Muzzling the Bishops With “Civility”

Deal W. Hudson
November 9, 2007

On Tuesday, a group of Catholics in Washington, D.C. issued a statement calling for a greater “spirit of civility” as Americans approach the 2008 presidential elections. When I saw the title of the statement – “A Catholic Call to Civility in Public Debate” – I thought, what a great idea!

Then I read it, and I was puzzled and disappointed.

I agree wholeheartedly with the statement’s call to avoid “attacks on private conduct.” But then I came to the following line:

Others, for political and even ecclesiastical reasons, seek the public embarrassment of politicians whose public positions differ with Church teachings through the public refusal of the sacrament of Holy Communion or public admonition by the Bishops.

What “others” did these signers have in mind? Our Holy Father, Benedict XVI, issued a warning to pro-abortion politicians on May 9, 2007, saying that Catholic politicians who support a proposed law allowing women to have abortions in Mexico City no longer deserve to receive Communion.

Excommunication, the Holy Father said, is “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” (USA Today).

His words were so clear that Mayor Rudy Giuliani – then a newly announced presidential candidate – was forced to take a reporter’s question on the pope’s comment. “I do not get into debates with the pope,” he wisely said.

But he added, “Issues like that, for me, are between me and my confessor” (New York Daily News).

In other words, it’s a “private matter.” Is this what the signers of the statement had in mind when they condemned public attacks on “private conduct”? Is “private conduct” code language for a politician’s view on abortion?

Only a month after the pope’s comments, Giuliani’s pro-abortion stance was publicly criticized by Bishop Thomas J. Tobin (Providence, RI). Bishop Tobin compared Giuliani to Pontius Pilate in the diocesan newspaper:

As Catholics, we are called, indeed required, to be pro-life, to cherish and protect human life as a precious gift of God from the moment of conception until the time of natural death… I can just hear Pilate saying,”You know, I’m personally opposed to crucifixion but I don’t want to impose my belief on others.”

Is this an example of the incivility that this statement condemns?

If so, are the bishops being asked to be “kinder and gentler” toward pro-abortion Catholic politicians? Or are they being asked to say nothing about them at all?

Trying to prevent another Kerry?

It’s obvious to everyone, including the reporter from the Catholic News Service, that this statement is a response to the public debate over Communion during the 2004 race. The civility statement also suggests, wrongly, that the question of denying Communion to John Kerry was initiated by the laity:

As lay Catholics, we should not exhort the Church to condemn our political opponents by publicly denying them Holy Communion based on public dissent from Church teachings.

As a matter of historical fact, the debate began in January 2004 when it was revealed that Bishop Raymond L. Burke – then in La Cross, WI – counseled some pro-abortion Wisconsin politicians not to receive Communion. A few months later, after becoming archbishop of St. Louis, Burke announced that he would withhold Communion from John Kerry if he presented himself at the altar.

Burke was lambasted by the media, but he received the backing of numerous bishops who made their own statements on denying Communion to pro-abortion Catholic politicians: Archbishop Charles Chaput (Denver), Archbishop John Myers (Newark), Sean Cardinal O’Malley (Boston), and Bishop Michael Sheridan (Colorado Springs).

Are these bishops guilty of incivility in launching attacks on “private conduct”? Did these bishops speak because “partisan” laypersons twisted their arms, as the statement implies?

Civility is a virtue, and we need more of it in our public discourse. But it must not – and need not – come at the expense of our bishops speaking the truth.

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