This note is about what might seem to be a Catholic problem. In fact it is everyman’s problem, for it involves deep questions about the natural law and human agency and integrity.
For the first one hundred fifty years of our national existence the chances that a Roman Catholic might win the presidency was not really a question. And there was this: should such an unlikely event occur, the moral formation of such a person would not have been markedly unlike the moral formation of his Protestant neighbors. Presbyterians and Baptists were just as morally firm, some would say rigid, as Catholics until the artificial birth control issue came up with Margaret Sanger’s campaigns of the twenties. That split the moral witness of American Christianity; Episcopalians in 1930, other Christian bodies soon afterward. And to anticipate, then came the pill, about 1963, just after John F. Kennedy’s speech before the Methodists in Houston in 1960.
It was a reassuring speech, cleverly constructed. And while there was the brave line: “Should there be a conflict between my conscience and my office I would resign my office,” there was also, “My opinion will not be shaped by any Church,” and overall the Houston Speech promised that he would not govern according to the moral teachings of his Church. John Kennedy was never very much of a Catholic. The flaws in his behavior, as with Martin Luther King, have been obviated by assassination and memorable rhetoric, as is right; we ought always to remember the best. There was something to be said for Camelot.
Kennedy’s speech quietly laid the groundwork for the personally opposed position, in which one was excused from displaying any personal integrity by holding an opinion which did not affect behavior of governing principles. In 1960 Roe v Wade lay 13 years in the future. When it became law in 1973, it became the duty of the Chief executive to conform presidential actions and decisions to it, whatever the moral convictions of the executive might be. It was a ruling that set part of the population against government policy and set anti-abortion forces in motion. As the abortion question settled into the culture it became clear that about half the population energetically disagreed with the 1960 court decision. This disagreement had and has a religious base, being located principally among believing Protestants and Roman Catholics.
Adding fuel to the fire was the decision of Pope Paul VI in 1968 that every act of sexual intercourse should be open to the transmission of human life. This of course did not mean that every such act that was not, for instance in the natural periods of infertility, was unlawful; indeed the Church encouraged knowledge of such periods, and said that with due regard to charity these could be recognized as a means of limiting procreation. But one could not deliberately subvert nature’s purposes with devices mechanical or chemical so that the only purpose of the ultimate intimacy was pleasure. This decision, which probably assumed that those to whom it was addressed would be married couples, now seems quaint. In 1968 Paul VI could not imagine that for many, perhaps most, sex would become an amusement, nothing sacred, or even romantic about it. But this became the cultural premise and as such it fed the abortion market. If one assumes that sexual intercourse is a conscience-less pleasure and then, sure enough, one turns up pregnant, abortion appears as a right, a right for whom a large majority of Americans will fight by whatever means possible.
And thus late modernity got crosswise with a large minority of the Christian population of the United States, the last culture in Western society with a big enough minority to effectively represent the Christian cause. At the heart of the resistance to the destruction of little children was the Catholic Church, although many, many non-Catholics joined the battle. The very first Christian document, dating from about seventy-five or eighty, before there was any Gospel text, having gone through the Sermon on the Mount, lists the actions that must be avoided by Christians just coming in out of the cold of Hellenistic sensuality. No abortion, no infanticide, no corrupting of boys, all actions that while distasteful among the best were tolerated and in a sense unremarkable. Tertullian, writing about 200, developed the matter thus. “Murder, being once for all forbidden, we may not destroy even the fetus in the womb, while as yet the human being derives blood from other parts of the body for its sustenance. To hinder a birth is merely a speedier man-killing, nor does it matter whether you take away a life that is born or one that is coming to the birth. That is a man which is coming to be one.” Reiterations could be multiplied unto this present.
Now let us think about another element in the currently explosive mix. Justin Martyr wrote about 150, that those are welcomed to the Eucharist who are baptized and who live as Christ handed down to us. This meant that those Christians guilty of serious or mortal sin should not participate in the sacrament of Christ’s body and blood until they had made it right with God by confessing their sins. [In this vocabulary grave or serious or mortal sin is one in which the matter is grave—stealing a pencil usually does not qualify—and one’s will deliberately and knowingly is set against God’s commandments.] From that day till the present the Church has taught that failure to live as Christ taught us prevented those guilty of mortal sin from receiving the sacrament of the body and blood of Christ until they repent. The Reformed tradition, the most important Christian tradition in America for much of its history, would seem to have forgotten that before about 1850 on the weekend of the Lord’s Supper the minister would routinely issue communion tokens to those in good standing, those not guilty of immoral behavior, permitting them to share in the communion service. The usual remedy for Catholics who have slipped up badly was and is just to go confession and all would be well. Unless, of course one had been publicly promoting say adultery or homosexuality or abortion or, in the case of one of the fourth-century emperors, Theodosius, permitting soldiers to commit atrocities unrebuked. On which occasion Saint Ambrose—this was during the brief period when Milan was the capital of the western empire—asked the emperor not to show up for Mass until he had publicly repented. Over time excommunication became the method for protecting both the sinner and the Sacrament from sacrilege. Rarely used, and obviously, if one is not a Catholic, excommunication has no meaning or effect.
