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The public opposition of more than eighty Catholic bishops to the University of Notre Dame’s decision to honor pro-abortion President Barack Obama represented an unprecedented public expression of episcopal sentiment on a controversial moral issue. The bishops normally draw back”“prudently,” as they see it”from calling attention to themselves and to the Church. For so many of them to enter into the lists in this particular case surely suggests an enhanced understanding of the seriousness of the central moral issue of our time.

At the end of August, however, Archbishop Michael J. Sheehan of Santa Fe, New Mexico, gave a very different episcopal perspective in an interview with National Catholic Reporter . In discussing the outcry over the Notre Dame commencement, Sheehan worried that the Catholic Church in America risked “isolating itself from the rest of the country.” He judged the refusal to talk to a politician or to give him communion because of a difference on a single issue “counterproductive,” even “hysterical.”

Of course Sheehan did not clearly make the crucial distinction between merely “talking to a politician” and doing public honor to one. He instead “wondered aloud what was so bad about inviting Obama and giving him a degree.” By way of comparison he observe that the pope recently made President Sarkozy, who is “pro-abortion, pro-gay marriage, and married invalidly to an actress” an honorary canon of St. John Lateran. The Vatican, he claimed, apparently did not have “quite as big a concern” about Notre Dame’s honoring Obama as the bishops who spoke out against it.

Asked by NCR if there were any other bishops who agreed with him, Archbishop Sheehan replied, “Of course. The majority.” This majority, he said, only remained on the sidelines so as not to start a public internecine fight.

Thus, if Sheehan is correct, a majority of the American Catholic bishops opposes the official policy that they themselves established in their June 2004 statement “Catholics in Political Life.” That document told the world that, “the Catholic community and Catholic institutions should not honor those who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles. They should not be given awards, honors, or platforms which would suggest support for their actions.” The protesting bishops based their opposition on this plain, unambiguous declaration.

But if, as Sheehan contends, a majority of the Catholic bishops in the United States actually disagrees with this policy, why did they vote for it in the first place? What sort of organization officially adopts a policy that most of its leaders reject? Such patent dishonesty seems rather more detrimental to the Church than “loud tactics.”

The archbishop thinks that opposition, even to a president as aggressively pro-abortion as Barack Obama, is to be deplored because it risks isolating Catholics from the rest of American society. But why should anyone think remaining in accord with a morally decadent society is somehow part of the Church’s mission? According to what principle is the Church supposed to lay aside her fundamental moral principles in order to conform to a society that has in so many respects long abandoned Judeo-Christian moral principles? Of course, the Church as a whole has not decided to “go along to get along” in this fashion. The only question is whether some bishops, as Sheehan’s statements suggest, are no longer in sync with the Church.

It is true that the American Catholic bishops have never been able to agree on a common policy on the question of refusing Holy Communion to pro-abortion public figures. The reason for this remains unclear. Canon 915 of the Code of Canon Law plainly says that those “who obstinately persist in manifest grave sin are not to be admitted to Holy Communion.” Numerous Church documents have established that Catholic politicians who enable, support, or promote abortion are indeed guilty of “manifest grave sin,” and hence should not be admitted to Holy Communion.

More than that, the bishops have received specific orders from higher authority on this matter. When then Cardinal Ratzinger was still the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, he sent a communication to Theodore Cardinal McCarrick, then archbishop of Washington, D.C., that explained how wayward Catholic public figures should be handled. Their pastor should first counsel them in person, explaining that they are objectively guilty of “manifest grave sin.” If they do not desist, they should be asked not to present themselves for Holy Communion. If they do present themselves for Holy Communion they must be denied.

As was widely reported at the time, Cardinal McCarrick, did not communicate this message from Rome in its entirety to his brother bishops. Some therefore think that many bishops do not know their duty. But, given the publicity that has surrounded the whole affair, this is impossible to credit; the bishops must know what they should be doing. Nor does resorting to the common argument that they should not “polticize the Eucharist” relieve them of their responsibility to enforce canon law.

Certainly the fact that the pope himself chose to honor Nicholas Sarkozy does not in any way excuse the American bishops. Perhaps the pope’s action was as mistaken as that of the disobedient bishops, but this can in no way negate the force of Canon 915 or even of Ratzinger’s own directive.

“Catholics in Public Life” and Ratzinger’s directive simply manifest the Church’s recognition of the seriousness of the American situation: More than fifty million babies have been killed by abortion since it was legalized by the U.S. Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision in 1973. This rivals and in some cases exceeds the death tolls inflicted by the Hitlers, Stalins, Maos, and Pol Pots of the twentieth century. Dozens of American Catholic episcopal statements have reiterated that abortion is in a class by itself, currently outweighing by far nearly all other public moral issues combined.

In his NCR interview, however, the archbishop effectively treats abortion as just one more issue. He brags that “we have gotten more done on the pro-life issue in New Mexico by talking to people that don’t agree with us on everything. We got Governor Richardson to sign off on the abolition of the death penalty in New Mexico, which he was in favor of.” Sheehan goes on to admit that the same Richardson is another one of those pro-abortion Catholic politicians, whom he has evidently not “counseled,” however. His reaction when the interviewer mentions Governor Richardson’s pro-abortion stance is to ask defiantly (and here I quote directly), “So?” An archbishop of the Catholic Church thinks the death penalty constitutes an evil on the same scale as the unlimited abortion license.

God forbid that such obtuse and callous moral equivalence should represent the views of the majority of the American Catholic bishops. Sheehan should be pointedly rebuked by the leadership of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops for venturing into the public print with views so much at variance with the USCCB’s official position.

In the present climate in which a spade is so rarely called a spade, it is unfortunate that the old practice of fraternal correction has lapsed among the American Catholic bishops. True, only the bishop of Rome has authority over any other bishop, but it is a shame that nobody to whom Sheehan might be disposed to listen spoke to him about the scandal caused by his interview.

Maybe the bishops actually are (mostly) united about the moral gravity of the killing of the innocent, but as long as an assertion to the contrary stands uncorrected and unchallenged, it will be taken as more evidence that the American Catholic bishops are not “completely united and resolute in our teaching and defense of the unborn child””in other words, that they do not necessarily really mean what they say.

Kenneth D. Whitehead is a former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education and the translator of over twenty published books.

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