Since being appointed bishop of Springfield, Illinois in 2010, I have been asked many times about the matter of Holy Communion for Sen. Richard Durbin, whose home is in Springfield. In April 2004, Sen. Durbin’s pastor, Msgr. Kevin Vann (now Bishop Kevin Vann of Orange, California), said he would “be reticent” to give Sen. Durbin Holy Communion because his pro-abortion position placed him outside of unity with the Church’s teachings on life. My predecessor, now Archbishop George Lucas of Omaha, said that he supported Msgr. Vann’s decision. I have maintained that position.
This determination is based on Canon 915 of the Catholic Church’s Code of Canon Law, which states that those “who obstinately persist in manifest grave sin are not to be admitted to Holy Communion.” In our 2004 statement on “Catholics in Political Life,” the bishops of the United States said,
Failing to protect the lives of innocent and defenseless members of the human race is to sin against justice. Those who formulate law therefore have an obligation in conscience to work toward correcting morally defective laws, lest they be guilty of cooperating in evil and in sinning against the common good.
Because his voting record in support of abortion over many years constitutes “obstinate persistence in manifest grave sin,” the determination continues that Sen. Durbin is not to be admitted to Holy Communion until he repents of this sin. This provision is intended not to punish, but to bring about a change of heart. Sen. Durbin was pro-life when he started out in politics in central Illinois. The denial of Holy Communion is a medicinal remedy that seeks to foster a change of heart and encourage him to repent and return to being pro-life.
Sen. Durbin’s case has particular relevance since the election of a baptized Catholic, Joseph R. Biden Jr., as president of the United States of America. On the day of Biden’s inauguration, the Most Reverend José Gomez, president of the USCCB, issued a statement:
I look forward to working with President Biden and his administration, and the new Congress. As with every administration, there will be areas where we agree and work closely together and areas where we will have principled disagreement and strong opposition. . . .
As pastors, the nation’s bishops are given the duty of proclaiming the gospel in all its truth and power, in season and out of season, even when that teaching is inconvenient or when the gospel’s truths run contrary to the directions of the wider society and culture. So, I must point out that our new president has pledged to pursue certain policies that would advance moral evils and threaten human life and dignity, most seriously in the areas of abortion, contraception, marriage, and gender. Of deep concern is the liberty of the Church and the freedom of believers to live according to their consciences.
In response, Cardinal Blase Cupich, archbishop of Chicago, said that “there is seemingly no precedent” for a USCCB president’s making such a statement. There is indeed no precedent for a Catholic president of the United States of America who is virulently pro-abortion in his policies.
On his campaign website and in various public statements, Biden has made clear that he seeks legal protection for the killing of unborn human beings through abortion, and that he seeks to fund this killing at taxpayer expense. Biden has said that he would seek to codify into federal law the abortion license of Roe v. Wade if the Supreme Court were to overturn that decision, and that he supports repealing the Hyde Amendment, which prohibits federal funding for abortion. Shortly after his election, President Biden issued an executive order rescinding the Mexico City Policy, thereby allowing U.S. taxpayer dollars to support abortion overseas. He has pledged to reinstate the contraceptive and abortifacient mandate originally issued under Obamacare.
Proposing and voting for legal measures that promote an intrinsic evil raises the question of cooperation with evil. On this question, Catholic moral theology distinguishes between formal and material cooperation. Formal cooperation occurs when a person shares the evil intent of the wrongdoer or agrees with, condones, or approves of the wrongdoer’s action, at least to some degree. Formal cooperation in wrongdoing is always wrong.
Material cooperation, by contrast, occurs when a person does not share the intent of the wrongdoer, but is in some way involved in the wrongdoing. Material cooperation is considered immediate when the cooperator’s act assists in the performance of the wrongdoing in an essential way. It is considered mediate when there is a degree of causal separation between the wrongdoing and the cooperator’s act. According to the degree of causal separation, mediate material cooperation may be either “proximate” or “remote.” Absent a proportionately grave reason, one may not materially cooperate with an evil act. The more proximate the cooperation, the graver must the reason be in order for the action to be justified.
