The following is a continuation of excerpts from the recent pastoral letter by Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco, begun two weekends ago in my letter:
“As followers of Christ, we must all heed the plea of St. Paul: “Do not conform yourselves to this age but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and pleasing and perfect” (Rom 12:2). This is not easy for anyone, but it is especially challenging for Catholics in public life, whose careers depend in large part on popularity. I want to express profound gratitude to Catholics in public life who labor to protect the human dignity of each and every person, especially of the defenseless unborn. This effort requires great courage in our culture, and you are a source of inspiration and pride to your fellow Catholics.
With regard to Catholics in public life who participate in abortion or seek to advance it through legislation or advocacy, precisely because these are actions of which many people are aware it introduces another consideration: scandal. The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines scandal as “an attitude or behavior which leads another to do evil” (CCC n. 2284). Prominent figures in society help to shape the mores of that society, and in our culture their advocacy of abortion definitely leads others to do evil. This must be stated with clarity: anyone who actively works to promote abortion shares some of the guilt for the abortions performed because of their actions.
But there is another source of scandal that pertains specifically to Catholics in public life: if their participation in the evil of abortion is not addressed forthrightly by their pastors, this can lead Catholics (and others) to assume that the moral teaching of the Catholic Church on the inviolate sanctity of human life is not seriously held. The constant teaching of the Catholic Church from her very beginning, the repeated exhortations of every Pope in recent times up to and including Pope Francis, the frequent statements by the bishops of the United States, all make it clear what the teaching of the Catholic Church is in regard to abortion. When public figures identify themselves as Catholics and yet actively oppose one of the most fundamental doctrines of the Church — the inherent dignity of each and every human being and therefore the absolute prohibition of taking innocent human life — we pastors have a responsibility both to them and to the rest of our people. Our responsibility to them is to call them to conversion and to warn them that if they do not amend their lives they must answer before the tribunal of God for the innocent blood that has been shed. Our responsibility to the rest of the Catholic community is to assure them that the Church of Jesus Christ does take most seriously her mission to care for “the least of these,” as Our Lord has commanded us, and to correct Catholics who erroneously, and sometimes stubbornly, promote abortion.
This correction takes several forms, and rightly begins with private conversations between the erring Catholic and his or her parish priest or bishop. The experience of some of us in Church leadership over many years demonstrates the sad truth that often such interventions can be fruitless. It can happen that the conversations tend to go nowhere, thus leaving it easy for the individual to continue participating fully in the life of the Church. Such a situation is a cause of scandal to many of the faithful.
Because we are dealing with public figures and public examples of cooperation in moral evil, this correction can also take the public form of exclusion from the reception of Holy Communion. As seen above, this discipline has been exercised throughout our history, going back to the New Testament. When other avenues are exhausted, the only recourse a pastor has left is the public medicine of temporary exclusion from the Lord’s Table. This is a bitter medicine, but the gravity of the evil of abortion can sometimes warrant it. Speaking for myself, I always keep before me the words from the prophet Ezekiel: “When I say to the wicked, ‘You wicked, you must die,’ and you do not speak up to warn the wicked about their ways, they shall die in their sins, but I will hold you responsible for their blood” (Ez 33:8). I tremble that if I do not forthrightly challenge Catholics under my pastoral care who advocate for abortion, both they and I will have to answer to God for innocent blood.
To my fellow Catholics who openly advocate for the legitimacy of abortion, I beg you to heed the perennial call to conversion God Himself addresses to His people down through the ages: “I call heaven and earth today to witness against you: I have set before you, life and death, the blessing and the curse. Choose life, then, that you and your descendants may live, by loving the Lord, your God, obeying his voice, and holding fast to him” (Dt 30:19). Your Catholic ideals inspire you in your work to help those who experience discrimination, violence, and injustice, and you deserve the gratitude of your fellow Catholics and our nation for this service. But we cannot empower the weak by crushing the weakest! A compassionate, inclusive society must make room at the table for the most defenseless, and it should help a woman to keep her unborn child, not kill her or him. If you find that you are unwilling or unable to abandon your advocacy for abortion, you should not come forward to receive Holy Communion. To publicly affirm the Catholic faith while at the same time publicly rejecting one of its most fundamental teachings is simply dishonest. Heeding this perennial call to conversion is the only way to live the Catholic faith with integrity.”