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."
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.
Wuerl is considered less political than McCarrick, but he is hardly less averse to colliding with powerful laymen. He could have avoided any confrontation at Nationals Park by simply not inviting the pro-choice politicians to a mass where there was no room for the vast majority of Catholics who wanted to attend. The five pro-choice Catholics took Communion from the hand of Archbishop Pietro Sambi, the pope's representative to the United States as apostolic delegate.
There are devout pro-life Catholics who oppose rejection of any worshiper at the Communion rail, but they believe bishops should publicly manifest disapproval of Catholic politicians who support abortion rights. The bishops of Washington and New York do not. During Wuerl's installation mass as archbishop of Washington in 2006, he shook hands with Kerry and Kennedy, seated side by side.
At Yankee Stadium, Benedict spoke of the "inalienable dignity and rights" of "the most defenseless of all human beings, the unborn child in the mother's womb." In parishes across the country, the faithful hear their priests echo the Holy Father's words. Those professions ring hollow when pro-choice politicians are honored as they were during the pope's visit.