Catholic politicians, abortion and communion or excommunication

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Since the Catholic Church opposes abortion, some Catholic bishops have threatened to refuse communion or to impose excommunication upon Catholic politicians who support abortion. In some cases, officials have stated that the politicians should refrain from receiving communion ad normam canon 915 of the 1983 Code of Canon Law; in others, excommunication has been suggested.

In the United States

General statements

In 2004, there was discussion of whether communion should be refused to American Catholic politicians who voted for legalizing abortion.[1] With a few American bishops in favor of withholding communion from politicians and the majority against, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops decided that such matters should be decided on a case-by-case basis by the individual bishops.[2] In 2005, Archbishop Donald Wuerl of Pittsburgh said no individual bishop should on his own deny communion to politicians because of "national ramifications", and suggested that such an action should be taken only on the basis of a two-thirds majority of all of the bishops or as mandated by the Vatican, while bishops Thomas Olmsted of Phoenix and Charles J. Chaput of Denver stated they would act on their own initiative and apply the sanctions put forward by a 2004 USCCB document entitled "Catholics in Political Life",[3] though only, Chaput declared, in "extraordinary cases of public scandal".[4] In 2008, Raymond Burke, former archbishop of St. Louis and assigned in that year to the Vatican, said communion should not be given to such politicians, arguing that support for abortion rights is a mortal sin that makes a person unfit for communion, and denial of communion would prevent other Catholics from thinking, because they see that pro-choice politicians can receive communion, that being pro-choice is an acceptable political position.[2]

A minority of American bishops support denying communion to pro-choice Catholic legislators, interpreting canon 915 as justifying such action.[5][6] In 2009, Wuerl argued that communion was not intended to be used as a weapon and that a pastoral approach would be more effective for changing minds than a canonical one.[7]

These statements of intent from church authorities have sometimes led American Catholic voters to vote for candidates who wish to ban abortion, rather than pro-choice candidates who support other Catholic Church positions on issues such as war, health care, immigration, or lowering the abortion rate.[8] Penalties of this kind from bishops have generally targeted Democrats, possibly because pro-choice Catholic Democrats are more vocal in their support for abortion rights than the few pro-choice Catholic Republicans.[9]

Proposals to deny communion to pro-choice politicians are more common in the United States. Suggested reasons for this are a politicization of pastoral practice and abortion's constitutional status as a right.[1][2]

While there was thus disagreement among the bishops about the opportuneness of refusing the Eucharist to Catholic politicians promoting legalization of abortion, there was unanimity regarding the moral obligation of Catholic politicians who participate in what their Church considers a seriously sinful action to refrain from going to Communion, an obligation stated on several occasions.[4][10][2][11][12][13][14]


The first instance of a pro-choice politician being censured via denial of communion was in 1989.[15] During a special election for the California Senate, pro-choice Catholic Lucy Killea was barred from communion by Leo Thomas Maher, the bishop of San Diego.[9] She received communion in Sacramento with the consent of Bishop Francis Quinn.[16] The incident brought publicity to Killea's candidacy and gained her the voters' sympathy, helping her to win the election.[17][18]

In 1984, Cardinal John Joseph O'Connor, then archbishop of New York, considered excommunicating New York Governor Mario Cuomo.[19][20] He also condemned Cuomo's statements that support for abortion rights did not contradict Catholic teaching, but did not suggest that Cuomo should stop receiving communion.[21]

In January 2003, Bishop William Weigand of Sacramento said Governor of California Gray Davis, a Catholic who supported abortion rights, should stop taking communion.[9]

In 2004, Archbishop Burke said he would not give communion to 2004 presidential candidate and Senator John Kerry, in part because of his position on abortion. According to religion experts, such a denial of communion would have been unprecedented.[14][22] Kerry's own Archbishop Sean O'Malley refused to specify the applicability of his earlier statement that such Catholics are in a state of grave sin and cannot properly receive communion.[14] The issue led to comparisons between Kerry's presidential campaign and that of John F. Kennedy in 1960. While Kennedy had to demonstrate his independence from the Roman Catholic Church due to public fear that a Catholic president would make decisions based on the Holy See agenda, it seemed that Kerry, in contrast, had to show obedience to Catholic authorities in order to win votes.[9][23][24][25] According to Margaret Ross Sammons, Kerry's campaign was sufficiently damaged by the threat to withhold communion that it may have cost him the election. Sammons argues that President George W. Bush was able to win 53% of the Catholic vote because he appealed to "traditional" Catholics.[26]

