Issue Date: October 1, 2004
Critics charge that Washington cardinal misled bishops conference
By JOE FEUERHERD
A senior U.S. Catholic leader is being accused by critics of misleading his brother bishops and misrepresenting Vatican guidance on the question of how the church should treat Catholic politicians who support abortion rights.
The charge against Washington Cardinal Theodore McCarrick dates back to June, when the U.S. bishops met for six days behind closed doors. In presenting the recommendations of a task force he leads, the Washington cardinal, it is alleged, soft-pedaled advice from Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, head of the Vaticans Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and hid from view a Ratzinger memo lest the bishops conference reject McCarricks moderate approach to the who-should-be-denied Communion question. Ultimately, the bishops, in a 183-6 vote, agreed to a statement noting their collective frustration and deep disappointment with Catholic politicians who support abortion rights, but they left it up to individual bishops in their own dioceses to decide who is and isnt eligible to receive Communion.
Some conservative Catholics, such as Newark Archbishop John Myers, are using their interpretations of the congregations guidance to make the case against voting for pro-choice politicians (such as John Kerry), while some liberals, such as syndicated columnist and Chicago archdiocesan priest Andrew Greeley, interpret it as giving conscientious Catholics a green light to vote for pro-choice candidates.
Had the letter of Cardinal Ratzinger been fully and completely shared with the bishops, Fr. Richard John Neuhaus told a Sept. 16 Washington conference on Catholic politicians and the church, there is every reason to believe the [bishops] statement would have been even more clear. Neuhaus, a New York diocesan priest and editor of First Things, is an ally of those in the U.S. hierarchy who argue for a tougher approach to Catholic politicians who support abortion rights.
One point in the dispute seems irreconcilable. McCarrick told the bishops gathered in Denver that Ratzinger has offered some observations for our work which he specifically asked not be published, but which I wish to share with you. By contrast, Neuhaus told the National Press Club audience, Ratzinger wanted the text of his memorandum shared with the body of bishops.
St. Louis Archbishop Raymond Burke has publicly called McCarricks credibility into question. Burke, who gave the Communion issue prominence when he said publicly earlier this year that Kerry was not welcome to receive Communion in St. Louis, told a conservative Catholic publication, The text of the memorandum would have been very helpful at the meeting in Denver. Knowing now about the memo, I am disappointed it was not given to us at the meeting of the bishops conference.
Its all about politics, McCarrick told NCR Aug. 20. Of bishops who question his forthrightness McCarrick said, I think its because they read what some people who are determined to get involved politically and determined to give no quarter and take no prisoners, are saying to them and writing to them.
The initial brouhaha broke July 3 when the Italian magazine LEspresso published the Ratzinger memorandum. The Ratzinger memo, McCarrick said at the time, may represent an incomplete and partial leak of a private communication from Cardinal Ratzinger and it may not accurately reflect the full message I received. Part of that message, apparently, was received in private conversations with Ratzinger and also in other written materials that were not part of the memo.
On July 9, at McCarricks behest, Ratzinger sent a letter in which he indicated that the bishops statement produced in Denver is very much in harmony with the general principles of the controversial memorandum which was sent in order to assist the American bishops in their related discussion and determinations.
End of story? Hardly.
Neuhaus, for one, read Ratzingers clarification as a typically understated Roman criticism of the Washington cardinal. This is a classic instance of observing what in the Vatican is called bella figura -- in this case, reproaching by subtle indirection, writes Neuhaus in the November issue of First Things. How could Ratzingers earlier letter have assisted the bishops in their discussion and deliberations if it was not shared with them? Which is precisely what McCarrick did not do and claimed he was instructed not to do, wrote Neuhaus.
The six-point Ratzinger memorandum -- offered as general principles on Worthiness to Receive Holy Communion -- notes that after a pastor has met with the pro-choice politicians and explained church teaching and the person in question, with obstinate persistence, still presents himself to receive the Holy Eucharist, he or she must be denied the Eucharist.
As to Catholic voters who support pro-choice politicians, a footnote to the memorandum says, A Catholic would be guilty of formal cooperation in evil, and so unworthy to present himself for Holy Communion, if he were to deliberately vote for a candidate precisely because of the candidates permissive stand on abortion and/or euthanasia. When a Catholic does not share a candidates stand in favor of abortion and/or euthanasia, but votes for that candidate for other reasons, it is considered remote material cooperation, which can be permitted in the presence of proportionate reasons.
In his prepared remarks at the bishops meeting (made public on the bishops Web site following the first murmurs of discontent), McCarrick told the bishops that Ratzinger recognizes that there are circumstances in which Holy Communion may be denied but that he clearly leaves to us as teachers, pastors and leaders whether [emphasis in original] to pursue this path.
McCarrick continued: It is important to note that Cardinal Ratzinger makes a clear distinction between public officials and voters, explaining that a Catholic would be guilty of formal cooperation in evil only [emphasis in original] if he were to deliberately vote for a candidate precisely because of the candidates permissive stand on abortion. However, when a Catholic does not share a candidates stand in favor of abortion and/or euthanasia, but votes for that candidate for other reasons, it is considered remote material cooperation, which can be permitted if there are proportionate reasons.
Yet the story is not over. The McCarrick-headed Task Force on Catholic Bishops and Catholic Politicians is expected to make an additional report at the next meeting of the nations bishops, scheduled for November in Washington.
Joe Feuerherd is NCR Washington correspondent. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
National Catholic Reporter, October 1, 2004
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