National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  July 2, 2004

Bishops spare us Eucharist politics

Some may view the recent vote of the U.S. bishops to leave the decision over what to do about pro-choice politicians to individual prelates as a cowardly way out of a difficult question.

The decision to deny Communion to a politician, they said in a statement developed during their June meeting, rests “with the individual bishop in accord with the established canonical and pastoral principles.” Those principles turn out to be elastic enough that “bishops can legitimately make different judgments on the most prudent course of pastoral action.”

That is as it should be, and we’re grateful that common sense prevailed over the extreme views of a tiny minority intent on making impossible demands of the political arena.

On one level, the bishops had little choice. Even if so inclined, the bishops’ conference has no power to instruct a member on how he should teach, discipline or educate the faithful in his diocese. The most a conference can do is recommend and suggest.

Still, it is reassuring that the vast majority of U.S. bishops (only six voted against the statement) clearly did not want to make the Eucharist a political football. Some of us feared a closer vote behind closed doors.

Perhaps some bishops realized how hypocritical it would appear were they to apply far more severe sanctions on politicians for their votes than the bishops have applied to themselves for their role in the clergy sex abuse scandals.

Maybe others realized that a strong statement by the entire conference would place the church in the awkward position of advancing as a “pro-life” candidate, at least by implication, a politician who had the distinction while governor of Texas of overseeing the execution of the largest number of people (40) in one year by a single state; whose international policies have resulted in the deaths of countless civilians in a war persistently condemned by Pope John Paul II; and whose spending priorities require more than a billion dollars a day going to military pursuits.

As this week’s cover story demonstrates — and as we have repeatedly pointed out in this space — perfect candidates simply don’t exist. Catholics and the bishops face a genuine dilemma at times in sorting out the obligations of citizenship and of membership in the church. For too long, however, the U.S. bishops have been badly used by politicians whose antiabortion rhetoric is rarely matched by action. Unfortunately, those same politicians know they need not worry about the rest of the church’s social agenda because they’ll never be called on it. President Bush is merely the latest and highest profile politician to benefit from the bishops’ single-issue approach.

Given the limited success the bishops have had in convincing Catholics as well as the wider culture of the significance of abortion, it is encouraging that the bishops’ statement included language demanding that they themselves “do more to persuade all people that human life is precious and human dignity must be defended. This requires more effective dialogue and engagement with all public officials, especially Catholic public officials. We welcome conversation initiated by political leaders themselves.”

Conversation and dialogue suggest that the bishops are willing to listen as well as proclaim; persuasion requires deeper understanding of peoples’ experiences than does issuing decrees.

Whatever the ultimate strategy, the church as well as the wider culture will benefit from the opportunity to listen in on what likely will be an ongoing debate. The result might be messier than if the bishops had come to a tidy consensus on how to deal with the issue, but it will also be far more human and representative of how life really is, even inside communities of faith.

National Catholic Reporter, July 2, 2004

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