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Seattle Catholic
A Journal of Catholic News and Views
18 Jan 2006

Prudence, Dissident Catholic Politicians, and Liturgical Integrity

by Rev. Daniel B. Gallagher

Just when we thought we had survived a tumultuous election year, we find ourselves on the brink of another. And while we will not be electing a new president in 2006, the county, and its Catholic citizens, will be asked to choose among important candidates and ballot initiatives at the federal, state, and local levels. During the last campaign period, a heated debate erupted regarding the reception of Holy Communion by Catholic politicians who do not uphold Catholic teaching in their public discourse and contradict Catholic doctrine in their political decisions. The debate by no means has been resolved. Rather, it's been lying dormant somewhere beneath the surface of the civil and ecclesial conscience, waiting to raise its ugly head again.

Over the last year, I am not convinced that the murky waters surrounding the issue have been sufficiently cleared. Msgr. Robert W. McElroy, for example, offers a rather convoluted argument for the enhanced role of prudence in imposing "Eucharistic Sanctions" ("Prudence and Eucharistic Sanctions," America, Jan. 31, 2005). In an attempt to introduce an element of reason into the impassioned debate, I am afraid Msgr. McElroy has ended up complicating matters. He commendably advocates for continued dialogue on the question regarding Catholic public officials who endorse legalized abortion and their participation in the Eucharist. He argues that any consensus of the leadership of the Church should be rooted "firmly in the ancient theological tradition of prudence as virtue's charioteer." I could not agree more. However, I am not sure if Msgr. McElroy's understanding of the virtue of prudence is itself as firmly grounded in the ancient theological tradition as he would have it.

The paragraph from the Catechism of the Catholic Church quoted by Msgr. McElroy states that "prudence is the virtue that disposes practical reason to discern our true good in every circumstance and to choose the right means of achieving it" (No. 1806). Even before the faculty of practical reason can determine the right means, it must first determine the true good. On several occasions, Msgr. McElroy seems to argue that the "true good" in this case is a matter of advancing public policy. He states that "the leadership of the church in the United States will best serve the Catholic community if it achieves consensus on this critically important public policy question soon." Earlier in his article he states that "the issue of eucharistic sanctions holds within it a unique symbolic power to mold the image of the church in the public square for decades to come." The former assertion seems to reduce the reception of Holy Communion to a public policy issue, and the latter implies that it is the public square that needs to mold the church rather than the church that needs to mold the public square.

I would like to suggest that the "true good" which the virtue of prudence disposes us to discern regarding the question of Catholic leaders and their reception of Holy Communion is neither merely a matter of achieving consensus regarding a public policy nor of molding the image of the church into the public square. At least in some cases, it is a matter of respecting the integrity of the sacrament of the Eucharist and of avoiding any course of action that would undermine its efficacy to both bring about and signify the unity of the church which is the Body of Christ. The church does have a duty to act prudently in order to promote the common good, but it is not the common good that dictates how the Church should conduct its sacramental and liturgical life. Just as the celebration of the Mass is to have an impact on the way we conduct ourselves in the public square, the way we conduct ourselves in the public square bears consequences on how, and if, we should participate in the sharing of sacramental communion. This is a key teaching of Jesus (cf. Matt. 5:23-24) and of St. Paul (cf. 1 Cor. 11:17-22).

Msgr. McElroy decries "the use of the Eucharist as a political weapon". I concur. Yet, in attempting to address some of the questions provoked by the "sanction camp's interpretation of the church's theology of the Eucharist", he seems himself to adopt a stance toward the Eucharist that is tendentiously utilitarian. His primary concern is "to insure that any action taken will make the situation better rather than worse". In effect, his four "unintended consequences" collectively refer to ways in which the advancement of the pro-life cause and the social mission of the Church in general might be stymied by the imposition of Eucharistic sanctions. As much as he, I, and most other faithful Catholics want to advance the pro-life cause, I am not sure that it is the only, nor even the primary, "true good" that the virtue of prudence aims to discern when it comes to administering communion to public officials who support legalized abortion. The "true good" that is at stake is the integrity of a sacrament that is both the highest expression of, and the actualization of, our communion with the Lord Himself and, consequently, with one another. Therefore, even if I disagree with Msgr. McElroy's prognosis of the possible "unintended consequences" of imposing Eucharistic sanctions, there is a more fundamental disagreement; it is the disagreement over the true good that the virtue of prudence seeks to discern rather than the choosing of suitable means to achieve that good.

