Entitled Catholics in Political Life, it noted that “Our obligation as bishops at this time is to teach clearly…We need to do more to persuade all people that human life is precious and human dignity must be defended. This requires more effective dialogue and engagement with all public officials, especially Catholic public officials.”

Incidentally, one point that must be kept in mind here is that sometimes a legislator may find himself voting for a bill that allows for some abortions, because it is a better option than an alternative bill, which permits even more. Such a vote would be completely in keeping with the teaching of John Paul II found in his 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae:

When it is not possible to overturn or completely abrogate a pro-abortion law, an elected official, whose absolute personal opposition to procured abortion was well known, could licitly support proposals aimed at limiting the harm done by such a law and at lessening its negative consequences at the level of general opinion and public morality. This does not in fact represent an illicit cooperation with an unjust law, but rather a legitimate and proper attempt to limit its evil aspects (73).

Or, in a similar scenario, a politician might vote against what seems to be a pro-life bill, because there are problems with its legal wording, and he wishes instead to support a better legislative option. In other words, it is quite possible that a politician may at times appear to have voted in favor of legalized abortion, but in reality, he felt obliged to vote as he did for more technical reasons. This is another reason why a private conversation between John Doe and an appropriate cleric from his diocese is so constructive—for Doe may have had a morally justifiable reason for his actions in some cases. We cannot necessarily condemn Doe out-of-hand for individual votes cast under particular circumstances.

This explains why the same document from the US Bishops’ Conference (cited above) also pointed out that there is “a wide range of circumstances involved in arriving at a prudential judgment on a matter of this seriousness.” External appearances alone do not always show us a clear moral picture.

On the other hand, if John Doe repeatedly expresses public overall support for abortion-on-demand; if his pastor or bishop has personally discussed the Church’s teaching on life issues with him and emphasized that this position is contrary to Catholic theology and that continuing to vote in such a way is morally wrong; and if Doe nevertheless continues to favor legislation that promotes abortion—well, it would not be imprudent to conclude that politician Doe is obstinately persisting in manifest grave sin, as described in canon 915. After all, he knows what he is doing, he knows that the Church teaches it is wrong, and he does it anyway. Given these circumstances, it would be difficult to argue that John Doe should be permitted to receive Holy Communion. In such a situation both canon law and Catholic theology are clear.

2.) Another distinction that is often lost is that in general, we must distinguish between imposition of a penalty, and preventing someone from receiving a sacrament. The notion that under some circumstances, a Catholic may wish to receive a sacrament but may not be permitted to do so has been discussed several times in this space. To cite the most recent example, we saw in “Can Homosexual Men be Ordained to the Priesthood?” that men who seek priestly ordination can be rejected if they either are practicing homosexuals, or display deep-seated homosexual tendencies. In short, we have seen that while Catholics generally have a right to receive the sacraments (c. 843.1), there are lawful limitations that can be and are placed on that right. But these limitations do not constitute the imposition of a penalty. A Catholic may be denied a sacrament without being under excommunication or some other sanction. Refusing to give Holy Communion to a Catholic who wishes to receive it does not automatically imply that he is being penalized.

Keep in mind that in refusing the Eucharist to a legislator who supports abortion, the Church does not seek to condemn him absolutely and to drive him away. It should not be anybody’s ultimate goal to kick abortion-supporting John Doe out of his parish! Rather, we should hope and pray that he continues to practice his faith and changes his views (and his votes) to support the dignity of human life. As God Himself said, “I desire not the death of the sinner, but that he be converted and live” (Ezech. 33:11). Withholding the Eucharist from John Doe should never be perceived as some sort of a club which the Church uses to beat him.

Cardinal McCarrick, the former Archbishop of Washington, DC, took a lot of heat on this issue during the last presidential election in 2004, but he was spot-on when he said two years later at a meeting of the US Bishops’ Conference, “Our concern is not politics, not just particular policies, but [legislators’] faith and even their salvation. These dialogues are not about winning votes, but saving souls.”

