Denying communion to Catholic politicians is ‘toxic,’ N.J.’s Cardinal Tobin warns fellow bishops

Posted Jun 27, 2021

Sitting in his office in New Jersey, Cardinal Joseph Tobin looked into his computer’s camera and urged his fellow Catholic bishops to kill a proposal that could lead to denying Holy Communion to political leaders who support abortion rights.

The move could “drive a wedge” between Americans and the Catholic Church, Tobin told the members of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops gathered online for the high-profile debate.

“Any effort by this conference to move in support of the categorical exclusion of Catholic political leaders from the Eucharist based on their public policy positions will thrust the bishops of our nation into the very heart of the toxic partisan strife which has distorted our own political culture and crippled meaningful dialogue,” Tobin said.

He vowed to vote “no” on the proposal.

But Tobin — the Archbishop of Newark and the highest ranking Catholic official in New Jersey — was in the minority.

The vote revealed last Friday, June 18, was unexpectedly lopsided: 168 bishops in favor of the proposal, 55 against and six abstaining. It meant the U.S. bishops would move ahead with the process of drafting a “teaching document” on the Eucharist that could spell out who should be allowed to receive communion wafers at Mass.

It is unclear exactly what the statement will say when the bishops meet again to consider it in November. But both critics and supporters said the document could be used by some Catholic bishops as justification for denying communion to Catholic politicians, including President Joe Biden, because of their support abortion rights.

The bishops appeared to soften their stance in a Q&A about the vote released last week.

“There will be no national policy on withholding Communion from politicians. The intent is to present a clear understanding of the Church’s teachings to bring heightened awareness among the faithful of how the Eucharist can transform our lives and bring us closer to our creator and the life he wants for us,” the Q&A said.

It said the document will be focused on the call of “all Catholics” to “support human life and dignity and other fundamental principles of Catholic moral and social teaching.”

Still, as the process moves on, Tobin is expected to remain a leading voice of opposition. The New Jersey cardinal is a longtime friend of Pope Francis and is believed to be communicating some of the same concerns the Vatican has that conservative U.S. bishops are pushing the church into a political fight.

The Vatican has raised concerns about the nature and speed of the process of drafting a potentially divisive statement, Tobin said in his 5-minute statement before the bishops.

“The issues involved are so searing and complex at this moment in our national history that the whole of our episcopate must be engaged meaningfully in the resolution,” Tobin said.

Tobin declined through his spokeswoman to comment further after the final vote was revealed.

The Catholic Church has always opposed abortion and individual bishops, including Cardinal John Jospeh O’Connor in New York and Bishop William Weigand of Sacramento, have called on local politicians to stop receiving communion over the years because of their stance on abortion rights.

However, there has never been a clear rule barring politicians, or any supporters of abortion rights, from receiving communion or any of the church’s other sacraments.

But the issue has come up again, partly because a Catholic is back in the White House for the first time since President John F. Kennedy. President Biden, a longtime supporter of abortion rights who regularly attends weekly Mass, has said all along he isn’t worried about the bishops questioning whether he should receive communion.

“That’s a private matter and I don’t think that’s going to happen,” Biden has said.

New Jersey, which has one of the highest percentages of Catholic residents in the nation, also has numerous Catholic politicians who have supported abortion rights on the local, state and national level. They include: Gov. Phil Murphy; Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J.; Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr., D-9th Dist.; Rep. Mikie Sherrill, D-11th Dist.; Rep. Frank Pallone, D-6th; and Rep. Albio Sires, D-8th Dist.

Several bishops who support the creation of a statement on the Eucharist said politicians flaunting the core teachings of the Catholic Church have pushed them to this point. San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone said failing to release the document on communion would hurt the Catholic Church.

“The eyes of the whole country are on us right now,” Cordileone told his fellow bishops. “If we do not act courageously in presenting this teaching document clearly and convincingly on this core Catholic value, how can we expect to be taken seriously on any other topic?”

A 2019 Pew Research Center poll showed that Catholics remain divided on abortion. About 56% of U.S. Catholics surveyed said abortion should be legal in all or most cases. About 68% of Catholics said they do not want the Supreme Court to completely overturn the landmark Roe vs. Wade decision that legalized abortion.

Another Pew survey found minimal support among Catholics for barring people from receiving communion. About 67% of U.S. Catholics said politicians who support abortion rights should be able to receive communion. But that support was divided along partisan lines, with 49% of Catholic Republicans saying the church should deny the sacrament to politicians who support legal abortion.

The debate over communion and abortion comes as the Catholic Church is trying to welcome the faithful back to church after the coronavirus pandemic forced many to skip in-person Masses for a year or more. In New Jersey, the Catholic bishops lifted their order allowing parishioners to skip Mass during the pandemic and said everyone should return to in-person worship starting June 5.

Some critics have questioned if the bishops’ final statement on the Eucharist will have any real effect. The final document will need to get the approval of two thirds of the U.S. bishops before it passes. Then, it will also need the approval of the Vatican, which has discouraged the American bishops from starting a political fight.

Sixty Catholic Democrats in Congress, including Pascrell, Sherrill and several others from New Jersey, released a letter asking the U.S. bishops not to move forward with anything that would deny communion to politicians.

“The Sacrament of Holy Communion is central to the life of practicing Catholics, and the weaponization of the Eucharist to Democratic lawmakers for their support of a woman’s safe and legal access to abortion is contradictory,” the Democrats statement said.

They pointed out that no one has suggested denying communion to politicians, including many Republicans, who have advocated for the death penalty, supported separating migrant children from their parents or taken positions on other issues where the Catholic Church has taken a strong stance.

Several lawmakers and abortion rights supporters have also taken to social media to point out the U.S. bishops never moved to deny communion to William Barr, the Catholic attorney general under Republican President Donald Trump, after he directed the reinstatement of the federal death penalty in 2019 against the Catholic Church’s teachings.

“You are being nakedly partisan and you should be ashamed. Another reason you are losing membership,” Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) tweeted at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops last week.

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published this page in News and Politics 2021-06-28 04:11:27 -0700