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COMMUNION-COUGHLIN Sep-20-2004 (850 words) xxxn

Canonist says bishops must deny Communion to dissident politicians

By Jerry Filteau
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- Franciscan Father John J. Coughlin, a civil and canon lawyer, said church law obliges bishops to deny Communion to politicians who obstinately refuse to budge from a public position upholding legal abortion despite warnings and efforts to educate them on why their view is contrary to church teaching.

But he said there may be good pastoral reasons for not doing that during an election campaign.

Father Coughlin, who teaches law at the University of Notre Dame, addressed the canon law aspects of the question Sept. 16 at a conference, "Public Witness/Public Scandal," which was devoted to exploring various aspects of the topic.

The question has led to a national controversy this year, sparked in large part by the candidacy of the Democratic presidential nominee, Sen. John F. Kerry, a Catholic who supports keeping abortion legal.

The Ave Maria Law School and Our Sunday Visitor Foundation co-sponsored the daylong conference, held at Washington's National Press Club.

Father Coughlin said the relevant law for most Catholics is Canon 915 in the Code of Canon Law, which says that Catholics "obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin are not to be admitted to holy Communion."

For Eastern-rite Catholics, Canon 712 in the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches says, "Those who are publicly unworthy are forbidden to receive the divine Eucharist."

Father Coughlin said recent Vatican documents make it clear that Catholic politicians are in "manifest grave sin" if their voting record "shows a definite pro-abortion or pro-euthanasia position."

He cited this summer's statement of principles, "Worthiness to Receive Holy Communion," by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, prefect of the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, as a key document spelling out the theological and canonical principles for the determination that Catholic politicians who support legal abortion are in manifest grave sin, as well as the procedures to be followed by church authorities for dealing with those politicians.

The cardinal sent the statement in a confidential letter to Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick of Washington, head of a task force of U.S. bishops examining that issue, shortly before the bishops' June special assembly, at which the question was discussed. In early July the Vatican cardinal's statement was leaked to an Italian magazine, which posted the text online.

Referring to the statement as an "instruction" of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Father Coughlin said it presents an "authoritative protocol" for pastors to follow in confronting politicians who publicly dissent from church teaching on abortion or euthanasia, seeking to persuade them to change their views, but ultimately denying them Communion if they obstinately persevere in their position.

He said Archbishop Raymond L. Burke of St. Louis set a model for such an approach last year, when he was bishop of La Crosse, Wis., and communicated with three local politicians whose voting records he judged to be pro-abortion. When the politicians declined to change their positions, he issued a formal canonical notification, made public in January, that they should not present themselves for Communion and must be denied the sacrament if they did present themselves to receive it.

Those who disagree with Archbishop Burke's position "disregard church law," Father Coughlin said.

When politicians who publicly oppose church teaching on abortion are permitted to receive Communion, "it is a source of scandal for all devout believers," he said.

While he devoted most of his talk to explaining and defending the theological principles and law of the church on the matter, Father Coughlin concluded with several observations in defense of bishops who may not seek to bar dissident politicians from Communion immediately.

"The present absence of agreement among the bishops" could lead a dissenting politician to conclude that the law in question is a "lex dubia," or doubtful law, and there is a longstanding canonical principle that a doubtful law does not bind, he said.

He also said that "a sudden enforcement of Canon 915" after many years of not enforcing it could give an overall impression of arbitrariness, causing pastoral harm.

"Canon law was never intended to influence an election," so it might be pastorally prudent to wait until after the current elections to begin the process of educating and warning dissenting politicians. He reminded the audience that when Archbishop Burke acted in Wisconsin, it was not during an election period.

"A bishop must consider the effect on his diocese," he said.

Noting that Kerry comes from Boston, he said that with the church in Boston embroiled in two years of turmoil over the clergy sexual abuse scandal, he said, Boston Archbishop Sean P. O'Malley "could reasonably conclude that it was not realistic at this time" to begin the process to bar the Democratic candidate from Communion.

He suggested bishops might begin to give dissident politicians notice that "after a certain time" they are going to begin enforcing the provisions of Canon 915 -- "outside the context of an election contest" and in the pastoral context of seeking to get dissenting politicians to understand and accept the church's teaching.


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