We have just completed an election cycle and experienced yet another tidal change in the political realm. On this blog as well as others there are frequent comments that express frustration with the clergy that we are not more directive in how and for whom to vote. The most common frustration expressed here has been that priests and bishops do not directly say to the faithful that they cannot, in good conscience vote for any candidate who is pro-choice. Every now and then a certain priest may be quoted to this effect and he is either praised as a hero or excoriated as a partisan tool, out of his boundaries.
What is the right and prudent thing for a priest to do in these matters, particularly as elections come and go? I would like to explore the question by making reference to an important source document that sets forth some criteria. The document is Worthiness to Receive Holy Communion by [then] Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger. The document, really a memo, to the Bishops is not meant to specifically address how priests should handle the issue of elections. Rather it’s main focus is to address the worthiness to receive Holy Communion and how Bishops and pastors should handle the problem of Catholic legislators who vote to fund abortion. Nevertheless it gives some principles that can be applied to elections as well. Let’s review some of the principles set forth in that document.
- Abortion is a very grave evil. The document states The Church teaches that abortion or euthanasia is a grave sin…..there is a “grave and clear obligation to oppose them by conscientious objection. […] In the case of an intrinsically unjust law, such as a law permitting abortion or euthanasia, it is therefore never licit to obey it, or to ‘take part in a propaganda campaign in favour of such a law or vote for it’” ( E.V., 73). Christians have a “grave obligation of conscience not to cooperate formally in practices which, even if permitted by civil legislation, are contrary to God’s law. (WTRHC, # 2)
- Abortion has a higher priority than many other issues – The document states, Not all moral issues have the same moral weight as abortion and euthanasia. For example, if a Catholic were to be at odds with the Holy Father on the application of capital punishment or on the decision to wage war, he would not for that reason be considered unworthy to present himself to receive Holy Communion. While the Church exhorts civil authorities to seek peace, not war, and to exercise discretion and mercy in imposing punishment on criminals, it may still be permissible to take up arms to repel an aggressor or to have recourse to capital punishment. There may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about waging war and applying the death penalty, but not however with regard to abortion and euthanasia (WTRHC # 3).
- Direct or formal cooperation in the evil of Abortion excludes one from receiving Holy Communion– Direct or formal participation in abortion would involve things like performing an abortion, procuring an abortion, paying for an abortion, directly advising and assisting one to seek an abortion and providing information, transportation, etc., providing other resources for the abortion to take place such as the owners of a clinic providing space, and so forth. Then-Cardinal Ratzinger also defined the following as direct or formal cooperation in abortion: consistently campaigning and voting for permissive abortion and euthanasia laws (WTRHC # 5). Hence Politicians who do this are formally cooperating in abortion and are excluded from receiving Holy Communion according to the memo. The document instructs the pastor of such legislators and others who formally cooperate in the evil of abortion to instruct them to refrain from receiving Holy Communion until such time as they repent or their formal cooperation in this grave evil. Surely such counseling should include pastoral dimensions wherein the pastor teaches from Scripture that the unworthy reception of Communion not only is of no avail but actually brings further condemnation upon the unworthy recipient (1 Cor 11:29). Salutary reminders of final judgment and the strong likelihood of Hell are also called for in a matter this serious. Pastors have this duty if they become aware of any Catholic who is involved in formal cooperation with the grave evil of abortion or euthanasia. They have the duty to exhort such individuals to immediate and complete repentance in order to save their souls. Surely there will also be the need for compassion especially in the cases of women and others who have felt compelled to seek abortion under various forms of duress. The Sacrament of Confession is surely and generously offered to all who seek mercy and have repented. Additionally, Pastors have the duty to remind all Catholics about mortal sin in general and the need for worthy reception of Communion.
But what of those Catholics who vote for pro-choice politicians? Are they also guilty of formal or direct cooperation in the evil of abortion? The document has this to say:
A Catholic would be guilty of formal cooperation in evil, and so unworthy to present himself for Holy Communion, if he were to deliberately vote for a candidate precisely because of the candidate’s permissive stand on abortion and/or euthanasia. When a Catholic does not share a candidate’s stand in favour of abortion and/or euthanasia, but votes for that candidate for other reasons, it is considered remote material cooperation, which can be permitted in the presence of proportionate reasons (WTRC – Concluding note).