Now consider this. In the United States there remaineth even in this present a core of Catholic fideles, Maybe half the Catholic population of perhaps 70 million, maybe less, maybe thirty percent. These 30 or 35 million at their best are characterized by a disposition of obedience, the obedience that belongs to love. From them comes the cash that makes ecclesiastical wheels spin. They are likely to go to confession maybe once a month, confessing having been rude in traffic or having read a salacious book or looked at the wrong movie or cheated in their income tax. They will show up on Saturday afternoon or whenever to confess their sins whether these be mortal (1 John 5:16-17) or not. And they will be there on Sunday. Perhaps ten percent of them pay some attention to Humanae Vitae. They all abominate abortion as wrong and morally repugnant. And it is the case that they, this small percentage of the much larger number who will check the Catholic box on survey forms, consider the Blessed Sacrament the very presence of Jesus in time and place. It does not matter much to them that millions of atheists consider such beliefs delusional, that Baptists, if they think about it at all, consider this idolatrous, or that Lutherans consider the doctrine a metaphysical impossibility. For them, just as a sociological fact about a part of the American population, the Blessed Sacrament is the center of life.
Now comes a president who is advertised, and lets himself be advertised, as a practicing Catholic, who, while claiming that he is personally opposed to abortion, is putting the entire force of the government behind promoting abortion. It has been suggested by a learned letter in the WSJ that since Pius X encouraged frequent communion, teaching that the Eucharist is food for the pilgrim on the way, not a reward for the perfect, all, thinking now of the President, should be welcomed to the Lord’s table. What this overlooks is the fact that since Saint Paul about 45 AD advised the Corinthians that “whoever 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” no bishop, no pope, no faithful Christian has ever suggested that those in a state of mortal sin, should share in the Mass or Holy Communion.
It is a bad year to be a Catholic bishop. The President is a scandal to the faithful, and I suspect not merely to Roman Catholics. What kind of person says: I’m personally opposed, but I don’t think I can foist my opinion on others. Let the killing proceed and multiply. Or perhaps the President is among the multitude who have convinced themselves that being opposed to abortion is just an opinion, rather than a close derivative of natural law and of the divine command “Thou shall not kill.” Tertullian was right, you can kill a child early or late, but you are still killing a child. As Benedict XVI put it, “There may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about waging war and applying the death penalty, but not however with regard to abortion and euthanasia.”
So what are the bishops to do? They have been told that Pope Francis would not support a national policy; Cardinals Gregory in Washington and Tobin in Newark and Cupich in Chicago and their allies must be allowed to go on welcoming the unrepentant to Communion. Stuck between a hard place and a rock the majority of the bishops on June 17th decided by a vote of 165 to 71 that they should say something. Apart from the question of duty and conscience, if they remain silent they will slip further in the esteem of the fideles. On the other hand, if they dare to single out the President and the Speaker, they will be accused of politicizing the sacraments by liberal Catholics represented by the 71. They know that in the entire still-vast organism of the Catholic Church there has been only one, a priest in South Carolina, who has dared to refuse communion to the President, and furthermore that the Cardinal Archbishop of Washington, an appointee of Pope Francis, would be the last person to do so or to back up his clergy should they.
But on the other hand it is a great opportunity for teaching, for teaching Catholics, any Catholics anywhere, to approach the body and blood of Jesus with serious sins on their conscience is a sacrilege that is fatally damaging to their souls and derogative of the honor due Christ. The teaching is not in doubt. There are several millions who need to hear this who are not in politics. As for the President and the Speaker and the like, just pray for them, for they are sold-out souls, too characteristic of a culture in which, taking the advice of the Serpent, we make up the rules for ourselves, in which the gap between profession and action yawns, in which sentimentality is taken for reality. In a way Catholic politicians who claim the word Catholic with the respectability it still brings while despising the teachings of the Church are a poignant sign of the times, an era when words mean nothing, when the political discourse that shapes the culture is, and is known to be, more often than not, a texture of untruths, if not formally, then materially, uttered by those among whom the relation between words and reality has long been considered a matter of mere expediency.