June 2004 Church & State | People & Events

A Vatican official in Rome has intervened in an ongoing U.S. dispute over pro-choice Roman Catholic politicians receiving communion, saying a Catholic who supports abortion rights "is not fit" to take the sacrament.

Speaking at a news conference in late April, Cardinal Francis Arinze was asked if pro-choice Catholics should take communion.

"Objectively, the answer is clear," he replied. "The person is not fit [to do so]. If they should not receive, then they should not be given."

Traditionalist Catholics who align with the Republican Party have been pressuring church leaders in America to crack down on Democratic presidential candidate John F. Kerry. Kerry, a Massa­chusetts senator and lifelong Roman Catholic, supports the right to legal abortion. He attends mass regularly and often takes communion.

Kerry has stated that he personally opposes abortion but as president would defend its legality. At a recent pro-choice rally in Washington, Kerry said, "Abortion should be rare, but it should be safe and legal, and the government should stay out of the bedrooms. We are going to have a change in leadership in this country to protect the right of choice."

According to a report in The New York Times, Arinze, a Nigerian who heads a Vatican office dealing with worship and the sacraments, told reporters that ultimately U.S. bishops have the right to decide who qualifies to receive communion. He never mentioned Kerry by name.

"The Catholic Church exists in the United States and there are bishops there," he said. "Let them interpret it."

Bishop Wilton D. Gregory, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, later issued a statement affirming Arinze's view.

"[E]ach diocesan bishop has the right and duty to address such issues of serious pastoral concern as he judges best in his local church, in accord with pastoral and canonical norms," said Gregory in a statement.

Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick of Washington, D.C., who heads a bishops' task force that is examining the issue, reportedly does not favor denying communion to punish pro-choice Catholics – a stance that has drawn the ire of the extreme anti-abortion group the Ameri­can Life League.

Susan Gibbs, a spokeswoman for McCarrick, told The Times that such a move could be counter-productive.

"Your goal is to bring them into the faith, not push them away," Gibbs said.

Yet some traditionalist Catholics and bishops are determined to force the issue. In New Jersey, Archbishop John J. Myers declared that Gov. Jim McGreevey and other pro-choice Catholic politicians are not eligible to receive communion.

McGreevey has agreed to stop receiving communion but says he will not alter his pro-choice views.

"I'm a Catholic and I greatly value my faith and draw great strength from it, but I also have a constitutional obligation as governor," he said.

Other Catholic politicians are taking a different tack. New Jersey Senate Maj­ority Leader Bernard Kenny announced he was leaving the church. The former altar boy had been a Catholic for 57 years. After being told by his pastor to stop coming for communion, Kenny has decided to join another Christian church.

Kenney noted the irony of the bishops' position. He pointed out that at previous times in American history, it was difficult for Catholics to get elected to public office because of fears that they would take direction from the Vatican and impose church doctrine on the entire population.

"This is exactly what the Catholic Church said 50 years ago would not happen when Catholic politicians were trying to get elected to office," Kenny told the Philadelphia Inquirer. "It is a total reversal of the position that enabled Catholics to represent people of all faiths and all backgrounds."

Added Kenny, "If every faith starts trying to impose their rules on elected officials, democracy is going to be factionalized along religious lines."

Ultra-conservative Catholics, meanwhile, are chortling with glee. Deal Hudson, an adviser to the Bush administration and editor of the traditionalist magazine Crisis, observed in an e-mail to supporters that Myers did "a fantastic job of explaining the Church's uncompromising support of life and what that means for the laity."

But a new survey by a pro-choice Catholic group indicates that few dioceses are denying communion to recalcitrant politicians. The survey by Catholics for a Free Choice found that 62 percent of dioceses have informal policies on the matter and only a handful of dioceses have actually taken the step of announcing that communion will be denied to pro-choice Catholics.

The group sent surveys to all 178 Roman Catholic dioceses in the country and received replies from 133.