Leading His FlockROBERT P. GEORGE & GERARD V. BRADLEY
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. Arbishop Raymond Burke of St. Louis has called a halt to the pretense.
Raymond Burke, 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.
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.
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.
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.
Robert P. George & Gerard V. Bradley. "Leading His Flock." National Review (January 29, 2004).
Reprinted with permission of the National Review.
Copyright © 2004 National
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