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When Bishops Teach

Faithful Catholics cheered recently when Bishop William Weigand of Sacramento, California, declared, “As your bishop, I have to say clearly that anyone—politician or otherwise—who thinks it is acceptable for a Catholic to be pro-abortion is in very great error, puts his or her soul at risk, and is not in good standing with the Church.” The occasion for the bishop’s remarks was the annual Pro-Life Mass in January. California governor Gray Davis, a Catholic, took exception to Bishop Weigand’s homily.

There are three important points in Bishop Weigand’s statement: (1) It does not make exceptions for politicians, (2) it reminds the faithful that anyone who endorses abortion puts his soul at grave risk, and (3) it indicates that good standing within the Church can be forfeited.

Politicians and the Role of the Bishop

It is rare to hear a bishop warn the faithful so pointedly that Catholicism makes no allowance for politicians and public figures who are caught in the cultural crossfire. Thomas More suffered martyrdom at the height of his political influence rather than subordinate Catholic teaching to political expediency. In sixteenth-century England the critical political issue was the king’s insistence that he, not the pope, was head of the Church in England. A member of Parliament and the first layman to be chancellor of England, More said, “I am the King’s good servant, but God’s first.” For this his friend and king, Henry VIII, beheaded him. Thomas More forfeited his life rather than his soul.

Today it is primarily the abortion issue that tempts Catholic politicians to put political expediency before their faith. Some Catholic politicians offer a reasoned defense of life and continue to serve in public office. Some—notably the late governor of Pennsylvania, Democrat Bob Casey, pay a price for their courage. (Casey was prohibited from speaking at the Democratic convention in 1992 because his pro-life views went against the party platform.)

But too many Catholic politicians have simply accommodated the culture of death. Governor Davis and numerous other politicians who support the abortion platform—among them Ted Kennedy, Tom Daschle, Joe Biden, John Kerry, and Nancy Pelosi—insist that their Catholicism is intact. Indeed, Gray Davis’s office seemed to think that the governor had a special dispensation when it fired back a response that challenged Bishop Weigand for “telling the faithful how to practice their faith.”

Yet that is precisely what a bishop is called to do. That is why we have bishops. They are more than fundraisers or photo-op props for ambitious politicians. According to Vatican II, bishops are the successors of Peter and the apostles who are to “preach the gospel” as “heralds of the faith . . . they are authentic teachers” (Lumen Gentium 25, Catechism of the Catholic Church 888).

Apparently Davis has a misconception of a bishop’s job description. A bishop shepherds his flock from the cathedral, taken from cathedra, a Greek and Latin word for chair. The one who speaks from this chair has the authority to teach and instruct on matters of faith and morals. Jesus himself instructed the apostles to pay heed to what the Pharisees taught when they sat upon “Moses’ seat,” even though the Pharisees themselves did not “practice what they preach” (cf. Matt.23:1–3). Additionally, bishops are charged with “ruling well their own churches as portions of the universal Church . . . contributing to the welfare of the whole Mystical Body” (LG 23).

Political wrangling during the last 40 years has left many a Catholic scratching his head about the right relationship between the bishops’ instructions and the faithful exercise of our civic duties, whether we are private or public citizens. Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver, Colorado, wrote of the sad legacy of the John Kennedy model of a Catholic politician that is nothing more than “accommodating our Catholic faith to politics instead of forming and informing our politics through our faith.” The Archbishop went on to proclaim that “God is good for democracy. Catholic faith creates and sustains good citizenship.” He instructed his flock to bear Catholic teaching in mind when they entered the voting booth.

Since Roe v. Wade the Catholic bishops of the United States have consistently taught that abortion is an objective moral evil. But many Catholic politicians continue to confuse the line between fidelity to moral truth and political obligations. During the 1984 presidential campaign, John Cardinal O’Connor of New York and Catholic vice presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro had a fiery public exchange that outlined the confusion.

The confusion is not about the moral status of abortion but rather about how a Catholic in public office must balance that clear teaching and his public duties under the law. Voters too have wondered if it is permissible to vote for a candidate who takes a strong stand on social justice issues but who defends abortion consistently.

To address that confusion, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith released a new document, “Doctrinal Note on Some Questions Regarding the Participation of Catholics in Political Life,” in January 2003. The document is addressed to “bishops of the Catholic Church, Catholic politicians, and all lay members of the faithful called to participate in the political life of democratic societies.” The emphasis on “democratic societies” underscores the obligation of free citizens to change an unjust law.

