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June 21, 2004

Conflicting Ambitions

Patrick Sweeney disagrees with the notion that some American bishops are making noises about John Kerry's receiving communion "to curry favor with the current Pope, or a possible future Pope, Cardinal Arinze." And to be honest, I don't even see that as the clear message of the piece by Joseph D'Hippolito to which Patrick is responding. On the one hand:

Such concerns provide an opportunity for ambitious prelates to curry favor with Rome. Tom Roberts, editor of the liberal National Catholic Reporter, cites Newark Archbishop John H. Myers as an example.

"Myers fits this papal administration's template for upward career mobility," Roberts wrote. "Staunchly conservative, he is a prolific pastoral-letter writer, a soldier in a campaign against the prevailing culture and someone for whom, given the nature of those letters, there are no unanswered questions or shades of gray."

But on the other:

One Catholic state senator said he would leave the church. Gov. James McGreevey, a former altar boy, said he would neither receive communion publicly nor let the church influence his positions.

Myers retreated.

"We have an understanding that I won't personally criticize [the governor]," Myers told the New York Times. "And we are working together on a lot of issues, like providing social services to the poor and helping people with HIV."

In other words, Myers chose retaining influence with politicians to asserting the Vatican's position.

If Joseph's point were entirely that bishops are acting from some motivation other than doctrinal fidelity, I'd suggest that he's being a bit too cynical, but that he raises legitimate points for discussion. He takes his argument a step farther, however:

The controversy ignores the fact that the number of abortions has been declining in the U.S. through private initiatives, such as a greater emphasis on abstinence. Since constitutional or judicial changes appear unlikely, private-sector solutions offer the greatest hope.

One can't tease apart private initiatives and the Church's actions vis-à-vis public figures; Joseph misconstrues the purpose of denying communion to Kerry. The move is (or would be) primarily an assertion of Church teachings. The action that requires public rebuke, in other words, is less Kerry's actual votes than his flaunting of vocal support for abortion in contravention of what adherence to his religion requires. The focus with which Joseph closes his piece misses the heart of the matter:

Suppose all the American bishops ordered the priests under their authority to deny communion to Kerry. Suppose those priests complied. Given Kerry's ideology and voting record, would he really forsake his views on abortion for the faith he claims to profess?

More importantly, would one unborn child be saved?

He's right, in the paragraph before this, that many bishops could probably offer more public support to groups that pull on the positive side of the struggle against abortion, and priests could stand to speak more about sexual and reproductive morality. Even so, rebuffing Kerry at the altar, in its way, itself supports these groups' efforts by making the Church's position clear and reaffirming not only that opposition to abortion is required of us all, but also that it is an important call to answer.

Would one unborn child be saved by such decisive actions? Absolutely.

Posted by Justin Katz at June 21, 2004 7:58 AM
The Church

Justin, first let me thank you for linking to my commentary.

Actually, you're right about one thing: I am saying that the primary motivation for the American bishops' rhetoric is to curry favor either with Rome or with local politicians (otherwise, why would Myers retreat?).

If this lot of bishops were truly concerned with doctrinal fidelity concerning abortion, why did the vote on this issue in Denver turn out the way it did? For that matter, why did the bishops wait 30 years to say something? For another matter, why has this Pope -- whose views about abortion are well known -- waited this long (and through Cdl. Arinze) to act?

I don't misconstrue the stated rationale for denying the Eucharist to Kerry. But I don't think that denying the Eucharist to him will make one bit of difference. On various Catholic blogs, I've read of "pro-life" Catholics who have tried to get their bishops more involved, only to be sharply rebuffed. I even read one correspondent who said that the bishops were actively against any increased activity.

More importantly, Justin, this focus on Kerry takes the focus off where it needs to be: the pregnant mothers who have to face the decision of whether to get an abortion. It not only puts the focus on Kerry but on the bishops themselves -- and there hasn't been an issue yet that the bishops fail to grandstand about.

Yes, Justin, I'm very cynical. We Catholics have very good reason to be concerning the hierarchy these days.

Posted by: Joseph D'Hippolito at June 21, 2004 6:41 PM

I thought I was going to have to defend my point of view, but Joseph has made the point.