In February 2007, as emerged two and a half years later, Bishop Thomas Tobin asked Representative Patrick Kennedy not to take communion because of his position on abortion.[27] Kennedy told the Providence Journal that Tobin also instructed priests in the diocese not to give him communion; Tobin denied this.[27] In 2007, Burke said that he would deny communion to 2008 Republican presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani because of his views on abortion, and that Giuliani should not seek the sacrament.[22] In May 2008, Kansas City Archbishop Joseph Naumann said that Kathleen Sebelius should stop receiving communion because of her support for abortion rights, and that she should not again take it unless she publicly stated that she opposed abortion rights.[28][29][30]

After Joe Biden, a pro-choice Catholic, was nominated as a vice presidential candidate in the 2008 presidential election, Bishop Joseph Francis Martino of Biden's hometown of Scranton, Pennsylvania, said Biden would be refused communion in that diocese because of his support for abortion rights.[8] Biden was not refused communion in his then-parish of Wilmington, Delaware.[31][clarification needed]


In Europe, Catholic bishops have less often raised the question of refusing communion to pro-choice Catholic legislators: there "rigorous principles coexist with more flexible pastoral customs".[2] In January 2001, Pope John Paul II gave Communion to Mayor of Rome Francesco Rutelli, whose position is that of being "personally opposed to abortion, but not willing to impose his stance through law". Similar cases are found among parliamentarians in Austria, Belgium and Germany.[1] When the Spanish Parliament voted to liberalize that country's abortion laws in 2010, the Bishops Conference declared that the parliamentarians who chose to vote for the new law were not excommunicated, but that they "seriously separated themselves from the church and should not receive Communion." King Juan Carlos, who was constitutionally required to sign the law, did not fall under any church sanctions.[32]

During parliamentary debate over changing Ireland's abortion laws to protect the lives of pregnant women, bishops in that country expressed positions both for and against denying communion to, or excommunicating, legislators who support changes to the law. Eamon Martin, successor to the archbishopric of Armagh, said that pro-choice politicians should not seek communion and were excommunicated. Diarmuid Martin, archbishop of Dublin, was asked for comment on Martin's statements, and responded that communion should not be a site of debate or used for publicity reasons.[33] Cardinal Sean Brady remarked that, among the bishops, "there would be a great reluctance to politicize the Eucharist".[34]


In May 2007, Pope Benedict XVI expressed support for the Mexican bishops' envisaged excommunication of politicians who had voted to legalize abortion in Mexico City. Responding to a journalist's question, "Do you agree with the excommunications given to legislators in Mexico City on the question?" the Pope said: "Yes. The excommunication was not something arbitrary. It is part of the (canon law) code. It is based simply on the principle that the killing of an innocent human child is incompatible with going in Communion with the body of Christ. Thus, they (the bishops) didn't do anything new or anything surprising. Or arbitrary."[35] According to Der Spiegel, many journalists were wondering if this support could be interpreted as a wish to excommunicate such politicians,;[36] Time magazine reported that it was in fact such a declaration.[37] However, church officials said that it was not a declaration but appeared to be a misunderstanding.[35] Federico Lombardi, director of the Holy See Press Office, clarified that the Pope was not excommunicating anyone, since the Mexican bishops had not in fact declared an excommunication. However, Lombardi said "politicians who vote in favor of abortion should not receive the sacrament of Holy Communion", because their action is "incompatible with participation in the Eucharist."[38]


In 2012, various news outlets reported that all Catholic legislators who supported the decriminalization of abortion in Uruguay were excommunicated by that country's conference of bishops.[39][40][41] This was the result of a misunderstanding and the secretary-general of the bishops’ conference later said that the penalty of automatic excommunication applies to those directly involved in an abortion, "which does not include those who vote for a law that allows it."[42]