The new document confirms constant Church teaching, but it is intended to aid Catholics who live in a culture that does not consistently reflect Catholic teaching on the sanctity of life. Life issues—abortion, euthanasia, cloning, fetal tissue research—will be an increasingly important component of Catholic civil and political life in democratic nations. Alfonso Cardinal López-Trujillo, president of the Pontifical Council for the Family observed, “A political leader . . . is an architect of society.”

How American Catholic politicians and voters respond to these crucial questions will shape the social landscape for the next generation. The bishops are called to instruct Catholics how politicians, public officials, and Catholic voters should apply the doctrinal note.

The document is clear. Catholics “cannot compromise” for the sake of a misguided tolerance because “those who are directly involved in lawmaking bodies have a grave and clear obligation to oppose any law that attacks human life. For them, as for every Catholic, it is impossible to promote such laws or to vote for them.” And “a well-formed Christian conscience does not permit one to vote for a political program or an individual law which contradicts the fundamental contents of faith and morals.”

A “political program” includes a party platform. You simply cannot claim to be a faithful Catholic and support abortion laws or a political candidate or party that supports abortion policies. But what of the “consistent ethic of life” argument? Isn’t the “single-issue” voter obliged to examine a candidate’s total position—a just wage, fair education, and capital punishment?

No. All life issues are not of equal moral weight. The word consistent is mistakenly read by some to indicate equal. As Francis Cardinal George of Chicago, Illinois, points out, abortion is “a defining issue not only personally but socially. Poverty can be addressed incrementally, but the death of a child is quite final” (The Catholic New World, Oct. 1–7, 2000).

The only time a Catholic may vote for a politician who holds pro-abortion views is if the alternative is even worse. So, for instance, if candidate A, who supports abortion but is opposed to euthanasia and cloning, is running against candidate B, who is pro-abortion and supports euthanasia and cloning, a Catholic may in good conscience—albeit with a heavy heart—vote for candidate A. Of course, when faced with no good alternative, Catholics may choose to simply refrain from voting.

The CDF doctrinal note is a significant development. Political strategists are acutely aware that Catholic voters make up nearly a third of the voters nationally (even though historically the Catholic population is not a unified voting block, in part due to the confusion outlined above). As they digest this document, fewer and fewer Catholic voters will be at ease with a direct assault on its directives. Catholic politicians cannot wrap themselves in Catholic externals in order to attract the Catholic vote and expect to be issued a get-out-of-jail-free card by their bishops. Bishop Weigand has set a standard not only for laity and politicians but also for his brother bishops.

Souls at Risk

Some Catholic politicians are afraid of the abortion industry. They claim allegiance to the faulty ideal of a “woman’s rights” because they cannot admit that they fear the loss of support provided by the abortion cabal. Such politicians believe that the financial power and influence of the merchants of death are key to their political dreams. In such cases they have put their very souls at risk, as the bishop of Sacramento made clear.

Bishop Weigand’s homily added the definitive stamp to the efforts of Msgr. Edward Kavanagh, pastor of St. Rose Parish in Sacramento. In December 2002, Msgr. Kavanagh questioned Governor Gray Davis about his support of abortion and suggested that Davis examine his conscience. Bishop Weigand said, “I applaud Msgr. Kavanagh for his strong and consistent witness. People need to understand that you cannot call yourself a Catholic in good standing and at the same time publicly hold views that are contradictory to the Catholic faith. Thank you, Msgr. Kavanagh, for standing up for the unborn, for your dedication to truth and for your pastoral concern for souls, including the governor’s.”

Pastoral care of souls is the responsibility of bishops and priests. The crosier (in the shape of a shepherd’s crook) is given to a bishop upon his installation. It is the symbol of his care for the souls of his flock. The Code of Canon Law stipulates that a bishop’s pastoral duties require that he “be solicitous for all Christ’s faithful entrusted to his care . . . [including] those who have lapsed from religious practice” (can. 383). Further, the bishop is “to strive constantly that Christ’s faithful entrusted to his care may grow in grace” (can. 387).

