This week's stories | Home Page
Issue Date:  October 1, 2004

Critics charge that Washington cardinal misled bishops’ conference


A senior U.S. Catholic leader is being accused by critics of misleading his brother bishops and misrepresenting Vatican guidance on the question of how the church should treat Catholic politicians who support abortion rights.

The charge against Washington Cardinal Theodore McCarrick dates back to June, when the U.S. bishops met for six days behind closed doors. In presenting the recommendations of a task force he leads, the Washington cardinal, it is alleged, soft-pedaled advice from Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, head of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and hid from view a Ratzinger memo lest the bishops’ conference reject McCarrick’s moderate approach to the who-should-be-denied Communion question. Ultimately, the bishops, in a 183-6 vote, agreed to a statement noting their collective “frustration and deep disappointment” with Catholic politicians who support abortion rights, but they left it up to individual bishops in their own dioceses to decide who is and isn’t eligible to receive Communion.

Some conservative Catholics, such as Newark Archbishop John Myers, are using their interpretations of the congregation’s guidance to make the case against voting for pro-choice politicians (such as John Kerry), while some liberals, such as syndicated columnist and Chicago archdiocesan priest Andrew Greeley, interpret it as giving conscientious Catholics a green light to vote for pro-choice candidates.

“Had the letter of Cardinal Ratzinger been fully and completely shared with the bishops,” Fr. Richard John Neuhaus told a Sept. 16 Washington conference on Catholic politicians and the church, “there is every reason to believe the [bishops’] statement … would have been even more clear.” Neuhaus, a New York diocesan priest and editor of First Things, is an ally of those in the U.S. hierarchy who argue for a tougher approach to Catholic politicians who support abortion rights.

One point in the dispute seems irreconcilable. McCarrick told the bishops gathered in Denver that Ratzinger “has offered some observations for our work which he specifically asked not be published, but which I wish to share with you.” By contrast, Neuhaus told the National Press Club audience, Ratzinger wanted the text of his memorandum shared with the body of bishops.

St. Louis Archbishop Raymond Burke has publicly called McCarrick’s credibility into question. Burke, who gave the Communion issue prominence when he said publicly earlier this year that Kerry was not welcome to receive Communion in St. Louis, told a conservative Catholic publication, “The text of the memorandum would have been very helpful at the meeting in Denver. Knowing now about the memo, I am disappointed it was not given to us at the meeting of the bishops’ conference.”

NCR Editorial

Partisans try to narrow Catholics' choices
     Roughly 25 million Catholics will vote in the upcoming presidential election. Approximately half give or take a few hundred thousand will cast their ballots for George W. Bush; the other 12.5 million or so for John Kerry. The latter, say a handful of bishops and a group of Catholic pundits, are sinners.
     Not since the late 1950s and early 60s has the question of the role of the church and its relationship with its most visible public figures so dominated the American church. And never has such a small band of ideological partisans attempted to make their narrow reading of a political race the undisputed view of the church. There is a lot at stake.

Neuhaus told NCR, “The bishops I have talked to have no doubt that [McCarrick’s] presentation did not accurately represent the communication from Cardinal Ratzinger.”

It’s all about politics, McCarrick told NCR Aug. 20. Of bishops who question his forthrightness McCarrick said, “I think it’s because they read what some people who are determined to get involved politically and determined to give no quarter and take no prisoners, are saying to them and writing to them.”

The initial brouhaha broke July 3 when the Italian magazine L’Espresso published the Ratzinger memorandum. The Ratzinger memo, McCarrick said at the time, “may represent an incomplete and partial leak of a private communication from Cardinal Ratzinger and it may not accurately reflect the full message I received.” Part of that message, apparently, was received in private conversations with Ratzinger and also in other “written materials” that were not part of the memo.

On July 9, at McCarrick’s behest, Ratzinger sent a letter in which he indicated that the bishops statement produced in Denver “is very much in harmony with the general principles” of the controversial memorandum” which was sent “in order to assist the American bishops in their related discussion and determinations.”

End of story? Hardly.

Neuhaus, for one, read Ratzinger’s clarification as a typically understated Roman criticism of the Washington cardinal. “This is a classic instance of observing what in the Vatican is called bella figura -- in this case, reproaching by subtle indirection,” writes Neuhaus in the November issue of First Things. “How could Ratzinger’s earlier letter have assisted the bishops in their discussion and deliberations if it was not shared with them? Which is precisely what McCarrick did not do and claimed he was instructed not to do,” wrote Neuhaus.

