American Catholic bishops and their failure to excommunicate
Can you name one elected Catholic official in the United States who is a convert from being pro-abortion or pro-same-sex marriage to the opposite view?
I can’t. There are, to be sure, pro-life and anti-same-sex marriage officials in both major political parties -- but I don’t know of any who converted to these positions.
There are indeed people who have converted. For example, the Pro-Life Action League has hosted conferences (Click here) presenting former abortionists. Two most notable converts have been the late Dr. Bernard Nathanson (1926-2011), who had aborted thousands of unborn children, and Norma McCorvey, who was plaintiff Jane Roe in Roe v. Wade. Both of them became actively pro-life. Both became Catholic. But neither was a politician.
There have been hundreds of elected Catholic officials, at the local, state and federal levels, largely of the Democratic Party, who have promoted abortion over the 40 years since the 1973 decision of Roe v. Wade. I dare say there is an equivalent number now declaring their support for same-sex marriage. What does the abysmal failure by the Church – hierarchy and faithful -- to convert any elected officials mean? What does it mean for the Church in the United States? What does it mean for our bishops? What have we failed to do?
I am not approaching this question as a failure of the Church or its bishops to influence public policy successfully. It is one thing for us to fail to reverse Roe v. Wade or for us to fail to prevent the adoption of same-sex marriage. But having a Catholic presence in the public square, having a Catholic influence on public policy, is only one of our goals. Our other goal is the saving of souls – the souls of the elected officials who call themselves Catholic. We have failed them.
(Cardinal Bernard Law, Senator Edward Kennedy, Rep. Patrick Henry)
How many of our Catholic elected officials will eventually assume the posture of U.S. Senator Ted Kennedy who, when he was dying, reached out to the Pope. Kennedy had no prior relationship with Benedict XVI. They were not friends. But no priest or bishop, not even Christ Himself in the Sacrament of Penance, could salve his conscience. He needed some consolation, public consolation, from the highest (visible) authority in the Church, for the life he had lived. So, he reached out to Pope Benedict XVI.
His letter to the Pope contained a laundry list of public policies he had advocated, as if those could be placed on a scale balancing them against the one deadly anti-Catholic policy he omitted from the letter, namely, a public stance in favor of aborting millions of unborn children. This is the full text of his July 2009 letter: (Click here). This is the full text of the Pope Benedict’s response: (Click here).Kennedy had sold his soul on abortion in order to get elected and re-elected a total of nine times to do other things he deemed good.
Actually, Kennedy didn’t sell his soul for the first one or two elections when he was still pro-life. Kennedy and all who follow his lead (the list is so, so long: Mario and Andrew Cuomo; John Kerry, Biden, Pelosi, Giuliani, Jerry Brown; Quinn of Illinois; Sebelius and her father John J. Gilligan; O’Malley of Maryland) received consolation from derelict priests in 1964. A report on the 1964 “Hyannisport colloquium,” naming the names of the priests, is provided in a January 2, 2009, article in The Wall Street Journal by Anne Hendershott, “How Support for Abortion Became Kennedy Dogma.” The priests attempted to show how an official could be both Catholic and pro-abortion. But now, in 2009, 45 years later, on his deathbed, about to face God, both All-Compassionate but also as the Supreme Judge, Kennedy was finding that the consolation these derelict priests gave him was not good enough for someone who had hoped to go to heaven.
It is our job as Catholics – hierarchy and faithful -- to save souls, to save the souls of Catholic elected officials, to help them change their views now before it is too late. What can we do?
Without tempering to any degree the traditional corporal works of mercy (feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, sheltering the homeless, visiting the sick, ransoming the captive, burying the dead), we must become more bold in conducting the spiritual works of mercy which include:
• instructing the ignorant; and
• admonishing sinners.
Given the Church’s consistent teaching on abortion and same-sex marriage, we have not failed in instructing the ignorant. No elected Catholic official is ignorant of Church teaching. This leaves admonishment of sinners as the spiritual work of mercy in demand.