I believe that this is the line of reasoning pursued by Archbishop John J. Myers in "A Time for Honesty," leading him to conclude that "to receive communion when one has, through public or private action, separated oneself from unity with Christ and His Church, is objectively dishonest." As quoted by Msgr. McElroy, Archbishop Myers, in regard to pro-abortion Catholic leaders receiving Holy Communion, states that "their objective dishonesty serves to compound the scandal". A close reading of his pastoral letter reveals that it is the "objective dishonesty" of some catholic leaders that most concerns Archbishop Myers. Msgr. McElroy, on the other hand, seems to focus primarily on the "compounding of the scandal". In the minds of those who argue for withholding Holy Communion (at least in certain cases) from dissenting public officials, it is not so much a matter of choosing how best to minimize the scandal (for, as Archbishop Myers argues, the scandal already exists in their very conduct within the public square) as it is a matter of participating in the Eucharist as "an expression of communion by one's action that is objectively not in accordance with one's heart, mind, and choices" (A Time for Honesty).

I agree with McElroy that "prudence requires that the advantages and perils of implementing Eucharistic sanctions be carefully weighed in the concrete situation." However, I am not sure that what McElroy intends by "concrete situation" is what the Catechism and the "ancient theological tradition" intends by "particular cases". If McElroy understands the "concrete situation" to be the general issue of Catholic public officials persisting in their support of legalized abortion and whether or not the church should allow them to receive Holy Communion, then I believe he falls into the same trap that many participants in the debate on both sides of the issue have already fallen. Such a broadly defined "concrete situation" will not help to direct practical reason to act prudently. Rather, each and every public official who receives communion while supporting legalized abortion is himself or herself a "particular case". Among the many factors to be considered when confronting a particular case are the types of legislation and judicial decisions the public official has supported, the ways in which his or her conscience has been formed or misinformed regarding the intrinsic evil of abortion, and the success or failure of previous attempts to persuade the public official to reconsider and conform his or her position to moral truth. In the case of a legislator who hesitatingly supports certain types of legislation that promote abortion because she believes that the same bill simultaneously promotes some other public good(s), it may be more prudent for a bishop to meet with her personally to discuss the complex issues before denying her Holy Communion. For the legislator who vehemently speaks in favor of legalized abortion at every opportunity, who votes to support it on every occasion, and who ignores requests from his bishop to discuss the matter or dismisses the bishop's directives after discussions have already taken place, the virtue of prudence may well dictate that he should be denied Holy Communion. The "particular case" presents to the practical intellect the occasion both to discern the true good involved and to choose the right means of achieving it. As the auriga virtutum, prudence guides us to know if we have been too patient or not patient enough, too rash or too lenient, too bold or too timid. It is not a virtue that would allow us to determine whether or not it would be best to impose "eucharistic sanctions" in general. Rather, it is a virtue that would dispose us to determine when to withhold the sacrament from someone, if administering communion to that person would offend the unity of the church and the integrity of the Holy Eucharist.

Msgr. McElroy asserts that "the primary benefit of imposing eucharistic sanctions is that they will point to the absolute central position abortion occupies in the church's quest for justice in the social order in American today." This may indeed be a benefit, and indeed a primary benefit. But we must not forget that the virtue of prudence is not directed primarily towards benefits, but toward the "true good". The determination of the true good and the deliberation of the proper means to achieve it are more than a matter of weighing the benefits of an intended action against the unbeneficial and "unintended consequences".

In short, I agree wholeheartedly with Msgr. McElroy that discussions about whether to administer or withhold sacramental communion from Catholic public officials who support legalized abortion should be rooted in prudence as the auriga virtutum. I only hope that more careful consideration be given to the subtle but essential distinctions involved in understanding how this charioteer guides the other virtues to help us determine not only how best to promote the public good, but also how best to preserve the integrity and to respect the sanctity of so great a sacrament.


Rev. Daniel B. Gallagher is Assistant Professor of Theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, Michigan.

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