Robert Novak

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- In the aftermath of the visit by Pope Benedict XVI, a troublesome question is asked by traditional Catholics: Did American pro-choice politicians receiving Communion at the papal masses indicate a softening on the abortion question by the pope? The answer is that it did not. On the contrary, it reflected disobedience to Benedict by the archbishops of New York and Washington.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Sens. John Kerry, Christopher Dodd and Edward M. Kennedy received Communion at Nationals Park in Washington, as did Rudolph Giuliani at Yankee Stadium in New York. They were present because they were invited to the masses by Archbishop Donald Wuerl of Washington and Cardinal Edward Egan, archbishop of New York. Given choice seats, they took Communion hosts as a matter of course.

Vatican sources say the pope has not retreated from his long-held position that pro-choice politicians should be deprived of Communion, but the decisions in Washington and New York were not his. The effect was to dull messages of faith, obligation and compassion conveyed by Benedict. In his Yankee Stadium homily, he talked of "authority" and "obedience" -- acknowledging that "these are not easy words to speak nowadays." They surely are not for four former presidential candidates and two princes of the church, representing Catholics who defy their faith's doctrine on abortion.

Benedict's position was unequivocal when he was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Asked in 2004 whether Kerry as Democratic presidential nominee should be allowed to take Communion, he replied, "The minister of Holy Communion must refuse to distribute it."

Ratzinger's demeanor necessarily has changed in his elevation from doctrinal enforcer to global pastor, but he has not altered his position on abortion-communion. When as Benedict he arrived in Brazil a year ago, he declared: "The killing of an innocent human child is incompatible with going into Communion in the body of Christ."

Benedict did not reiterate that position in Washington and New York, because a pope traveling abroad is influenced by the stance of local church authorities. American bishops are divided. Archbishop Raymond Burke of St. Louis leads those who believe pro-choice politicians cannot receive Communion. Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, Wuerl's predecessor as archbishop of Washington, took a position opposite to Burke's. Blessed with charm and political finesse, McCarrick was not about to clash with his archdiocese's most famous parishioners.

Robert Novak

Robert Novak (1931-2009) was a syndicated columnist and editor of the Evans-Novak Political Report.

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