Hence a priest is not permitted, per se, to conclude that all his parishioners who vote for pro-choice candidates are in sin for doing so and/or are unworthy to receive Holy Communion. There could be certain cases, as then Cardinal Ratzinger describes, wherein the pro-choice position was the reason that candidate got their vote, but this is not always or even usually the case. Most vote for a particular candidate for a whole host of reasons. One of those reasons, cannot be the candidate’s stand supporting abortion. Their vote must be based on other “proportionate” reasons. This notation in the document seems to yield some principles related to elections and the clergy’s role in preparing the faithful.
- A pastor, directly stating to his people that they should not for “Candidate A” may be going too far. Note that the document states that it is possible for Catholics to have proportionate reasons to vote for Candidate A even if he is pro-choice. While many of us may find this odious and could never even think of voting for such a candidate it does seem that then-Cardinal Ratizinger indicates such circumstances can prevail. Since the faithful have this freedom to exercise their judgment in this regard, it seems that the clergy should not usurp their judgment utterly by absolutely excluding certain, even pro-choice candidates.
- The determination of “proportionate reasons” is a matter involving prudential judgment . There may be legitimate differences among Catholics as to what those “proportionate” reasons might be. Some respect for the fact that these are prudential judgments is called for. Catholics may often have vigorous debates about proper priorities in voting but the document does not etch in stone what a “proportionate reason” is or is not. Hence debate should involve some mutual respect for the nature of prudential judgment. Many of us who are strongly pro-life cannot imagine any reason to vote for a pro-choice candidate of any party, ever. And yet there are issues that evoke passion and concern for others (while not excluding abortion) such as questions of war and peace, economic policy that includes justice for the poor, affordable housing, immigrant issues, responsible fiscal policy, and so forth. Like it or not, the document permits some considerations of other issues as long as they are proportionate.
- The Clergy must help the faithful make proper judgments and understand what is meant by proportionate reasons. Prudential judgments require a well formed conscience. Teaching the faithful is an important role that Bishops, priests and deacons must fulfill. Helping Catholics assess priorities and be well informed on all the moral and social issues is an essential and on-going work, not just at election time, but throughout the year.
- As stated in the document and quoted above, abortion and euthanasia have an important priority: Not all moral issues have the same moral weight as abortion and euthanasia (WTRHC # 3). This is for the reasons stated there. Hence it does not seem wrong for the clergy to give special emphasis to the evil of Abortion and also Euthanasia as they instruct the faithful in what it means to have proportionate reasons. At the same time these two central, moral issues of our day should not entirely eclipse other important issues either. Other moral issues such as same sex-“Marriage,” and social matters such as justice for the poor and immigrants, fair labor laws, affordable housing, educational reform and so forth are also important aspects of Catholic teaching that cannot wholly be neglected or set aside.
I realize this post will spur a great deal of controversy. But I have tried to stick to the document written by then-Cardinal Ratzinger. That document could not be clearer that abortion is a grave moral evil and that Bishops and Pastors have serious obligations to warn the faithful that any advocacy or funding of this evil, is direct, formal cooperation. It is a grave sin and excludes one from Communion. At the same time the document respects the prudential judgment that is involved in voting and distinguishes that act from direct or formal cooperation in abortion. This is what the document actually says. Hence, I invite your comments but encourage you to tie them back to the actual contents of the memo from then-Cardinal Ratzinger. We may all have certain wishes as to what the document should say, but in the end it says what it says. I am especially interested in your thoughts as to what priests can or can’t do in the close vicinity to actual election day, given what this document has to say.
As for me, I cannot believe that our country ever came to the place where candidates proudly run under the banner of supporting legal abortion. Something is deeply wrong with us and I pray that this great scourge will end. I don’t think any Catholic can steer clear of how very grave the sin of abortion is. While the document leaves open the notion of proportionate reasons, it seems clear that the horrible gravity of this crime must weigh very heavily in any moral reasoning surrounding the question of proportionate reasons to vote for pro-choice candidates. There is a judgment upon this land for what we are permitting and we have every obligation to be clear what side we are on and fight to end this scourge.