WASHINGTON (CNS) — Anytime a local bishop denies Communion to a politician because of his stand on abortion, the decision can have "national ramifications," Bishop Donald W. Wuerl of Pittsburgh said in a statement exploring ways the U.S. bishops could reach a more united approach to such decisions.
"There must be some way in which the bishops can establish a process, mechanism or procedure" for appropriate national consistency, he said.
"Given the mobility of the population and the ubiquity and influence of the means of social communications," he said, "actions taken by one bishop within a diocese can have immediate national impact and affect the bishops of the rest of the dioceses throughout the country, especially neighboring dioceses which share the same media market."
Bishop Wuerl released his 2,800-word statement to Catholic News Service in Washington in mid-August. He said the issue was highlighted "in last year’s election and the controversy surrounding (Democratic presidential candidate) Sen. John Kerry," a Catholic who has consistently opposed legal restrictions on abortion.
Each bishop has the proper power and responsibility for pastoral ministry and church order in his own diocese, Bishop Wuerl noted. But he stressed that, in the words of the Second Vatican Council, "All the bishops, in fact, have a duty to promote and defend the unity of faith and discipline common to the whole church."
Commenting on that passage, he said, "There are often specific issues of a doctrinal and moral nature which are current in a territory that, because of the nature of the subject and the wide spectrum of peoples and circumstances that will be affected, necessitate a greater cooperation among the bishops of a given territory."
In January 2003 the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith said Catholics in public life have a grave obligation to oppose legislation that contradicts fundamental moral principles such as the evil of abortion and euthanasia.
That fall the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops formed a task force to study how U.S. bishops should deal with such politicians.
The task force, headed by Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick of Washington, originally was not to report back to the bishops until mid-November of 2004, after the presidential election was over.
Controversy over the Kerry candidacy forced the issue, however. Partisans on one side berated bishops who would not deny Communion to Kerry or similar politicians as cowardly. Partisans on the other side accused bishops who would do so of crossing church-state lines or politicizing the Eucharist.
It became national news each weekend whether Kerry attended Mass and received Communion. Reporters across the country began pressing bishops for what they would do about giving Communion to Kerry or other Catholic politicians with similar positions.
The McCarrick task force gave an extensive interim report to the bishops in June and the bishops issued a statement warning politicians who act "consistently to support abortion on demand" that they risk "cooperating in evil and sinning against the common good."
The statement went on to say, however, that "given the wide range of circumstances involved in arriving at a prudential judgment" in each case, decisions concerning the fitness of a particular person to receive Communion "rest with the individual bishop."
Bishop Wuerl described the importance of bishops’ conferences in promoting the unity of bishops among themselves and with the pope and fostering collaboration and collegial planning and decision-making among the bishops. But he said that in light of church teaching and law on the responsibilities of diocesan bishops and the limits on the authority of bishops’ conferences, the conference "does not act as a substitute for the diocesan bishop, but, rather, as a help to him."
Since "there are always going to be national ramifications" to any individual bishop’s way of handling the abortion-and-politicians issue, however, "one may understand the benefit of consultation among the bishops of the episcopal conference for a more effective unity in handling such a matter," he said.
He proposed two possible ways for the bishops’ conference to find "a practical pastoral manner to express the collegial spirit that is to be the hallmark of episcopal pastoral ministry."
"One such approach would be an actual mechanism of the conference to facilitate some consensus and unified pastoral practice," he said. "Another approach, which would be less formal but perhaps more effective, would be the commitment on the part of all the bishops to discuss beforehand, through some conference structure, decisions that will impact all of the bishops and the church as a whole."
He said a formal mechanism of review by the conference before barring a politician from Communion would require either a two-thirds vote of the bishops and a mandate from the Vatican or a completely unanimous decision by the bishops.
The less formal approach would require all bishops to agree not to make such decisions without prior consultation through procedures agreed by the conference. "The advantage of the second option is found in its ability both to recognize the responsibility of the individual bishop within his diocese and also to provide a context for the communal exercise of that episcopal responsibility," Bishop Wuerl wrote.
Gee where do I start? I guess bishops acting like shepherds protecting their flock can make other bishops who allow the wolves in look bad. He has it exactly backwards. It is not the bishops who denied communion communion to pro-abortion Catholic politicians (after communication to them first) that is the national problem, it is the bishops who decided that these Catholic politicians receiving Communion was not a scandal and did not act in a manner consistent with the care of that politician’s soul. My reading of his statements (and I could be wrong) is that the concern is more about national attention and "media markets" than souls.
Letters and statements by Cardinal Arinze and the letter by then-Cardinal Ratzinger to Cardinal McCarrick make it very plain what the response should be in these occasions. The model should be those like Archbishop Burke who first communicated to those Catholic politicians in their diocese that they were acting on positions contrary to their Catholic faith. The scandal was not the subsequent actions of Archbishop Burke, but how few acted like him.
This is collegiality run amok when this bishop would even suggest that either a unanimous or a two-thirds vote be taken first by the bishops conference, though I am sure that Arius would have like this procedure. So would have King Henry the VIII who only had Bishop St. John Fisher stand up to him. Jesus didn’t have two much luck getting a two-thirds vote from the Apostles when he asked "Who do you say that I am?", in fact just one out of twelve got it right. I would sometimes wonder if we could get a two-thirds vote by the bishops on some of the fundamentals of the faith, though maybe that is overly cynical and snarky.
Though to be fair Bishop does contrast the responsibility of individual bishops and that the Bishop’s conference is suppose to help and support them as a unified whole. Unfortunately bureaucracy always has a tendency to take the path of least resistance instead of strongly taking and unequivocal position. When the bishops meet in July of 2004 on this matter and issued a letter on Catholics in Political Life they basically punted and the statements they made about not honoring those who act in defiance of fundamental moral principles was full of loopholes so large that the camel can avoid the eye of the needle entirely an cruise right through with a whole caravan.