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 "The Word from Rome", John L. Allen, Jr. in National Catholic Reporter, 28 May 2004]
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 Sandro Magister, "Obama's Pick for Vice President Is Catholic. But the Bishops Deny Him Communion"
  3. Major, Richard (August 27, 2005), "Communion for pro-choice politicians splits Church", The Tablet<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. 4.0 4.1 Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, "It's a Matter of Honesty: To Receive Communion, We Need to Be in Communion"
  5. Allen, John (Oct 31, 2008). "Antiabortion imperative more complex than acknowledged". National Catholic Reporter. Retrieved 2014-05-08.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  6. Michael Sean Winters, "Chaput Cites Disunity Among Bishops on Canon 915" in National Catholic Reporter, 12 April 2011
  7. Henneberger, Melinda (11 May 2009). "Wuerl: Why I Won't Deny Pelosi Communion". Politics Daily.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  8. 8.0 8.1 Kirkpatrick, David (2008-09-16). "Abortion Issue Again Dividing Catholic Votes". The New York Times. Retrieved 2011-12-26.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 9.3 Ainsworth, Bill (2004-06-09). "Catholics giving governor a pass on abortion" (pdf). The San-Diego Union-Tribune. Retrieved 2011-12-26.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  10. Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Newark, "The Obligations of Catholics and the Rights of Unborn Children"
  11. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, "Worthiness to Receive Holy Communion: General Principles"
  12. George Washington University, "Reactions to Sen. Obama's Selection of Sen. Biden as His Running Mate"
  13. Code of Canon Law, canon 916
  14. 14.0 14.1 14.2 Hancock, David (2004-04-06). "Kerry's Communion Controversy". CBS News. Retrieved 2011-12-26.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  15. "A Bishop Says No". Time. November 27, 1989.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  16. Lundstrom, Marjie (February 1, 2003). "Abortion foes cross line with attacks on elected officials". Sacramento Bee.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  17. "Abortion and Religion Put Focus on Election". New York Times. December 3, 1989.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  18. "Bishop Leo Maher, 75; Led San Diego Diocese". New York Times. February 25, 1991.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  19. Beltramini, Enrico (September 12, 2009). "Il cattolicesimo politico in America". Limes (in Italian). Retrieved 2011-12-26. <templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  20. West, John G.; MacLean, Iain S. (1999). Encyclopedia of religion in American politics, Volume 2. Greenwood Publishing Group. p. 98. Retrieved 2011-12-26.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  21. Mike Dorning, "Catholic politicians feel church heat on abortion" in Chicago Tribune, 26 April 2003
  22. 22.0 22.1 "Outspoken Catholic Archbishop Raymond Burke Says He'd Deny Rudy Giuliani Communion". Fox News. AP. 2007-10-03. Retrieved 2011-12-26.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  23. McAteer, Michael (June 26, 2004). "Questioning Catholic hierarchy's priorities". Toronto Star.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  24. Balz, Dan; Cooperman, Alan (June 4, 2004). "Bush, Pope to Meet Today at the Vatican". Washington Post.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  25. Gibson, David (2007). The Rule of Benedict: Pope Benedict XVI and His Battle with the Modern World. HarperCollins. p. 42.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  26. Heyer, Kristin E.; Rozell, Mark J.; Genovese, Michael A. (2008). Catholics and politics: the dynamic tension between faith and power. Georgetown University Press. p. 21. ISBN 978-1-58901-215-8. Retrieved 18 February 2012.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  27. 27.0 27.1 "Bishop bars Patrick Kennedy from Communion over abortion". CNN. November 22, 2009.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  28. "For Sebelius, More Opposition from KC's Archbishop". The Atlantic. 5 March 2009.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  29. "Rigid bishops one-up the popes". National Catholic Reporter. May 30, 2008. Retrieved 2011-12-26.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  30. Burke, Daniel (May 13, 2008). "Kansas Gov. Sebelius told not to take Communion". Religion News Service.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  31. Memoli, Mike (2008-12-24). "Abortion politics: Biden never refused communion". Archived from the original on January 17, 2012. Retrieved 2011-12-26.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  32. "No Sanction for Spanish King Signing Abortion Law". National Catholic Reporter. 2010-02-26. Retrieved 2011-12-23.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  33. Black, Fergus; Cunningham, Grainne (20 May 2013). "Top clerics divided on penalty for pro-choice Catholics". Irish Independent.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  34. Dalby, Douglas (3 May 2013). "Irish Catholic Church Condemns Abortion Legislation". International Herald Tribune.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  35. 35.0 35.1 "Pope arrives in Brazil with tough abortion stance". USA Today (Associated Press service). 10 May 2007.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  36. Der Spiegel. Pope Attacks Mexico City Politicians. May 10, 2007.
  37. Israely, Jeff (May 9, 2007). "Pope Rejects Pro-Choice Politicians". Time.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  38. "Pope condemns abortion on Latin America trip". Associated Press. May 9, 2007.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  39. "Iglesia dice que legisladores que votaron despenalización quedan excomulgados". El Observador. 2012-10-18.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  40. "1er medida de la Iglesia tras la despenalización del aborto" (in spanish). Urgente24. 2012-10-18. <templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  41. "Iglesia Católica excomulgó a quienes incentivaron la despenalización del aborto". El País. 2012-10-18.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  42. "Uruguay's bishops clarify: pro-abortion lawmakers not excommunicated". Retrieved 27 November 2013.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>