Motivations are now secondary to the situation at hand. Let's see if my prediction that this non-decision is the political cover to these politicians to make them immune from charges raised by people like us that they in obstinate manifest sin and should not receive Holy Communion.

Posted by: Patrick Sweeney at June 21, 2004 9:29 PM


All of what you say in your comment is worth discussing, but I disagree about beginning to deny politicians such as Kerry communion.

Although it mightn't be the stated rationale for any given person arguing for the measure, the purpose of a public rebuke (in my opinion) would be to respond to public transgression. In emphasizing how the denial will affect John Kerry, you do remove the bulk of the justification.

Anyway, I guess my larger complaint is that you too closely link the position of denying the Eucharist, of itself, and the ulterior motives that bishops might have for either doing or not doing so.

Posted by: Justin Katz at June 22, 2004 12:38 PM

My understanding is that the Catholic Church embraces some form of the just war theory. The Pope said that the war with Iraq wasn't just. Would it be OK for the Church to deny Communion to pro-war Catholics?

Posted by: Joel Thomas at June 22, 2004 10:00 PM

Justin: I make the close link between motivation and action because the American bishops (though a different group of men) had 30 years to take such a stand and either refused or declined to do so. Why is today any different? Simply because of Kerry's Catholic identity? Where were they when Sen. Kennedy was running for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1980? For that matter, where was Rome?

I truly believe, Justin, that the bishops are behaving no differenly than they have on other matters concerning current events: grandstand like crazy to curry favor either with Rome or with local politicians. It just so happens that in this context, they're taking a stand that reaffirms Catholic teaching. But who takes them seriously? Remember the pastoral letters on nuclear deterence and the economy in the 1980s? Did anybody take them seriously then?

Joel: "Just war theory" is a different animal than abortion. People can have legitimate disagreements over whether a particular war fits "just war" criteria (just look at the debate regarding Iraq in Catholic Blogdom). These same people, however, don't disagree about the morality of abortion (at least, to the same degree). Besides, the Pope had his own geopolitical agenda in voicing intense opposition to the war in Iraq. I've written commentaries on this at home an abroad. Let me know if you're interested and I'll e-mail them to you.

Posted by: Joseph D'Hippolito at June 23, 2004 1:03 AM

If the Pope has his own agenda, then perhaps he should resign his office.

Posted by: Joel Thomas at June 23, 2004 2:14 AM

Joel, do a Google search on my name, then look for articles entitled, "Vatican Appeasement," "Catholic Moral Confusion," "The Vatican's Pro-Saddam Tilt?" and "Abu Ghraib Worse Than 9/11?" You'll see that there's far more involved than one Pope's interpretation of "just war" theology.

Posted by: Joseph D'Hippolito at June 23, 2004 1:48 PM


After all this back and forth, it may seem a quibble, but I was more objecting to your "linking" of the two factors as if they are intellectually linked, rather than linked directly through individual men. I happen to agree with the denial of the Eucharist under certain circumstances, and I'm not trying to curry favor with anybody (except, you know, God).

Posted by: Justin Katz at June 23, 2004 4:57 PM

Justin, I know you agree with (at least some) bishops' stance and I know you're not trying to "curry favor" with anybody but God. But you take Catholic teaching seriously. I doubt if most of the bishops do. I know that's incredibly cynical, but just look at the disrepair in which the Church finds itself. And who's primarily responsible, given the parameters of their teaching office?

As far as "intelletual" linkage versus linkage as the result of individual action goes, I'm not quite sure what you mean. Please explain.

And, no, it's not quibbling. If I can't communicate my ideas effectively, you have every right to ask questions. Heck, you have every right to ask question when I do communicate effectively.

I'm not Mark Shea, you know ;)

P.S.: Anti-spam code is a GREAT idea!

Posted by: Joseph D'Hippolito at June 24, 2004 1:56 PM


With respect to the distinction between "intellectual linkage" and linkage via the actor, I merely meant to suggest that whatever link there may be between intentions that might not be based strictly in ethics (e.g., currying favor) and the withholding of the Eucharist, that link is more a function of the people involved than of the abstract merits of withholding the Eucharist.

Posted by: Justin Katz at June 26, 2004 3:00 PM