It is unfortunate that some have failed to appreciate this important distinction, arguing that refusing Holy Communion to a politician constitutes an unjust sanction. Refusing to administer a sacrament and imposing a sanction like excommunication are two separate actions. This was pointed out during the last presidential election by none other than the former Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI. As Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Ratzinger sent a private memorandum to the abovementioned Cardinal McCarrick, who was the leader of the US Catholic Bishops’ task force that was studying this issue at the time. The memorandum was subsequently leaked to the press and now is easily available on the web. In it Ratzinger asserted clearly that the decision to deny Holy Communion to someone “properly speaking is not a sanction or a penalty. Nor is the minister of Holy Communion passing judgment on the person’s subjective guilt, but rather is reacting to the person’s public unworthiness to receive Holy Communion due to an objective situation of sin” (6).

Cardinal Raymond Burke, the former Archbishop of St. Louis who is now Prefect of the Apostolic Signatura in Rome, and an excellent canon lawyer—wrote about this very issue in an article published in the canon-law journal of the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. He echoed Ratzinger’s assertions when he commented that withholding Holy Communion from abortion-supporting Catholic politicians “is not penal but has to do with the safeguarding of the objective and supreme sanctity of the Holy Eucharist.” This in turn leads us to our third very important point:

3.) We must distinguish between the right of Catholics to receive the Eucharist, and the infinite dignity of Christ hidden under the sacramental species. This last concept, that of respect for the Blessed Sacrament, is all too often omitted from discussions of this whole issue.

The Catechism notes that “Holy Communion augments our union with Christ. The principal fruit of receiving the Eucharist in Holy Communion is an intimate union with Christ Jesus” (CCC 1391). Unlike Protestantism, our faith teaches us that Jesus is truly present in the Holy Eucharist—regardless of whether He is received by a person in the state of grace or in a state of sin. It was only logical, therefore, that Saint Paul warned,

Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the lord. Let a man examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself (1 Cor. 11:27-29).

Before becoming judgmental, let’s all remind ourselves that strictly speaking, none of us is “worthy” to receive Holy Communion, for we are all sinners. But at issue here is what then-Cardinal Ratzinger referred to in the abovementioned private memorandum as “public unworthiness.” In other words, when John Doe, who has publicly and repeatedly engaged in behavior which is objectively evil—or, as canon 915 puts it, has obstinately persisted in manifest grave sin—receives Our Lord in Holy Communion, he not only commits an offense against God, but he gives scandal to those in the Catholic community who observe him doing so. Practicing Catholics can only watch in dismay and begin to question whether or not Doe’s behavior is really all that objectionable after all. Otherwise, they might ask, why does the Church permit him to receive the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ?

The same Cardinal Burke mentioned above subsequently gave an interview
in which he rightly pointed out, “if you have a public figure who is openly and deliberately supporting abortion rights, and that same person approaches and receives Holy Communion, what are people to think? They could be led to imagine that somehow it is all right to support publicly the taking of innocent and defenseless lives in the womb.” Burke referenced the duty of the minister of the Eucharist to ensure that it is distributed to those communicants who are properly disposed to receive it:

Otherwise, the minister of Communion would be put in the situation of violating his conscience regarding a most serious matter, when he sees a notorious sinner coming to receive Holy Communion to the scandal of everyone, and he is somehow told he does not have the right to refuse to give Holy Communion in such a circumstance.  That simply would be wrong.

Which brings up our fourth and final point:

4.) A distinction has to be made between the personal responsibility of the Catholic wishing to receive a sacrament to be properly disposed internally, and the authority of the minister to make a determination that the person is not worthy to receive it. These may arguably be two sides of the same coin, but they still remain two very separate aspects of the administration of the sacraments. In the past some have claimed that observing canon 915 is entirely the responsibility of the communicant, not of the minister who is distributing Holy Communion.

