The Editors
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Political Excommunication

Doug Kmiec is a former appointee of the Reagan and Bush I administrations, a former dean of Columbus School of Law at The Catholic University of America, currently a professor of law at the conservative Pepperdine University and a longtime pro-life activist. In February, to the surprise of his colleagues, he announced his support of Barack Obama for president. Professor Kmiec reasons that after more than three decades seeking to overturn Roe v. Wade, it is time to look at alternative approaches to preventing abortions. Among these is Obama’s recommendation for community education of pregnant mothers. “Good, evenhanded information and genuine empathy and love,” Kmiec has said, “save more children than hypothetical legal limits—which, as best as I can tell, have saved: well, zero.” For that political offense a priest whom he will not identify denied Kmiec Communion at a private Mass celebrated in advance of an event at which the lawyer was to speak.

The denial of Communion to a committed pro-life activist who, after firsthand experience of the political wars, judges new options must be tried demonstrates the absurd and uncharitable extremes to which the pastoral practice of excluding Catholics from Communion on political grounds can descend. Furthermore, after three professedly anti-abortion administrations since 1981 have failed to end abortion, one must in all honesty ask whether a hard-line pro-life position within the church serves as a Trojan horse for other, more partisan political goals. The church must continue to form the consciences of politicians, and anything-goes, pro-abortion politicians should not expect the church’s blessing. Nonetheless, such a denial of the sacrament in the election season remains both politically inept and pastorally offensive.

Partisan Priests

“One final thing, Lord, I promise,” prayed Msgr. James Lisante during an invocation at a Republican fundraising dinner in New York City. “This November,” he said, “could you keep an eye on all of us and see that the change that we embrace comes from Arizona and not Illinois?” A few days earlier, the Rev. Michael Pfleger, pastor of St. Sabina’s Church in Chicago, mocked Senator Hillary Clinton from the pulpit of Trinity United Church of Christ. “I’m white. I’m entitled,” he said, pretending to be Senator Clinton. “There’s a black man stealing my show!” Father Pfleger was instructed by Cardinal Francis George, archbishop of Chicago, to take several weeks off in order, as the cardinal put it, to “reflect on his recent statements and actions in the light of the church’s regulations for all Catholic priests.”

There are multiple reasons why Catholic priests are not permitted to take partisan positions. Among them: the church should be a sign of unity, representing all Catholics, not simply Democrats or Republicans; and parishioners object when their pastors make one group feel marginalized. There is also the thorny legal issue of tax exemption: secular critics rightly object to a tax-exempt institution making political demands on its members. But there is a deeper reason to avoid making explicit or implicit partisan statements in the context of a sermon or a prayer. Preaching about Scripture and praying on behalf of an assembly are sacred moments. Neither occasion is appropriate for divisive comments. In any case, mocking, belittling or mean-spirited words are never appropriate for a priest—or, for that matter, any Christian.

God and The New Yorker

The New Yorker’s list of special issues seems to multiply every year. Style gurus have an issue of their own, as do gourmands, fiction fans, even cartoon lovers. Now believers can include themselves in this distinguished company. Although the June 9-16 issue was ostensibly devoted to fiction, the true focus seemed to be God. Several prominent authors contributed essays to a series titled “Faith and Doubt,” and the magazine’s literary critic, James Wood, wrote a 4,000-word essay on the problem of theodicy, a term one does not often encounter in the pages of Eustace Tilley’s journal.

Of course there were things to quibble about. The New Yorker would never run a series called “Faith,” one friend remarked, without appending the word “doubt” to soothe the secular reader. And the inclusion of George Saunders’s story about a liaison between a priest and a young nun was an entirely predictable choice. Yet there were moments that surprised too, such as Tobias Wolff’s “Winter Light,” a lovely reflection on the power of art to inspire faith; or the Nigerian Jesuit Uwem Akpan’s understated account of two street children who inadvertently stumble upon the mystery of the Eucharist. Even the essay by Wood, a religious skeptic, was a bracing journey through thorny theological terrain. One does not need to agree with Wood’s idiosyncratic conclusions to admire the seriousness that he brings to his task. He retains a “nostalgia for lost belief” that endows his critique with a quality of fairness absent from the work of the new atheists. And when it comes to the treatment of religion in the secular media, fairness is all the believer seeks.


