Related: Politics, Religion, Trinity Alumnae

Politicizing Holy Communion


When the wise founders of this nation created the Constitution of the United States, they made it a top priority — the First Amendment — to be sure that matters of Church and State remained in separate realms, lest this fledgling experiment in true democracy and freedom fall victim to the insidious entwinement of religion and politics that created so much of the oppression the European colonials sought to escape by coming to America. For more than two centuries, the United States has flourished as a nation where freedom of religion is a bedrock social value, making it possible for Catholics and Muslims and Jews and Buddhists and Baptists and Mormons and Atheists all to live side -by-side in our communities, to erect their respective churches and mosques and synagogues and temples along city blocks, to sit together in public schools, to share work and civic activism, and to go to voting booths unencumbered by the use of state-sponsored spiritual intimidation to force votes for or against political candidates.

While the Constitution prohibits the State from establishing or interfering with religion, the same First Amendment guarantees that religious denominations have complete freedom to preach and teach as they wish, to call their followers to moral and spiritual fidelity to the tenets of the faith.

At the intersection of these two great forces that hold the First Amendment in balance — the freedom of religions to preach their faiths as they wish, the prohibition against state establishment of religion or interference with religion — we find a boiling cauldron of controversy over the roles and responsibilities of elected officials to uphold the law while also remaining faithful to the teachings of their respective faiths. This cauldron is boiling over, once again, in the most unseemly of places — the Communion rail in the Catholic Church. The yeast, as always, is the matter of abortion, and whether Catholic politicians who are pro-choice can also remain Catholics in full communion with their Church.

Trinity Alumna Kathleen Sebelius ’70, the Governor of Kansas, is the latest politician to find herself in the cauldron. Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City has issued a very public “pastoral action”demanding that she cease taking Holy Communion until she repents of her pro-choice political position. An article in the National Catholic Reporter suggests that while the trigger for Archbishop Naumann’s action was the Governor’s veto of a piece of anti-abortion legislation, the real underlying issue may be her support for Democratic Presidential Candidate Barack Obama. This suspicion gained some credence when a Catholic law professor, not a politician, was denied Communion because he supports Barack Obama; the irony is that Professor Douglas Kmiec is a staunch Republican opponent of abortion, a former Reagan administration official who has decided to support Obama. Washington Post Columnist E.J. Dionne has a good column on this issue today.

The resurgence of the “wafer wars” as some pundits call this controversy is an unfortunate setback for Catholics in the public square after the very positive news that surrounded Pope Benedict’s visit in April. The Communion controversy has been around since at least the 2004 presidential election, when Democratic Presidential Nominee John Kerry dealt with repeated calls to renounce his pro-choice stance or refrain from taking Communion. At that time, Washington Cardinal Theodore McCarrick played a diplomatic role, counseling Kerry and the bishops, and then leading a Task Force on Catholic Bishops and Catholic Politicians that developed a policy framework for these complex issues. Cardinal McCarrick’s oft-stated bottom line on these issues is that the Communion rail is an inappropriate place to carry on this dispute.

Some Catholic laypeople, unhappy that leading bishops like Cardinal McCarrick refrain from flogging and stoning politicians in the middle of Mass, have taken it upon themselves to do the stoning. Conservative columnist Robert Novak, a recent convert to Catholicism, chose to pillory Governor Sebelius in a recent column. I get many letters accusing me and Trinity of all kinds of bad things because we express pride in the achievements of Governor Sebelius and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. Like Novak, these writers claim some supernatural insight into the state of grace of other people. Every time I read these judgmental statements I heard the voice of Sister Bridgetta, my teacher at St. Colman’s parish school, reminding her pupils of the Gospel teaching, “Judge not, lest ye also be judged.” Seems like good advice.

The Church’s moral teaching that abortion is intrinsically evil is very clear, and I know of few Catholics, including the public officials cited, who disagree with the fundamental moral teachings. The secular legal question is whether abortion should be treated as a criminal act. The Church believes that abortion should be a criminal act, and that Catholic politicians should work to change the law. At present, however, because of the Supreme Court ruling in 1973 Roe v. Wade, abortion is legal. Catholic public officials take oaths to uphold the law, and many of them believe that the Church should not try to override their oaths through threatening personal religious condemnation when they take official public actions that uphold the law.

This is a very complex matter, obviously, and resolution of these issues requires much sensitivity to the importance of the teachings of the Church as well as to the responsibilities of public officials. The worst thing that can happen, however, is that the general public will get the idea that Catholics should not hold public office, or that Catholics will remove themselves from public life to avoid the conflict. Either result would be terrible, and a great loss to the Church and the nation.

See NCR Editorial

See Richard McBrien’s column on Robert Novak

See Commonweal Interview with Bishop Naumann

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Patricia A. McGuire, President, Trinity, 125 Michigan Ave. NE, Washington, DC 20017
Phone: 202.884.9050   Email: