Cardinal Avery Dulles is encouraging U.S.
bishops to dialogue with dissenting Catholic politicians about their moral
responsibilities before advising them to not receive Communion.
Cardinal Dulles, the Laurence J. McGinley Professor of Religion and
Society at Fordham University, shared with ZENIT what important steps need
to be taken to defend human life, protect the sacraments, uphold the
teachings of the Church and respond to pro-abortion politicians.
Q: What are the practical steps a bishop could or should take to encourage
a Catholic politician to forgo support for abortion, euthanasia and
embryonic stem-cell research?
Cardinal Dulles: The first step should probably be to make sure that the
politicians understand the doctrine of the Church and the reasons for it.
Many politicians, like much of the American public, seem to be unaware
that abortion and euthanasia are serious violations of the inalienable
right to life.
These are not just "Church" issues but are governed by the natural law of
God, which is binding upon all human beings. The right to life is the most
fundamental of all rights, since a person deprived of life has no other
The Church does not herself frame civil laws, but she admonishes lawmakers
that the laws must be designed to support justice, including the rights of
the unborn child. Bishops should try to get into dialogue with politicians
and other persons in public life to remind them of their moral
If, after dialogue, the bishop finds the politician incorrigibly opposed
to Catholic teaching on this matter, he may have to advise or order the
politician not to receive holy Communion, which is by its very nature a
sign of solidarity with the Church.
Other steps might also be considered. For instance, the bishop could
instruct Catholic parishes and institutions not to invite such politicians
to speak on Church premises, not to give them roles in the liturgy and not
to honor them with rewards and honorary degrees.
Q: Some have questioned the insistence on the abortion question when there
are other matters
such as the conflict in Iraq and the death penalty
which there are contrasts between some politicians and the Church
position. Why is abortion being singled out?
Cardinal Dulles: The three cases you mention are quite different. The
Church recognizes that there are occasions when war and the death penalty
are justified, even though such measures are undesirable and should be
kept to the necessary minimum.
The present Holy Father has made it clear that he thinks that certain,
particular wars and executions are wrong and unnecessary. Catholics will
respect this as the prudential judgment of a wise and holy pastor.
But Catholics who fully accept the doctrine of the Church can sometimes
disagree about whether a given war or death sentence is morally
Abortion is in a different class. As the deliberate taking of innocent
human life, direct abortion can never be justified. About the moral
principle, there can be no debate in the Church. The teaching has been
constant and emphatic.
The civil law should not authorize, let alone encourage, such moral evils.
It should protect human life and dignity to the maximum degree possible.
But in assessing how to proceed, there may be differences of opinion. If
it is impossible to obtain passage of a law banning all abortions, or if
such a law would be unenforceable, it might be best to work for a law that
restricts access to abortion as much as possible, while continuing to work
for full justice.
Politics, after all, is the sphere of the possible, not the ideal.
Provided that the moral principles are kept clearly in view, bishops and
politicians will do well to keep in dialogue about matters of strategy.
Q: What are the risks the Church faces if it enforces stricter penalties
Cardinal Dulles: In imposing penalties, the Church is trying to protect
the sacraments against the profanation that occurs when they are received
by people without the proper dispositions. Dissenting politicians often
want to receive Communion as a way of showing that they are still "good
Catholics," when in fact they are choosing their political party over
their faith. But the imposition of penalties involves at least three
In the first place, the bishop may be accused, however unfairly, of trying
to coerce the politician's conscience.
Secondly, people can easily accuse the Church of trying to meddle in the
political process, which in this country depends on the free consent of
And finally, the Church incurs a danger of alienating judges, legislators
and public administrators whose good will is needed for other good
programs, such as the support of Catholic education and the care of the
For all these reasons, the Church is reluctant to discipline politicians
in a public way, even when it is clear that their positions are morally
The Church's prime responsibility is to teach and to persuade. She tries
to convince citizens to engage in the political process with a
The bishops hope that the electorate and the government will strive for a
society in which every human life is protected by law from conception to
Q: A corollary: Is the Church risking its tax-exempt status if it pushes
this issue? Could bishops' actions be construed as political? Should that
be a consideration at all?
Cardinal Dulles: Since the United States prides itself on its tradition of
religious freedom, the country will probably continue to recognize the
Church's right to speak out on the moral aspects of civil law and public
The Catholic Church has generally tried to avoid endorsing any particular
party or candidate for office. Churches that uphold moral principles in
political life do not forfeit their status as religious institutions and
their entitlement to tax exemption.
To be sure, some people misunderstand the non-establishment of religion in
the Bill of Rights as though it meant the exclusion of religion from
public life. In point of fact, this clause was intended to secure the
freedom of the church from interference by the state.
It goes with the second clause, which guarantees the freedom of churches
to teach and worship in accordance with their beliefs. In carrying out her
God-given mandate to labor for morality and justice, the Church renders an
inestimable benefit to civil society.
Christians should do their utmost to rectify misconstructions of the
non-establishment principle and to safeguard the right of churches to
teach and bear witness to what they see as pertaining to the faith.
Q: What should a priest do when confronted with a publicly dissenting
politician who appears in the Communion line?
Cardinal Dulles: In that situation, the priest has limited options. Often,
to avoid an ugly scene that would disrupt the ceremony, the priest will
feel obliged not to refuse Communion. In the absence of some formal decree
excluding a person from the sacraments, most priests will be very cautious
about turning Catholics away at the altar.
The primary responsibility rests on those asking for Communion to examine
themselves regarding their dispositions, as Paul says in 1 Corinthians
11:27-29. Only God can know with certitude the state of the communicant's
soul at the moment.
Q: Some observers wonder why canon law stipulates excommunication for a
woman who has an abortion
under certain conditions
doesn't apply the same penalty to a politician whose votes might help to
finance thousands of abortions. Is there a loophole in canon law?
Cardinal Dulles: In moral theology an important distinction is made
between ordering or performing an action and cooperating in the action of
another. Where the cooperation is remote, its influence on the effect may
be very slight.
To vote for an appropriations bill that includes some provisions for
funding abortions would not be so gravely sinful as to warrant
excommunication under Canon 1398. The vote might arguably be licit if the
funding for abortion were only incidental and could not be removed from a
bill that was otherwise very desirable.
The legal problem about abortion in the United States does not come
primarily from legislators but from the judiciary, which interprets the
Constitution as giving a civil entitlement to abortion practically on
demand. This interpretation of the Constitution, we believe, is erroneous
and should be corrected.
Q: How should the politicians and the public at large view the penalty of
excommunication? What is the Church's intention with the penalty?
Cardinal Dulles: Excommunication is not expulsion from the Church. The
excommunicated person remains a Catholic but is barred from access to the
sacraments until the penalty has been lifted by competent Church
authority. This spiritual penalty, the most serious that the Church can
inflict, is, so to speak, a last resort.
In extreme cases, the Church finds herself obliged to declare that a given
person is no longer in communion with the Church. The purpose of such an
excommunication is to protect the sacraments from profanation, to prevent
the faithful from being confused about the force of Catholic teachings,
and to assist the excommunicated person to reconsider, to repent and to be