Comments

Marcy Meldahl | 7/25/2008 - 8:29pm
I'm confused. Professor Doug Kmiec, a long-time pro-life advocate, posits that maybe it's time to look at alternatives to simply trying to overturn Roe v. Wade, which, he says, has saved "zero" children. For that metaphorical trip back to the drawing board, he is denied Communion. So I am wondering: Is this about actively seeking the same goal--abortion prevention--or is it a demonstration of power and control? Or, put in popular language, "it's my way or the highway."
Joseph McGuire | 6/30/2008 - 8:17am
It continues to astonish me that "life" to so many who identify themselves as "pro-life" seems to be limited to "innocent" unborn babies. Fully grown and educated ones wearing American military uniforms in Iraq and flags on their caskets as they return don't seem to count. Neither do the thousands of veterans returning with broken bodies to face a life of disability. How this gruesome and perverted logic can be seen as a tenet of faith is beyond understanding.
Bill Isenberger | 6/22/2008 - 10:36am
I sent a response to the Kmiec piece and may not have included my full name as it should appear --Bill Isenberger -- if you determine to post my response. Sorry for the inconvenience, but it is mighty hot here these days. Bill Isenberger
Bill | 6/20/2008 - 11:19pm
Mr. Kmiec's rationalization that past failure to end abortion constitutes acceptance of this sin is so illogical I wonder how and the blazes he can be chronicled in the initial paragraph as a "lifetime pro-life activist" when his own words validate he has jumped ship on the issue.
LEONARD VILLA | 6/20/2008 - 11:10am
Community education efforts to help prevent abortions is fine but that does not mean that you abandon the other efforts you say have failed to get rid of abortion on demand. You present a false alternative. Why have past efforts failed? Consider a Justice Kennedy, allegedly Catholic, who is one of the reasons those efforts have failed. He never experienced any penalities for his support of abortion as a cooperator, at least materially. There is the famous Mario Cuomo and to my mind scandalous behavior of Fr. Drinan facilitating abortion in his career in Congress. How did this go on? No one was ever disciplined; no one denied Communion; no one was excommunicated unless the conditions for latae sententiae applied and who would know that; no one denied the notion that they are Catholics in good standing while supporting abortion. The notion now of Doug Kmiec that he is supporting Obama now because other efforts have failed to get rid of abortion does not even pass the "smell test." Obama has not met an abortion he will not support including partial birth abortion. He should support community efforts and vote pro-life and support medicinal penalties to expose "false brethren" and rally the faithful.
FR J VANDAMME | 6/18/2008 - 12:20pm
Before Vatican II standard moral theologians such as H.Noldin SJ and A.Scmitt SJ taught that it would be wrong to deny Communion because no one knows whether a person is in a state of grace; they might have made a perfect act of contrition. When the lawyer Doug Mkiec mused about keeping Roe v Wade in order to reduce the incidence of abortion a rogue priest opted to brand this man as a public sinner. The debate always was about who is a public sinner and how does the Church respond pastorally. May I suggest that the local bishop grant this rogue priest a few months away from the office to reflect on the Church's regulation for all priests about staying out of politics, and how to respond to people pastorally. The beginning of wisdom is to realize that there is a God and we're not Him.
Edward Knauf | 6/18/2008 - 6:36am
If two candidates were running for office, and one advocated the annual killing of 1.5 million jews, or gypsies, or canadians for that matter, and the other opposed such killing, could you possibly morally support the first candidate? "Well the first candidate supports school lunch vouchers and the second does not." I fail to see why there is not more outrage when one candidate favors the continued slaughter of 1.5 million God-created, pre-born children every year in our nation. This is no "trojan horse" issue - this is the most important moral issue of our time. Sadly we have been a participant in the killing of more than 40 million tiny children since 1973. "Pro-choice" politicians talk about reducing the number of abortions but do nothing to accomplish such a goal. And when measures are introduced which actually produce informed "choice" - which show the mother what her pre-born baby looks like, for instance - "pro-choice" politicians rigidly, vehemently and universally oppose such measures. Senator Obama even opposed a measure to allow lifesaving treatment to babies who survive an abortion. I set before you life and death....choose life.
Carlos Echevarria | 6/18/2008 - 4:18am
B. Hussein Obama is a radical extremist who makes Jimmy Carter seem like Barry Goldwater...Moreover, his unpatriotic wife and he believe in abortion on demand, even partial birth abortion, and not even protecting babies that are aborted but somehow live... The fact of the matter is that he is a Muslim, not withstanding his denials and associates himself with the most vile elements in this country.
FR J VANDAMME | 6/17/2008 - 3:55pm