But such an argument is utterly devoid of merit. The code actually addresses specifically the obligation of every Catholic to refrain from receiving the Eucharist if he is conscious of grave sin in canon 916. This canon states that such a person must first confess his sins in the sacrament of penance (except for extraordinary situations which are not the rule, and which do not concern us here). Note that this canon immediately follows the canon 915 we have already been discussing above. In other words, first canon 915 addresses the duty of the minister of Holy Communion to withhold it from certain persons who may seek it; and then canon 916, in turn, addresses the obligation of potential communicants to check their consciences before approaching to receive the Eucharist. These are two different, albeit related, responsibilities.

It is both amazing and sad that many clergy, including a number of bishops and even cardinals, appear to believe that the minister of the Eucharist has no discretion over its distribution. Well do I remember an astonishing conversation several years ago with an American priest in Rome—a canon-law professor, no less—who insisted that the responsibility for determining whether a person should receive a sacrament always lies entirely with that person himself, and never with the minister of the sacrament, who is obliged to administer it to whomever seeks it. This is a totally unsound interpretation of a general principle of both sacramental theology and canon law.

It is also an interpretation that is directly contradicted by the code itself in some situations involving other sacraments. In the past, we have seen in these articles a number of examples of circumstances in which a Catholic may seek a sacrament, but the minister is required by law to deny it.  The case of the bishop who must refuse ordination to the homosexual man wishing to become a priest was already mentioned above. The issue of non-practicing Catholic parents who wish their child to be baptized, discussed in “Can the Pastor Refuse to Baptize Our Child?” is another good example of this. In this latter situation, the parents may want their child to receive sacrament of baptism, but if the priest concludes that it is unlikely that the child will be raised a Catholic, the sacrament cannot be administered. The parents cannot force the priest to administer baptism; the priest is theologically and canonically obliged to refuse to do so until there is a well founded hope that the child will actually be reared in the faith.

In other words, it is not without precedent to assert that it’s possible someone may seek to receive a sacrament, but that sacrament is withheld from him. In the realm of sacramental law there is nothing conceptually unique about this!

In fact, there is already ample precedent with regard to withholding the Eucharist from Catholics who should not receive it, and it has nothing to do with abortion or politicians. In 2000, the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for the Interpretation of Legislative Texts issued a declaration Concerning the Admission to Holy Communion of Faithful Who are Divorced and Remarried. Those Catholics who have remarried outside of the Church, and who have not obtained an annulment of their first marriage, are not married to their current partners in the eyes of the Church, and are not to receive the Eucharist. Citing canon 915, the document notes that pastors are to counsel the faithful in advance, so as to avoid “instances of public denial of Holy Communion,” but that when people persist in seeking the sacrament, “the minister of Communion must refuse to distribute it to those who are publicly unworthy. They are to do this with extreme charity…. They must, however, do this with firmness, conscious of the value that such signs of strength have for the good of the Church and of souls” (3). And the same rationale that holds for divorced and remarried Catholics is applicable to Catholic legislators who publicly support abortion.

What are we to conclude from all this? In sum, dealing with abortion-supporting Catholic politicians who wish to receive Holy Communion requires a balancing act. On the one hand, the clergy have a duty to establish that these politicians understand that their position is fundamentally incompatible with Catholic teaching; if it is clear that they understand this and yet continue to maintain their positions anyway, they are not to receive the Eucharist. If they try to do so anyway, the minister of the sacrament should withhold it from them. We must firmly assert that the infinite gift that Our Lord gave us of Himself in the Holy Eucharist has to be accorded the reverence that is due to Him, and that scandal should be avoided at all costs.

At the same time, however, rather than condemning them outright, we should pray that such elected officials will someday soon come to appreciate the truth of the Church’s teaching, and the sanctity of all human life. At that point, surely Our Lord will welcome them to His table once again.

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