Bishop Weigand lamented that many pro-abortion Catholic politicians hide behind the “guise of [women] making their own decisions about their bodies, [but] Governor Davis needs to recall that we do not own our bodies. We are not proprietors. We are stewards—stewards of a sacred trust. We all must decide how to care for our bodies. But abortion entails another body, that of the infant. The prohibition of God and of the law of nature is abundantly clear: ‘Thou shalt not kill.’”

Here again the bishop is within his rights and obligations to “teach and illustrate to the faithful the truths of faith which are to be believed and applied to behavior” (emphasis added). In this manner “Christian teaching is transmitted to all” (can. 386).

A crucial.aspect of the bishop’s pastoral care is to defend the faithful from scandal—in this case from prominent politicians who claim to be faithful Catholics but whose public behavior is in direct conflict with the teachings of the Church. A good bishop cannot permit a public model of erroneous Catholic practice to go unchallenged. Such public behavior left unchallenged may lead people to assume that the faulty practice is acceptable and thus endanger their souls as well. The Catechism makes special note of the gravity of the scandal caused by “anyone who uses power . . . in such a way that it leads others to do wrong” (CCC 2287). Political power surely qualifies.

Conversely, when a bishop definitively defends his flock from error, the faithful are encouraged. When the news of Bishop Weigand’s homily was made public, hundreds of Catholics across the country wrote to thank him for his leadership.

Good Standing in the Church?

Bishop Weigand counseled Davis and any abortion advocate to “abstain from receiving Holy Communion until he has a change of heart.” Stung by the bishop’s directive, the governor’s spokesman shot back, “There are a lot of Catholics who are pro-choice. Does the bishop want all Catholics to stop receiving Holy Communion? Who’s going to be left in church?”

Once again, it appears that Gray Davis and his spokespeople are in need of catechizing. A Catholic receiving Communion signifies his union with Christ and the Church. If someone is no longer in communion with the teachings of the Church, at Holy Communion time he should stay in his pew. Receiving the Eucharist is serious business. Paul taught that those who receive Communion unworthily bring judgment upon themselves (1 Cor. 11:27–29).

Governor Davis and other Catholic politicians who trumpet their support for abortion are not in union with the Church. Their reception of Communion is like reciting wedding vows while having an affair. Such politicians seek respectability by claiming a religious affiliation, but they have sanctioned the legal killing of millions of children. Let them attend a partial-birth abortion on Saturday afternoon and see then if they can approach the altar on Sunday.

Canon law provides that “a person who procures a successful abortion incurs an automatic (latae sententiae) excommunication” (can. 1398). There are those who are quick to claim freedom of conscience as their defense, but that excuse will not stand. Paul taught that a conscience must be formed in doctrinal purity, and those who fail to do so make a “ruin of their faith” (1 Tim. 1).

The answer to the second question from the governor’s office—”Who’s going to be left in church?”—is: faithful Catholics.

The governor has confused political power and the Church, worrying about how many people (votes? dollars?) would be left in the pews if abortion proponents who attend Catholic parishes staged an exodus. A lesson from the Bible applies to this scenario: Gideon was instructed by God to defeat the mighty Midianites who preyed on the children of Israel. Gideon raised an army, but God told him to “send home anyone who is afraid,” and 22,000 departed forthwith. Gideon accomplished his feat with just 300 men and the power of God (Judg. 7).

What use to the Body of Christ are members whose fear is greater than their faith? Those who fear the secular ridicule that is heaped on Catholic teaching may depart with our blessings, for they will bear no fruit.

In that spirit, the bishop of Trenton, New Jersey, Most Rev. John M. Smith, issued a policy statement in 1990 that prohibited pro-abortion politicians from receiving honors or speaking at any diocesan event. Additionally, he directed that no such person be entitled to “exercise any ministry, or hold any office in the Church or in any parish, even as an honorary chairperson.” The bishop reaffirmed that “the Church’s teaching about the sacredness of human life must be a priority for all Catholics”—no exceptions for politicians.

The Second Vatican Council document Apostolicam Actuositatem, speaking of the obligations of the laity, urges all to “strive to please God rather than men, always ready to abandon everything for Christ and to endure persecution in the cause of right.” This Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity emphasizes the complementary roles of the clergy and laity. The role of the bishops is in the Church; the role of the laity is to go into the world and “renew the temporal order” of “culture . . . institutions of the political community, [and] international relations” (AA 7).

Let us encourage shepherds of the Church who lead and instruct us wisely so that we, the laity—including politicians—who are called to change the culture with truth, may sanctify the world for Christ.


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