Before Vatican II standard moral theologians such as H. Noldin SJ and A. Schmitt SJ taught that it would be wrong to deny Communion because no one knows whether a person is in a state of grace: the alleged sinner might have made a perfect act of contrition. The rogue priest who denied Communion to the lawyer Doug Kmiec should be given leave by his bishop to reflect on the Church's regulation binding all ordained to stay out of politics. But, in defense of the rogue priest, may I quote Shakespeare's King Henry who said, "The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers."
Juan Jaramillo, MD | 6/17/2008 - 2:51pm
Excellent Editorial. I couldn't agree more. I recently attended Holy Mass at Mother Angelica's Shrine in Hanceville. At that point, Senator Clinton was clearly still in the race. The nuns prayed right after the Mass, with petitions that were meant to be audible (and joined in) by all. One of them asked for the coming presidential elections to result in the election of a godly "man" to run the country. The meta-message was loud and clear: Senator Clinton is not an OK choice for a good Catholic. That is simply ridiculous. In 2000, then Cardinal Ratzinger produced a document explaining to Catholics that they needed to vote according to their conscience and not only in regards to the abortion issue. I wish more americans had listened...
Bill Shields | 6/17/2008 - 2:26pm
What a refreshing piece of journalism ... thank you very much.
Edmund Brophy | 6/15/2008 - 10:12am
“Fortitude is the marshal of thought, the armor of the will, and the fort of reason.”~ Francis Bacon “Non-cooperation with evil is as much a duty as is cooperation with good.” ~ Mahatma Gandhi The idea here seems to be that we need a grandiose majority to believe in things eternal, but God works through small things. God works through the poor. God works through those who, in the eyes of the world, don't seem to be very grand and glorious. God delegates awesome emissaries. He works through small people, small communities, even those "aborted alive" and that inspires those more fortunate that they too can muster intestinal character without power, prestige, or money. "Show me the content of a man's character and I'll show you a man." ~ Martin Luther King Jr "The great must submit to the dominion of PRUDENCE and of virtue, or none will long submit to the dominion of the great." ~Edmund Burke "Doug Kmiec is a former appointee of the Reagan and Bush I administrations, a former dean of Columbus School of Law at The Catholic University of America, currently a professor of law at the conservative Pepperdine University and a longtime pro-life activist." "An education obtained with money is worse than no education at all." ~Socrates "There is no education like adversity" ~ Benjamin Disraeli
| 6/13/2008 - 7:29pm
REgardless of whether the priest should have denied Kmiec the Sacrament (which he likely should not have), Kmiec's position is moronic, and disingenuous. Remember Kmiec was an ardent supporter of Mitt Romney who switched in a matter of weeks to Obama. THat's Mitt Romney, the deporting torture supporter. It is obvious his sour grapes towards McCain, and hopes to hitch his star to a winner have influenced his moral position. There is no reason one cannot support both legal limits and the other methods Kmiec supports. Obama voted against the live infant act. He is not only pro-abortion, he is pro-genocide. Most stupidly, it is obvious that hypothetical laws cannot prevent abortion,or anything for that matter. That is why we seek to enact some real laws.
patrick hughes | 6/13/2008 - 3:53pm
"There are multiple reasons why Catholic priests are not permitted to take partisan positions. Among them: the church should be a sign of unity, representing all Catholics, not simply Democrats or Republicans; and parishioners object when their pastors make one group feel marginalized." so why is the pope drooping about the coat tails of George Bush, not only in the US visit, but now in the European visit. no one else did this. shame.
Margaret Willett | 6/13/2008 - 2:51pm
The trend to criticize our priests for following Canon Law is dumbfounding. The thought that we should somehow look beyond the most fundamental tenets of our faith to allow us clear conscience in voting is horrifying. The Catholic Church in America is becoming the secular institution Land of Lakes created in our universities. Neither the Old or New Testament equivocates when it comes to killing, to make the secular "progressives" message more palatable by playing the tax exempt card is disingenuous. If we lose the status by defending our faith, then so be it. It seems like kind of small potatoes when compared to the sacrifice of the martyrs.
Thomas Michael Barnes | 6/13/2008 - 12:10pm
I am a former Catholic and a former seminarian. I attended grammar school at Our Lady Queen of Peace RC Grammar School in Ardsley, PA directly outside of Phladelphia. In the 8th Grade Sr. Maureen discussed a Catholic's obligation to follow their conscience after prayer and meditation on matters of Faith and Morals. She was insistent that if you live a life in prayer and respect the Will of God in your life, your conscience is your ultimate guide as to what you must do in an ethical dilemna. I have never seen reason to doubt her since. The RC Church is an organization and like any organization it has many, many agendae, and some of them have nothing to do whatsoever with Faith and Morals. Period.

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