There can be no clearer exposition of the mind of Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI) than what he set forth in the memorandum to Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, then Chairman of the Ad Hoc Committee of the USCCB charged with the responsibility of recommending a policy on the implementation of Canon 915 to the full body of bishops at their June 2004 meeting in Denver.  In that memorandum the future Pope made it clear that the minister of Holy Communio, whoever it should be, Cardinal, Bishop, Priest, Deacon or Extraordinary Minister of the Eucharist, was bound by the requirement of Canon 915 to withhold Holy Communion from a politician known for his or her pro-abortion public stand.  The scandal was/is that Cardinal McCarrick put the memorandum from the future Pope in his back pocket and gave the bishops a message that was the exact opposite of what the future Pope had sent to him.  The result was that the bishops adopted a vague policy that made it possible for the Nancy Pelosis and Ted Kennedys of the world to receive Holy Communion.

Canon 915 was part of the Code of Canon Law promulgated by Pope John Paul II in 1983 and therefore it can be said to represent the clear teaching of two popes:  John Paul II and Benedict XVI.

Further, just as the United States Supreme Court interprets the Constitution and laws of the Nation, so the Apostolic Signatura in Rome is charged with the responsibility of settling disputes about the meaning of Canon Law.  Shortly before he became the Prefect of the Apostolic Signatura, Archbishop Raymond Burke, then Archbishop of Saint Louis published an essay challenging the 2004 policy adopted by the USCCB.  It is unreasonable to suppose that Archbishop Burke changed his thinking on the subject after he became the Prefect of the Signatura.  Here is the Catholic News Service report on Archbishop Burke’s essay:

St. Louis, Mo., Oct 2, 2007 / 10:24 am (CNA).- In an essay certain to have an impact on American politics, Archbishop Raymond Burke of the Archdiocese of St. Louis has criticized lax attitudes concerning the reception of the Holy Eucharist.  His words continue a long-standing debate about whether Catholic politicians who support abortion rights should receive communion.

Archbishop Burke’s essay, titled “The Discipline Regarding the Denial of Holy Communion to Those Obstinately Persevering in Manifest Grave Sin,” appeared in Periodica De Re Canonica, a publication of the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome.  In it, the archbishop counseled that pastors should actively intervene to ensure that communicants receive Holy Communion worthily, basing his reasons on a detailed interpretation and analysis of canon law.

Canon law is composed of the rules and regulations governing the Catholic Church.  It outlines the rights and duties of the faithful of all orders of church life: laity, vowed religious, clergy, and bishops. Canon law is also the inspiration for much of the democratic legal system that exists today.

Response to the USCCB

The archbishop writes in response to a statement of the United States’ Conference of Catholic Bishops, “Catholics in Political Life”, which was adopted in June of 2004.  The statement was written to answer questions about the proper disposition of Catholics in political office who supported immoral public policies, especially the legalization of unlimited abortion.  The bishops’ conference document, while stressing the importance of worthy reception of Holy Communion, refrained from creating general guidelines.  It said:  “such decisions rest with the individual bishop in accord with the established canonical and pastoral principles. Bishops can legitimately make different judgments on the most prudent course of pastoral action.”

To this, Archbishop Burke responded:  “the question regarding the objective state of Catholic politicians who knowingly and willingly hold opinions contrary to the natural moral law would hardly seem to change from place to place.”

Archbishop Burke argued that the American discussion had overemphasized Canon 916, which concerns the duty of Catholics to practice honest self-examination so that they should receive Holy Communion in a state free from mortal sin.  This overemphasis worked to the detriment of the observation of Canon 915, which concerns the duty of the minister of the Sacrament to ensure that those who recieve Holy Communion are properly disposed.

Proper disposition for Holy Communion requires the communicant to be in a state of grace, that is, free from unrepented mortal sin.

Refusal of Communion is not excommunication

The archbishop also clarified that the denial of Holy Communion was not necessarily an act of excommunication, but the exercise of a moral duty on the part of the minister “to respect the holiness of the Sacrament, to safeguard the salvation of the soul of the party presenting himself to receive Holy Communion, and to avoid scandal.”

Such action, he said, must take place with deliberation and prudence.  Grave and public sinners “must be cautioned not to approach to receive Holy Communion.”  The archbishop advises pastoral conversation with such persons “so that the person knows that he is not to approach to receive Holy Communion and, therefore, the distribution of Holy Communion does not become an occasion of conflict.”

Politicians accept great responsibility

Though such action does not concern only notorious sinners who are politicians, Archbishop Burke underlined public officials’ unique duties:  “Catholics in public office bear an especially heavy burden of responsibility to uphold the moral law in the exercise of their office which is exercised for the common good, especially the good of the innocent and defenseless.”

Archbishop Burke closed his essay by admonishing priests and bishops to fulfill their difficult duty:  “No matter how often a bishop or priest repeats the teaching of the Church regarding procured abortion, if he stands by and does nothing to discipline a Catholic who publicly supports legislation permitting the gravest of injustices and, at the same time, presents himself to receive Holy Communion, then his teaching rings hollow. To remain silent is to permit serious confusion regarding a fundamental truth of the moral law.”

Here is Cardinal O’Malley’s views as reported by LifeSiteNews:

Thursday February 18, 2010

WASHINGTON, DC, February 18, 2010 ( – The full transcript of LSN’s January 2010 conversation with Boston’s Cardinal Sean O’Malley on denying Communion to pro-abortion politicians is as follows:

LSN: “So you think it needs a directive from the Pope or be made clear in Canon Law?”

O’Malley: “It’s the only way it is really going to work – this isn’t the only country that has this problem.”

O’Malley: “… I wrote to him [John Paul II] and asked him to please give us very clear direction on how to deal with politicians who will be pro-abortion and will be Catholic. We have not had the kind of clear response that we need.”

LSN: “Do you think something coming forth in Canon Law – would that be helpful?”

O’Malley: “That would be helpful if they did it. But if it is not done – to make it look like it’s an individual bishop sparring with the people of particular parties is only going to divide the Church in a very terrible way. Then you’ll have some priest who will obey and others who won’t, other divisions of the Church, more scandal, and undermining the authority of the bishops.”

[Although turning away at an aide’s urging to leave the Basilica, the Cardinal returned to clarify that he was concerned about how to deal with pro-abortion Catholic politicians from the very beginning. O’Malley said he asked that question when John Paul II solicited input from bishops for the pro-life encyclical Evangelium Vitae.]

LSN: “A number of Catholics are concerned about Catholics who are pro-abortion and in politics. Some have said the bishops have to deny them communion. But in your estimation, what is exactly is the appropriate pastoral response? How should Catholics understand this?”

O’Malley:  “Well I think that the only way that that solution should be invoked is if there were a large catechesis or if it was universal for the whole Church. You can’t have people doing things in one parish and another, you would only divide the Church hopelessly.”

About abyssum

I am a retired Roman Catholic Bishop, Bishop Emeritus of Corpus Christi, Texas
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