Applying these principles to the question at hand, we find that the formal, political act of a public official (such as voting in the Senate or signing a law or executive order as president) constitutes at least material cooperation with a gravely evil act. If undertaken with the intent to support or promote access to abortion, the act would in fact constitute formal cooperation, which is always gravely sinful.
It may be argued that cooperation is mediate when a person’s actions, such as casting a vote or signing an executive order, are not directly essential to the procurement of an abortion. But mediate cooperation in a grave evil requires a proportionately grave reason in order to be justified. More than 860,000 abortions took place in 2017 in the U.S., the latest year for which data is available as reported by the Guttmacher Institute. For a politician to justify promoting or voting for pro-abortion legislation or opposing pro-life legislation, he would need a reason grave enough to outweigh the killing of 860,000 babies per year.
Some argue that their positions consistent with Catholic teaching on other moral issues outweigh their support for abortion. Sen. Durbin, for example, after being denied Holy Communion in 2004, released a report titled, “Evaluating the Votes and Actions of Public Officials from a Catholic Perspective.” The report ranked the twenty-four U.S. Catholic senators based on their votes in three areas: domestic, international, and pro-life issues. Commenting on this “scorecard,” the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights issued a statement:
To say that a senator votes better on Catholic issues because he has voted to increase the minimum wage while voting against a ban on killing a baby who is 80 percent born is ludicrous.
It entails “lumping together policy issues that do not have the same moral weight.”
One of the issues that is frequently proposed as morally equivalent to abortion is the death penalty. But capital punishment is not in the same moral category as abortion. Whereas abortion is an intrinsic evil, the death penalty has been called “inadmissible” by Pope Francis—a different moral judgment, reflecting a kind of prudential judgment about the penalty’s efficacy.
Others try to use the “consistent ethic of life” attributed to the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, archbishop of Chicago—often called the “seamless garment” approach—as justification for downplaying abortion while promoting other social issues. I served as Cardinal Bernardin’s chancellor from 1992 until his death in 1996, and I can attest that he did not approve of this misinterpretation of the “consistent ethic of life.” In an interview with the National Catholic Register in 1988, Cardinal Bernardin said,
I know that some people on the left, if I may use that label, have used the consistent ethic to give the impression that the abortion issue is not all that important anymore, that you should be against abortion in a general way but that there are more important issues, so don’t hold anybody’s feet to the fire just on abortion. That’s a misuse of the consistent ethic, and I deplore it.
Though we cannot judge people’s consciences, we can judge external situations to determine whether they are manifestly gravely sinful and whether the person exhibits obstinate persistence. Likewise, the reception of Holy Communion is an external, public act. Nevertheless, the question of the proper disposition of the soul while receiving Holy Communion is eminently pastoral. It has long standing in the Church, going back to the early centuries.
The Bible clearly teaches about the proper disposition to receive Holy Communion. In the First Letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul writes:
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. Let a man examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself. (1 Cor. 11:27–29)
This biblical teaching is reflected in Canons 915–16 of the Catholic Church’s Code of Canon Law. Canon 915 addresses the minister of Holy Communion, who is not to admit individual persons to the Sacrament under the circumstances clearly defined in that canon. Canon 916 is addressed to the person who is “conscious of grave sin.” Thus, whereas Canon 915 puts the burden of discernment on the minister of Holy Communion, Canon 916 places responsibility for self-discernment on the person who desires to receive the Sacrament. These principles for the proper disposition for being admitted to Holy Communion are in keeping with the maxim that “law follows theology”—that is, that the laws of the Church are not created in a vacuum but are practical applications of biblical and theological truths in actual situations.
In seeking Eucharistic coherence in an incoherent era, we must remember that our goal is conversion and readmission to Communion, not exclusion and permanent expulsion from the community of faith. Even when a difficult decision must be made not to admit someone to Holy Communion until there has been repentance and reconciliation, such discipline does not contradict the love by which it is motivated.
Thomas J. Paprocki is bishop of Springfield, Illinois.