The six-point Ratzinger memorandum -- offered as “general principles” on “Worthiness to Receive Holy Communion” -- notes that after a pastor has met with the pro-choice politicians and explained church teaching “and the person in question, with obstinate persistence, still presents himself to receive the Holy Eucharist,” he or she “must” be denied the Eucharist.

As to Catholic voters who support pro-choice politicians, a footnote to the memorandum says, “A Catholic would be guilty of formal cooperation in evil, and so unworthy to present himself for Holy Communion, if he were to deliberately vote for a candidate precisely because of the candidate’s permissive stand on abortion and/or euthanasia. When a Catholic does not share a candidate’s stand in favor of abortion and/or euthanasia, but votes for that candidate for other reasons, it is considered remote material cooperation, which can be permitted in the presence of proportionate reasons.”

In his prepared remarks at the bishops’ meeting (made public on the bishops’ Web site following the first murmurs of discontent), McCarrick told the bishops that Ratzinger “recognizes that there are circumstances in which Holy Communion may be denied” but that he “clearly leaves to us as teachers, pastors and leaders whether [emphasis in original] to pursue this path.”

McCarrick continued: “It is important to note that Cardinal Ratzinger makes a clear distinction between public officials and voters, explaining that a Catholic would be guilty of formal cooperation in evil only [emphasis in original] if he were to deliberately vote for a candidate precisely because of the candidate’s permissive stand on abortion. However, when a Catholic does not share a candidate’s stand in favor of abortion and/or euthanasia, but votes for that candidate for other reasons, it is considered remote material cooperation, which can be permitted if there are proportionate reasons.”

Yet the story is not over. The McCarrick-headed Task Force on Catholic Bishops and Catholic Politicians is expected to make an additional report at the next meeting of the nation’s bishops, scheduled for November in Washington.

Joe Feuerherd is NCR Washington correspondent. His e-mail address is

Weighing the options for Catholic voters

Can a faithful Catholic vote for John Kerry -- or any other candidate who supports abortion rights or federally funded embryonic stem cell research?

Only when “both candidates [are] in favor of embryo killing on roughly an equal scale” or “when the candidate with the superior position on abortion and embryo-destructive research [is] a supporter of objective evils of a gravity and magnitude” beyond abortion and federally-funded stem cell research, Newark Archbishop John Myers wrote in a Sept. 18 Wall Street Journal column.

Though he names no names, such as John Kerry or George W. Bush, Myers’ article aimed to put the “proportionate reasons” cited by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger in his memorandum “On Worthiness to Receive Holy Communion” into the current political context. “Certainly,” he wrote, “policies on issues such as welfare, national security, the war in Iraq, Social Security or taxes, taken singly or in any combination do not provide a ‘proportionate reason’ to vote for a pro-abortion candidate,” wrote Myers.

But what if the self-proclaimed antiabortion candidate is unable or unwilling to enact the programs and policies that would limit the practice? That question was considered Sept. 17 by Jesuit Fr. John Langan, Joseph Cardinal Bernardin Professor of Catholic Social Thought at Georgetown University.

“If a person, whether a political candidate or a citizen judges that an objective such as the prohibition of abortion is simply not attainable in the present state of American public and legal opinion, then he or she cannot be required to make the prohibition of abortion the decisive consideration in voting or to demand it as an essential plank in the political platform,” Langan told an Ave Maria University Law School-sponsored conference on Catholic politicians and abortion.

“If I vote for a candidate who professes to be strongly pro-life but is either unable or unwilling to reduce or eliminate abortions, then I have not succeeded in achieving my pro-life objective,” said Langan. He continued, “Politics is not merely the expression of values; it is social action shaped by many discordant forces over time. Moral principles are profoundly important in political life, but they are enveloped within a larger and less well ordered and unprincipled reality.”

-- Joe Feuerherd

National Catholic Reporter, October 1, 2004

This Week's Stories | Home Page | Top of Page
Copyright  © The National Catholic Reporter Publishing  Company, 115 E. Armour Blvd., Kansas City, MO   64111
All rights reserved.
TEL:  816-531-0538     FAX:  1-816-968-2280   Send comments about this Web site to: