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Ed Stoddard of Reuters’ religion blog Faithworld carries a roundup of the skirmish between Congressman Patrick Kennedy, the son of the late Senator Edward Kennedy, has claimed that Rhode Island Bishop Thomas Tobin .

In conclusion, Stoddard asks:

This leads to a question about the consistency of views in the U.S. Catholic Church leadership. The Church opposes abortion and therefore liberal politicians who support abortion rights risk being refused communion. The Church supports a healthcare overhaul that would make the system more equitable. So does a conservative Catholic politician who opposes this reform risk being denied communion for ignoring the Catholic social teaching that justifies it?

How about support for capital punishment, which the Vatican says is unjustified in almost all possible cases, or for war? In the build-up to the Iraq war, Pope John Paul was so opposed to the plan that he sent a personal envoy to Washington to argue against it. Did bishops threaten any measures against Catholic politicians who energetically supported that war despite Vatican opposition?

The author’s questions reveal an elementary ignorance concerning the moral issues in question and their relationship to varying levels of Church teaching. While I am disappointed by his answer ( Faithworld is generally one of the better and more educational “religion blogs” in the secular media), it is understandable — as even many Catholics find themselves confused on this matter.

The basic difference between abortion and capital punishment (or the waging of armed force) is that the Church has firmly and explicitly taught that the former is an intrinsic evil : the direct taking of innocent human life to be opposed everywhere and at all times, while the moral worth of the latter two measures are contigent upon specific criteria and circumstance.

In the case of capital punishment, see the Catechism of the Catholic Church ‘s discussion of the fifth commandment, specifically the matter of “legitimate defense” (sections #2263-2267 ); on the matter of the waging of armed force, the Catholic tradition’s criteria for a “just war” (sections #2307-2317 ).

But is it not true that the Church has explicitly opposed contemporary instances of capital punishment or war? If so, why have the Bishops not sought to impose similar restrictions on communion on those officials in public life favoring the use of capital punishment, or expressing their support of U.S. foreign policy in Iraq—a conflict on which both Pope John Paul II and even our present Pope (then-Cardinal Ratzinger) made their opposition known? Aren’t such figures not in open dissent and in a state of obstinate sin against the Church as well?

It seems to me that the response lies in the following teaching of the Catechism on the delineation of responsibility:

With regards to the determination of moral criteria, the Catechism maintains “The evaluation of these conditions for moral legitimacy belongs to the prudential judgment of those who have responsibility for the common good.”

As to the nature of “prudential judgement,” Russell Shaw—himself a vehement critic and opponent of the Iraq War—provided the following explanation in “Iraq, Weigel and the Pope” (Catholic Exchange. March 31, 2003—defending the ‘Catholic neocons’ legitimate right to disagree with John Paul II):
The notion of prudential judgment may need explaining. “Prudential” refers to prudence, and prudence these days has a bad name with people for whom it signifies lack of courage and failure of nerve. In the tradition, however, prudence is one of the cardinal virtues upon which other virtues depend. The function of prudence in this sense is to keep us in touch with morally relevant facts.

Given the limits of human knowledge, even prudential judgments by prudent people can be mistaken. In the present instance, the pope and Catholics who differed with him — conscientious and informed people like Novak, Weigel and Hudson — based their stands on an assessment of likely consequences of different courses of action. Since the assessments of what was more or less likely to happen in the future were different, so were the conclusions about what course of action to take.

To disagree with the pope in this manner is not dissent. It’s not as if Pope John Paul II had taught a definitive moral principle (e.g., direct attacks on noncombatants are ruled out) which the disagreeing Catholics rejected. They agreed with the principle. They disagreed about something contingent and by no means certain: what the future outcome of complex, competing scenarios was likely to be.

I believe that such an exercise of prudential judgement could equally be made in the exercise of capital punishment—where, for example, a Catholic public prosecutor might be compelled to respectfully disagree with a bishop on the means required in legitimate defense of society.

It is presumed that in such cases those who disagreed with the Pope on the justness of the Iraq war or the exercise of capital punishment were not disputing Catholic principles governing the dispute. George Weigel or the late Fr. Neuhaus, for example, while differing with the U.S. Bishops’ reading and application of just war criteria, could not be described as seeking to challenge or dismiss the criteria altogether. Likewise, as Avery Cardinal Dulles pointed out in his response to Justice Scalia, John Paul II’s opposition to capital punishment was prudential in nature and should not be construed as an overturning of 2,000 years of Catholic tradition.

Contrast this with Rep. Kennedy’s disparaging remarks about the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops for their recent letter to the House of Representatives, reminding them of the Catholic Church’s opposition to any legislation in health-care reform that would include funding for abortions or fail to include conscience-protections for health-care providers—a position which he explicitly ridiculed (warranting Bishop Tobin’s response). In such a case, the words and oftentimes legislative actions of Kennedy (or like-minded figures as Nancy Pelosi , Joe Biden or Kathleen Sebelius , to name a few) stand in clear and direct opposition , in what is aptly described by Tobin as an obstinate rejection of Church teaching on abortion.

As then-Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict, put it succinctly in a 2004 letter to the U.S. Bishops articulating “general principles” on the distribution of communion :

Not all moral issues have the same moral weight as abortion and euthanasia. For example, if a Catholic were to be at odds with the Holy Father on the application of capital punishment or on the decision to wage war, he would not for that reason be considered unworthy to present himself to receive Holy Communion. While the Church exhorts civil authorities to seek peace, not war, and to exercise discretion and mercy in imposing punishment on criminals, it may still be permissible to take up arms to repel an aggressor or to have recourse to capital punishment. 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.

4. Apart from an individuals’s judgement about his worthiness to present himself to receive the Holy Eucharist, the minister of Holy Communion may find himself in the situation where he must refuse to distribute Holy Communion to someone, such as in cases of a declared excommunication, a declared interdict, or an obstinate persistence in manifest grave sin (cf. can. 915).

5. Regarding the grave sin of abortion or euthanasia, when a person’s formal cooperation becomes manifest (understood, in the case of a Catholic politician, as his consistently campaigning and voting for permissive abortion and euthanasia laws), his Pastor should meet with him, instructing him about the Church’s teaching, informing him that he is not to present himself for Holy Communion until he brings to an end the objective situation of sin, and warning him that he will otherwise be denied the Eucharist.

In light of which, it would appear that Thomas Tobin was fulfilling his obligations as a Bishop of the Catholic Church in responding to Senator Kennedy in such a manner.


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