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'Pro-choice' issue emerges in US presidential campaign
Bernard Kenny, who is New Jersey's State Senate Majority Leader, resigned from the Catholic Church in May over his support for abortion rights and embryonic stem cell research, and the Church's refusal to offer Holy Communion to politicians who have supported these positions publicly.
His action has intensified public controversy in the US over the position of the Democratic Presidential candidate, John Kerry, who while strongly "pro-choice" nevertheless insists on his right as a Catholic to receive the Eucharist in good conscience.
Senator Kerry's defiance of his Church in the midst of a Presidential campaign has made the Church's pro-life stance newsworthy in the secular media and forced both bishops and politicians to grapple with the issue.
This followed the release of a Vatican document last year on the obligations of Catholic politicians, especially on human life issues like abortion, euthanasia and embryonic stem cell experiments. In response, several American bishops, including Archbishop John Myers of Newark, New Jersey, have stated that pro-choice politicians should not present themselves for Communion and would be refused if they did so.
Senator Bernard Kenny commented: "Even before the Archbishop's [pastoral letter], I'd been struggling privately about how I can be a member of this Church when I'm taking positions inconsistent with what they are espousing."
Kenny, who supports abortion rights and embryonic stem-cell research, said his Church leaders told him he would be offered Communion one more time, "but that then he would tell me not to come again."
"I will look for other options to express my faith and will probably join another Christian church," Kenny told The Philadelphia Inquirer.
US Church leaders like Archbishop Myers have not in any way threatened to excommunicate Senator Kenny, or other Catholics who publicly support abortion. They have simply said that these people should not offer themselves for Holy Communion, which expresses the full unity between the lay person, the Church and Jesus Christ, who is present under the appearance of bread and wine.
The issue involves two questions: the Church's teaching that human life, from its beginning to its end, is a gift from God, and cannot be taken away by man, and the right to freedom of conscience. The resolution of this apparent conflict is one which lies at the centre of what it means to be a Catholic today.
Senator Kenny stated that he was acting in accordance with his conscience, in publicly supporting a position which is fundamentally against that of the Church.
However, as a member of a Church which has been given authority to resolve these issues by Jesus Christ himself, Senator Kenny was obliged to inform his conscience through the teachings of the Church, and to act upon them, however politically unpopular.
Even in the secular world, an employee who publicly dissents from the policy of his company would face censure, if not face dismissal or be forced to resign. The Church's position has been far more gentle than this.
Regrettable though it is, Senator Kenny has correctly concluded that as he cannot conform his beliefs to those of the Church, he is obliged to leave it.
At the same time, New Jersey's Governor, James E. McGreevey, also a Catholic, took the rare step of saying he would not receive Communion at public services following Archbishop Myers' pastoral letter and indication he would refuse Communion to McGreevey.
The spotlight is now clearly on Presidential candidate John Kerry, who has publicly supported abortion and declared that he would only appoint Supreme Court judges who are pro-abortion, yet continues to present himself for Holy Communion.
Kerry and his supporters have kept the issue on the boil by continuing to present themselves for Communion, including on Mother's Day at St Scholastica's Catholic Church in Pittsburgh - an especially provocative move since Mother's Day is one regularly chosen by pro-life activists for an array of activities.
The US bishops will be meeting in Denver to discuss the problem at the same time Kerry plans a campaign stop there and there is speculation as to whether Archbishop Chaput, in view of his solid orthodoxy, will refuse him Communion. An article in the Denver Post claims that this confluence will be a "defining moment" in the presidential campaign.
Papal biographer George Weigel pointed out in a recent interview that the real issue facing America's Catholic bishops is not the question of banning Kerry from receiving Communion, but the Democratic presidential candidate's wilful distortion of Church teaching on abortion and his responsibility to follow Catholic doctrine.
"When Kerry says the Church's pro-life teaching is a sectarian position which cannot be imposed on a pluralistic society, he is wilfully misrepresenting the nature of the Church's position - by suggesting that this is something analogous to the Catholic Church trying to force everyone in the United States to abstain from eating hot dogs on Fridays during Lent.
"This is simply false. The Church's pro-life teaching is something that can be engaged seriously by anyone. You don't have to believe that there are seven sacraments to deal with this ... because it's a position rooted in basic embryology and in basic logic, and anybody can engage that."
The next Synod of Bishops in Rome, scheduled for October 2005, will focus on issues surrounding the reception of the Eucharist. A 75-page outline has been prepared by the Vatican providing topics for discussion. The document says that the Catholic Church does not have the power to give Communion to those "teaching error" or to "persons living an immoral life." "Communion can be received only in union with the whole Church, after overcoming any separation because of religion or morality," it said.
This issue is a central one for the Catholic Church - and not only in America.
Reprinted from AD2000 Vol 17 No 5 (June 2004), p. 3
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