It is an act of charity to be bold in proclaiming the truth. Pope Benedict XVI wrote, in his 2009 encyclical, Caritas in veritate (Charity in Truth): “To defend the truth, to articulate it with humility and conviction, and to bear witness to it in life are therefore exacting and indispensable forms of charity.” Para. 1, (Click here). Here is what St. Augustine (354-430 A.D.), bishop of the north African town of Hippo, wrote in Book I, chapter 9, of his famous City of God about how we should respond to people with their “fearful arrogance, lust, and greed,” those with “detestable wickedness and impiety”:
We tend culpably to evade our responsibility when we ought to instruct and admonish them, sometimes even with sharp reproof and censure, either because the task is irksome, or because we are afraid of giving offense; or it may be that we shrink from incurring their enmity, for fear that they may hinder and harm us in worldly matters, in respect either of what we eagerly seek to attain or what we weakly dread to lose…
St. Augustine continued by criticizing “anyone [who] refrains from reproof and correction of ill-doers because he looks for a more suitable occasion, or because he fears that this will make them worse…”
It would appear, would it not?, that the pro-abortion or pro-same-sex marriage elected officials have a view that Jesus was and is a nice guy, that He would never do anything to cause us angst, that He would never allow anyone to go to hell, if hell exists. They have this view of Jesus as full of compassion and never one to judge. This attitude is just not true to the Bible.
Yes, Jesus is compassionate and merciful. But He asked everyone to respond to Him and His message. Take a look at how some responded:
• Nicodemus: This man was a member of the Sanhedrin,a council of Jewish leaders.Notwithstanding his high position, he came to Jesus, albeit under cover of darkness, to ask Him about the truth. (John 3:1-21) Nicodemus became a follower of Jesus, helping to prepare His corpse for burial. (John 19:39-42)
• Zacchaeus: This man was a hated tax collector. Ignoring what the population thought of him, he came to Jesus in a most public manner by climbing a tree (in order to be able to see Him). Jesus invited Himself to Zacchaeus’ home for dinner and Zacchaeus responded mightily. (Luke 19:1-10)
• Simon the Pharisee: This man asked Jesus to dine at his home and Jesus accepted. Imagine Simon’s feelings when a woman interrupts the occasion. She pours oil on Jesus’ feet and wipes them with her hair and tears. Simon mutters to himself that, if Jesus were truly a prophet, He would know what kind of woman this is who touches Him. Jesus responds by contrasting her behavior with Simon’s. Jesus told the woman that her unidentified sins were forgiven. He continued the dinner with Simon. The Gospels do not report about how Simon responded to Jesus’ admonition. (Luke 7:36-50)
• Samaritan Woman: Jesus asked a Samaritan woman – a scandal on both counts – a woman and a Samaritan – to draw Him water from a well on a hot day. This act, a simple one in our world, started a conversation – we could say a conversation as deep as the well. She runs and tells the townspeople that Jesus told her “everything” she had ever done. That is, everything seriously wrong she had ever done which was to marry and remarry at least five times. Because of her testimony about Jesus, the townspeople asked Jesus to remain and many became believers. (John 4:4-26)
• Woman Caught in Adultery: While Jesus saved the woman caught in adultery who was about to be stoned. Although He did not condemn her, He instructed her to “sin no more.” (John 7:53 to 8:11)
• Good Thief: This man, being crucified next to Jesus, acknowledged that he had been condemned justly. He recognized the pure innocence of Jesus and showing an awareness of the divine royalty of Jesus, he asked Jesus to remember him when He came into His “kingdom.” (Luke 23:39-43)
• The Centurion with a Sick Servant: This man, a foreign Roman military officer, recognized the divine authority of the son of a Jewish carpenter in an occupied nation. (Matt. 8:5-13; Luke 7:1-10)
I think it is quite clear that Jesus was bold in proclaiming the truth to all comers. There were, of course, people who did not accept Jesus and His truth. He treated them to the “woes”: “Woe to you, whited sepulchers!…hypocrites!…brood of vipers!...blind guides!...fools!...How can you escape the damnation of hell!” (Matt. 23:1-39; Luke 11:37-54). He upended tables and used His whip – in an incident recounted in all four of the Gospels. (Matt. 21:12-17, 23-27; Mark 11:15-19, 27-33; Luke 19:45-48, 20:1-8; John 2:13-16)
Like these belligerent, obstinate, blind people in Jesus’ time, so many of our Catholic elected officials encounter Jesus, but do not change their behavior because of their encounter. Jesus proclaimed, “The truth shall set you free.” (John 8:32) The corollary is that nothing but the truth shall set us free. And their refusal can result in their damnation.
If our bishops believe the truth that abortion and same-sex marriage are seriously wrong, and that promoting abortion or same-sex marriage is grave sin, and if our bishops believe the consequence of grave sin is eternal damnation, then nothing they do can better put the fear of God into our elected Catholic officials than excommunication. It may not have the desired effect of changing the behavior of the elected officials. It may not save their souls. But it will help save the souls of the bishops and of the other faithful.
