Leading His Flock

Published Date: January 29, 2004 | Topics: Politics and Current Affairs, Religion

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Has the new archbishop of St. Louis crossed a line?

[This article was co-authored by Robert P. George and Gerard V. Bradley.]

The Catholic Church proclaims the principle that every human being–without regard to age, size, stage of development, or condition of dependency–is entitled to the protection of the laws. In line with the indisputable facts of human embryogenesis and intrauterine human development, the Church teaches that children “hidden in the womb” are human beings. It is the obligation of legislators and other public officials to honor and protect their inalienable right to life. Yet many Catholic politicians, including the Democratic leaders of both houses of Congress, are staunch supporters of a “right to abortion.” What should the leaders of the Church do about such people?

Raymond Burke, who was installed this past Monday as archbishop of St. Louis, has an answer. He has declared that public officials who act to expose the unborn to the violence of abortion may not receive Holy Communion, the sacramental symbolic of Church unity.

Pro-life citizens of every religious persuasion have applauded the bishop’s action. Many commented that it is long past time for religious leaders to show that they are serious about their commitment to the sanctity of human life. Believers in “abortion rights,” by contrast, were quick to condemn Bishop Burke. They denounced him for “crossing the line” separating church and state. In one of the wire stories we read, the partisans of abortion branded the rather mild-mannered Burke a “fanatic.”

The “crossing the line” charge is silly. In acting on his authority as a bishop to discipline members of his flock, Bishop Burke is exercising his own constitutional right to the free exercise of religion; he is not depriving others of their rights. No one is compelled by law to accept his authority. But Bishop Burke has every right to exercise his spiritual authority over anyone who chooses to accept it. There is a name for such people: They are called “Catholics.”

By demanding that Catholic legislators honor the rights of all human beings, the unborn not excluded, Bishop Burke may cause them to reconsider implicating themselves in the injustice of abortion. (Surely he hopes to do that.) But not even his harshest critics charge that the bishop said or implied that the law of the state should be used to compel anyone to accept his authority. Catholic legislators remain legally free to vote as they please. Bishop Burke, in turn, enjoys the legal right to exercise his spiritual authority as a bishop to order them to refrain from receiving communion so long as they persist in what the Church teaches are acts of profound injustice against their fellow human beings. Freedom is a two-way street.

What about the allegation that Burke’s actions show that he is a fanatic?

The bishop said that he acted for two reasons. One was to warn Catholic legislators that their unjust acts were spiritually harmful to them–”a grave sin.” The other was to prevent “scandal”: that is, weakening the faith and moral resolution of others by one’s bad example. Having made every effort to persuade pro-abortion Catholic legislators to fulfill their obligations in justice to the unborn, Bishop Burke articulated the obvious: Any Catholic who exercises political power to expose a disfavored class of human beings to unjust killing sets himself against the very faith he claims to share. The Church cannot permit such a person to pretend to share in the faith he publicly defies. By receiving communion–the sacrament of unity–pro-abortion Catholics are pretending exactly that. The bishop has called a halt to the pretense.

Scandal is not a peculiarly Catholic or even religious concern. Business executives who wink at accounting shenanigans or racist humor permit a corrupt or racist corporate culture to flourish. We have all heard of cases where male employees’ sexual bantering was tolerated, despite a firm’s pretense of wholesomeness and sexual equality. Actions speak louder than words. Where leaders do not act to uphold stated principles, everyone concludes that the principles are nothing more than cynical propaganda. No one need take them too seriously.

Scandal occurs in religious communities in the same way, and has the same effect. When Catholic Church officials did nothing about priests who abused children, those who knew the facts had to wonder: Do church authorities not really mean it when they say these acts are immoral? Are such acts really wrong, if nothing happens to those known to perform them? If they are wrong, wouldn’t the bishops act decisively against those who commit them?

The same concern underlies the discussion of what Church leaders did and failed to do during the Holocaust. No serious person suggests that the German bishops or Vatican officials actively supported the Nazis’ murderous policies. The suggestion, rather, is that by their (alleged) failure to denounce those policies and to excommunicate those Nazi leaders who had Catholic backgrounds, Church officials signaled that Catholics could legitimately support Nazi policies without peril to their souls or to their standing in the Church. Critics of those Church leaders suppose precisely what Bishop Burke supposes: If the Church is to be in solidarity with victims of injustice, bishops must not permit those Catholics who commit or abet the injustices to pretend to be Catholics in good standing with the Church.

What Bishop Burke’s critics have failed to see is that he is not acting as a political partisan or lobbyist. He knows perfectly well that his actions might, in fact, redound to the political advantage of the legislators to whom his order is directed. His specific aim is not to win specific legislative battles over abortion (however much he would agree that these battles should be fought and won); his purpose, rather, is to defend the integrity of Catholic teaching on the sanctity of life and to confirm in the minds and hearts of the Catholic faithful their solemn moral obligation to oppose the killing of the innocent.

Most of Burke’s critics–Catholic and non-Catholic alike–are liberals. Many insist that “separation of church and state” means that no religious leader may presume to tell public officials what their positions may and may not be on matters of public policy. But if we shift the focus from abortion to, say, genocide, slavery, or segregation, we see how implausible such a view is. When, in the late 1950s, the Catholic archbishop of New Orleans excommunicated Catholics who opposed desegregation, liberals applauded him. They were right then; they are wrong now.

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