National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  February 13, 2004

Communion ban an ineffective tactic

If former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson, now George W. Bush’s secretary of Health and Human Services, were to return to his native Elroy in the diocese of La Crosse, Wis., he wouldn’t have to hesitate to join the Communion line at St. Patrick’s Parish.

After all, he considers himself to be a faithful Catholic and in the eyes of his bishop, pro-life, meaning he supports restrictions of and a ban on legalized abortion. As HHS Secretary, he has been at the forefront of Bush administration efforts to restrict abortions, including a ban on late-term or partial-birth abortions.

So when La Crosse Bishop Raymond Burke, who moved on from Thompson’s diocese last month to become archbishop of St. Louis, ordered that legislators who support “procured abortion or euthanasia” be barred from Communion, Thompson, admittedly not a legislator, had no apparent reason to think he should be included in that ban.

However, should Thompson ever venture to New Orleans, he might have to think twice about receiving Communion.

“When Catholic officials openly support the taking of human life in abortion, euthanasia or the destruction of human embryos, they are no longer faithful members in the church and should not partake of holy Communion,” Archbishop Alfred Hughes wrote in a recent newspaper column.

Thompson currently oversees the federal laboratories where stem cells from human embryos frozen prior to August 2001 are being extracted.

NCR’s John Allen asked Thompson about the issue last year.

Replied Thompson: “Our position does not encourage other destructions, and it does not encourage people to have babies solely for building a supply of stem cells. I feel morally correct. I think it’s in line with church teaching that instead of throwing valuable resources away we make use of them.”

Thompson, sounding very much like a pro-choice Catholic legislator, continued: “I have to minister to the needs of citizens, the majority of whom are not believers in the Catholic church. I can’t do my job, carrying out the policies of this administration and previous administrations, by solely relying on Catholic teachings.”

Legislators who support “procured abortion or euthanasia” are engaged in “manifest grave sin,” Burke said in a “notification” last year.

What about those who support embryonic stem cell research? How far does one go?

One can also rightly ask: What about politicians who do not actively support other life issues? What about politicians who demagogue the death penalty? What about those who consistently oppose programs that would assist pregnant women and reduce the number of abortions? What about politicians who support war, even preemptive war?

The inconsistencies here discredit the admonishers.

That said, what insight might be found in Burke and Hughes’ positions?

At least some dishonesty can be attributed to Catholic politicians who say they “agree with” or “accept” church teaching on abortion, but then do nothing to help curtail the practice.

Catholic politicians face the stark reality that official church teaching states that abortion is tantamount to taking of an innocent human life. To embrace this teaching fully is to accept that more than 40 million human beings have been legally eliminated since Roe v. Wade became the law of the land 31 years ago. It is clear that many Catholics do not hold to that extreme view of the issue, but neither do they hold to the other extreme -- that there is nothing wrong with abortion in any circumstance. Even admitting to doubt surrounding difficult questions of when human life begins, millions of healthy fetal lives have been terminated through legalized abortion.

Such facts compel some action -- maybe minimally supporting parental notification laws for minors seeking abortions or for restrictions on late-term abortions.

Alternatively, a Catholic politician might acknowledge that he or she does not agree with what the church teaches about abortion. She or he might raise the point that it is impossible to achieve wide religious or scientific consensus -- never mind certainty -- on the beginning of life, that there are situations where procured abortion is justified under certain circumstances.

But far too often, it seems, politics trumps expressions and actions dealing with personal morality.

Pensacola-Tallahassee, Fla., Bishop John Ricard, a member of the bishops’ task force developing guidelines on “Catholics in Public Life,” has a point when he states that “some Catholic legislators choose their party over their faith, their ideology over Catholic teaching, the demands of their contributors over the search for common good.”

That’s true on all the “life issues.”

So what is a bishop to do?

First, preach and teach the principles of Catholic morality.

Second, acknowledge in a democracy, when dealing with legislators, there are not easy answers and that elected officials both lead and reflect the virtues and vices of those they represent.

Third, refrain from the temptation to move to disciplinary solutions. They are ineffective and are bound to fail, especially when they are widely viewed as inconsistent.

Is Thompson guilty of grave immorality for his involvement in allowing stem cell research to continue? He has been called to weigh some difficult issues and he responded with intelligence, a dose of humility and, it seems, not inconsiderable integrity.

Not a bad standard for both our bishops and our politicians.

National Catholic Reporter, February 13, 2004

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