We must applaud:
• Bishop Thomas J. Tobin of Providence, Rhode Island, who admonished Congressman Patrick Kennedy (Ted Kennedy’s son) (Click here) privately in 2007 about his pro-abortion policies and instructed his priests not to distribute Communion to him (a fact Kennedy publicly divulged in 2009), and who admonished Kennedy in October 2009 – this time concerning healthcare reform. (Click here)
• Cardinal George and the other bishops of Illinois who met with Illinois Governor Patrick Quinn in December 2011 for two hours to admonish him with respect to his views on abortion and same-sex marriage – not only because he supported these but because he claimed that the Catholic principles he learned in attending Catholic grade school (St. Isaac Jogue), high school (Fenwick) and college (Georgetown University) supported these views (Click here). The meeting was public but the conversation was not -- until the governor publicly described the content as not being about abortion or same-sex marriage when, in fact, it was.
(Francis Cardinal George)
Excommunication sounds harsh. It sounds medieval. It certainly sounds lacking in the pastoral sensitivity the public expects of clergy of any denomination. But it is a way of shaking up a person’s conscience and informing him that his eternal salvation is at risk. It is an act of mercy and charity. It is pastorally sensitive!
Let me just cite two historical precedents.
• In the 1950’s, Archbishop Joseph Rummel of New Orleans (1876-1964) had written two pastoral letters against racism. He desegregated the churches. When there were protests against his assigning an African-American priest to a parish, he closed the parish church. When some objectors wrote to the pope, the pope responded that racism was a grave sin. And, when three Catholics organized protests and a boycott of Sunday collections against his orders to desegregate the parochial schools, he excommunicated them in April, 1962. One member of the excommunicated trio was Sheriff Leander Perez, a political boss in southern Louisiana and inveterate supporter of racial segregation. He was not reconciled with the Church until nearly the end of his life.
(Above is a page taken from Life Magazine in 1962 showing Mrs. B.J. Galliot Jr. kneeling before Archbishop Rummel asking him to retain racial segregation in Catholic schools. She was one of three Catholics excommunicated for opposing integration)
• There was a report in April 2010, based on new research in Vatican archives by Pave the Way Foundation who had examined German documents from 1930 to 1933. “The documents indicate that any Catholic who joined the Nazi party, wore the uniform or flew the swastika flag would no longer be able to receive the sacraments. This policy set three years before Hitler was elected chancellor made clear that the teachings of the Church were incompatible with Nazi ideology.” (Click here).
In the United States, Catholics are currently banned from joining the Masons, an anti-Catholic organization. (Rev. William Saunders of the Diocese of Arlington (Virginia), May 9, 1996, Arlington Catholic Herald, The ban on joining anti-Catholic organizations also extends to the Communist Party and the Ku Klux Klan. (Rev. John Trigilio, Jr., and Rev. Kenneth Brighenti, Catholicism for Dummies, ch. 9 (2011).) The Democratic Party does not state that it is anti-Catholic, but since it is pro-abortion and pro-same-sex marriage through and through, it is anti-Catholic and the ban on joining or supporting an anti-Catholic organization should extend to the Democratic Party. (See my “The Rise of the Abortion Party,” New Oxford Review (Nov. 2010), pp. 28-31.)
It takes no courage for a bishop to excommunicate an individual who commits sacrilege by mistreating a consecrated Host, a woman who pretends to be a priest, or an individual who physically assaults a bishop. It does, however, take a great deal of courage to excommunicate a public official. It can be perceived as meddling in politics. If the person doesn’t change his or her behavior, it will be perceived as ineffective. It may cause some priests and faithful to take the side of the excommunicated person. (See the reports above on the reaction to Bishop Tobin’s excommunication of Cong. Patrick Kennedy.) As quoted above, St. Augustine understood all the reasons not to excommunicate, but he also understood the reasons to excommunicate.
And our bishops should not delay – for decades -- in excommunicating. Evil-doers should be admonished, and subsequently excommunicated, early in their political career. If a man or woman speaks favorably during a political campaign of abortion or of same-sex marriage, if they accept donations by groups favoring abortion or same-sex marriage, they should be admonished and, if they do not change their behavior – in a reasonably short period of time, they should be excommunicated. Not because the bishop wants to flaunt his authority. Not because the bishop wants to obtain a result in an election or in the legislature. But because the bishop’s earnest desire, and canonical duty, is to save souls – the official’s, the faithful’s, and his own.
Spero columnist James M. Thunder is an essayist and attorney practicing in the Washington DC area.
The views and opinions expressed herein are those of the author only, not of Spero News.
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Bishop Gerardi was a human rights activist who was savagely murdered 17 years ago after he published a report linking Guatemala's military to 250,000 deaths.
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