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SPECIAL: Why Communion Could Be Denied to Anti-Life Legislators

4/27/2004 - 6:00 AM PST

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Interview With an American Theologian in Rome

ROME, APRIL 27, 2004 (Zenit) - Moves by the Church to deny Holy Communion to staunchly pro-abortion Catholic politicians are growing.

At a Vatican press conference last Friday, Cardinal Francis Arinze said that politicians who unambiguously support abortion must not go to Communion and priests must deny them the sacrament.

Last January, then Bishop Raymond Burke of La Crosse, Wisconsin, issued a decree forbidding Catholic legislators who support abortion or euthanasia from receiving Communion.

To learn more about the canonical and pastoral implications of these declarations, American theologian Father Thomas Williams, dean of the School of Theology of the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical Athenaeum.

Q: Is the Church beginning to adopt a hard-line stance regarding the reception of Holy Communion?

Father Williams: The Church has always taken this issue seriously. In very strong terms St. Paul admonished the Church in Corinth: "Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a man examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup." That's in 1 Corinthians 11:27-28.

The 1983 Code of Canon Law, echoing the teaching of the Council of Trent, Canon 11, states that, without a very serious reason, a person who is aware of having committed a mortal sin should voluntarily abstain from Communion. "A person who is conscious of grave sin is not … to receive the Body of the Lord without prior sacramental confession," says Canon 916 of the 1983 code.

Q: But isn't there a big difference between encouraging those in a state of sin to abstain from Communion and forbidding Communion to determined persons?

Father Williams: Yes, of course. Whereas anyone who is aware of having committed a grave sin of any sort, hidden or public, should willingly abstain from Holy Communion, only grave sins committed overtly or publicly provide grounds for non-admittance to Communion on the part of priests and bishops.

The pertinent reference in canon law can be found in Canon 915. In its entirety, this brief canon reads: "Those who are excommunicated or interdicted after the imposition or declaration of the penalty and others who obstinately persist in manifest grave sin are not to be admitted to Holy Communion."

This canon treats two instances where members of the faithful are not to be admitted to Communion. The first deals with excommunication and interdicts -- ecclesiastical censures forbidding participation in the sacraments -- and the second refers to obstinate persistence in manifest grave sin.

Q: So in the case of pro-abortion politicians we would be dealing with a situation of manifestly grave sin? What does this mean?

Father Williams: The technical language of the code which refers to those who "obstinately persist in manifest grave sin" must be carefully parsed.

Four essential elements come into play, all of which are necessary to fulfill the conditions laid out in Canon 915.

The first element is "gravi peccato," or grave sin. This can only be taken to refer to the matter of the action -- or omission -- without necessarily implying a judgment of subjective culpability. "Grave sin" in this case simply means objectively evil conduct of a serious nature.

The second requirement specified by Canon 915 refers to the "manifesto," or overt, character of the sin. This stipulation limits the sanction to sins of a public nature, and reiterates the public and ecclesial dimension of Holy Communion, which signifies moral, spiritual and doctrinal union with Christ and with his Church.

Thirdly, to be refused Communion a person must persist -- "perseverantes" -- in this openly sinful behavior. To say that a person persists in a public sin means that he somehow makes it known that he plans to continue engaging in his sinful behavior.

Finally, the code speaks of obstinate persistence. The Latin adverb "obstinate" here means that the person has been duly informed of the evil of his behavior but deliberately chooses to persist in it anyway.

There is such a thing as inculpable persistence in evildoing, when a person is unaware that a certain habitual activity is sinful. But once the evil of his actions has been brought to his attention, his persistence qualifies as obstinate.

Judging from the foregoing considerations, it seems clear that a politician who votes in a way that fails to defend innocent human life on a consistent basis and gives every indication of his intention to keep doing so despite warnings from ecclesiastical authorities can be said to obstinately persist in objectively evil behavior of a public ...

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