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Letter to U.S. bishops from the Vatican (2004)

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The Vatican's 2004 letter

In 2004-JUN, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, then Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and now Pope Benedict XVI, wrote a letter "Worthiness to Receive Holy Communion. General Principles." 1 It instructs the bishops under what circumstances pro-choice Catholic politicians, and people who vote for them, are to be denied communion.

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John-Henry Westen of LifeSiteNews.com wrote on 2006-OCT-23 2:

"Last week, recently-retired Washington Cardinal Theodore McCarrick delivered an address to the annual Plenary Assembly of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops.  McCarrick, who headed up the US Bishops Conference task force on Catholics in Political Life, spoke mainly of his experiences on the task force and of the central debate it explored - namely that of whether or not to deny Holy Communion to Catholic politicians who reject Church teachings on central issues such as abortion and euthanasia."

"During the 2004 deliberation among US Bishops, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith sent a letter to the US Bishops to use as a guide.  The letter pointed out that obstinately pro-abortion 3 Catholic politicians, after being duly instructed and warned, 'must' be denied Communion." 

"In his 12-page address, however, McCarrick did not even provide the gist of Cardinal Ratzinger's letter which outlined in six successive points why communion 'must' be denied in the specified cases.  He did however speak about a bracketed afterthought at the bottom of Cardinal Ratzinger's letter which spoke of reception of communion for Catholics who vote for pro-abortion politicians."

"... Although it was sent to the US Bishops via Cardinal McCarrick by Cardinal Ratzinger, the document was not revealed to the US Bishops.  Rather McCarrick gave the impression that Cardinal Ratzinger's letter indicated Rome was ambiguous about the matter.  Speaking of Ratzinger's letter in a June 15, 2003 statement to the US Bishops, Cardinal McCarrick said, 'the Cardinal (Ratzinger) recognizes that there are circumstances in which Holy Communion may be denied'."

"A couple of weeks after Cardinal McCarrick's speech, the letter from Cardinal Ratzinger was leaked to well-known Vatican reporter Sandro Magister, who published the document in full.  In a surprising move, Cardinal Ratzinger's office confirmed the leaked document as authentic."

"In the days after the Ratzinger letter was leaked and confirmed as authentic, noted US theologian Michael Novak told the Washington Times that sources in Rome were perturbed by Cardinal McCarrick's soft- pedaling of the Ratzinger letter. 'Some people in the Vatican were upset that McCarrick was putting on too kind a face on it,' Novak told reporter Julia Duin."

"Rather than a permissibility to deny communion, Ratzinger's letter spoke of cases where 'the minister of Holy Communion may find himself in the situation where he must refuse to distribute Holy Communion to someone.' It went on to explain that an obstinately pro-abortion 3 Catholic politician who has been warned and instructed, if 'the person in question, with obstinate persistence, still presents himself to receive the Holy Eucharist, the minister of Holy Communion must refuse to distribute it'." 

"In interviews with Catholic writer Barbara Kralis, two US bishops said publicly that they were disappointed in not receiving the letter from McCarrick .  Asked, 'were the contents of the memo made known to you and the other bishops at the Denver meeting?' Archbishop Raymond Burke of St. Louis replied, 'It certainly was not made known to me and I do not believe it was given to the other bishops. Cardinal McCarrick referred to the memorandum. We were told that, according to Cardinal Ratzinger, the application of the Canon 915 was up to the prudent judgment of each bishop. 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'."

"Bishop Robert F. Vasa of Baker, Oregon also told Kralis the memo was not revealed, even to bishops on the task force. 'As I recall, Cardinal McCarrick made reference to some letter, but I did not see a copy of the letter at the meeting. I don't know if the committee writing the 'Statement,' entitled 'Catholics in Political Life,' was given a copy of the letter,' he said."

"Reacting to the controversy, Cardinal McCarrick tried to downplay the significance of the Ratzinger letter.  McCarrick said that the leaked Ratzinger letter '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'." 4

"Some months earlier, Cardinal McCarrick was downplaying or even denying the statements of another Vatican Cardinal on the same topic."

"In April 2004, the Vatican's leading prelate - second only to the Pope - on the Sacraments, Cardinal Francis Arinze, declared unequivocally that unambiguously pro-abortion 3 politicians should be denied Holy Communion. Cardinal Arinze said such a politician 'is not fit' to receive Communion. 'If they should not receive, then they should not be given,' he added."

"Cardinal McCarrick reacted to Cardinal Arinze's statements by suggesting that Arinze did not really mean what he said. Speaking with the National Catholic Reporter, after Cardinal Arinze's statements were publicized, McCarrick said of Cardinal Arinze, 'I don't think it was his eminence's official opinion ... The cardinal's position ... was that ... the United States should figure out what they ought to do'."

"Since that time, Cardinal Arinze has so frequently been asked the question he has begun to joke about it. In a live interview on EWTN Cardinal Arinze was asked if pro-abortion 3 politicians should be denied communion.  He replied: 'The answer is clear. If a person says I am in favor of killing unborn babies whether they be four thousand or five thousand, I have been in favor of killing them. I will be in favor of killing them tomorrow and next week and next year. So, unborn babies, too bad for you. I am in favor that you should be killed, then the person turn around and say I want to receive Holy Communion. Do you need any Cardinal from the Vatican to answer that?  . . .  Simple, ask the children for First Communion, they'll give you the answer'." 5

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John-Henry Westen continued the discussion on 2006-OCT-24 6:

"Whether intentional or not, the concealing of the Ratzinger document and the downplaying of seemingly clear statements from the Vatican has produced an atmosphere of controversy.  Faithful Catholics voiced their concerns over what they saw as outright deception.  And from his remarks to the Canadian bishops, it seems Cardinal McCarrick is still smarting from the responses he received to this day."

"The 'Communion issue,' Cardinal McCarrick told the Canadian bishops last Tuesday, 'became ground zero in the struggle to identify "the real Catholic Church" in the United States.'   A significant portion of his speech was devoted to the 'attacks' bishops on either side of the debate received." 

"Without mentioning its name, Cardinal McCarrick singled out the largest Catholic pro-life group in the US, American Life League (ALL).  'I was a target of some of this criticism.  At first, it disturbed me when a full-page ad was taken out in a local newspaper attacking me,' he said of an ALL ad campaign.  He added: 'A short time later, however, at the time of one of the USCCB general meetings, a full-page ad appeared attacking all of the Bishops of the United States for not uniformly denying Holy Communion.  At that point I felt that I was in good company.  Finally, the same groups publicly attacked me together with the then Cardinal Ratzinger, which made me even more convinced I was in good company!" 7

"In an interview with LifeSiteNews.com ALL President Judie Brown responded to Cardinal McCarrick's allegations.  'His spin is very interesting because none of our ads have attacked him or any other bishop,' said Brown.  'We simply asked them and continue to repeatedly ask them to enforce canon law 915.  That isn't an attack, that's their job, and asking a bishop or a cardinal to do their job is not an attack.'  Speaking of the ad which included Cardinal Ratzinger, Brown explained, 'The ad that put him in the "company" of Cardinal Ratzinger, simply asked a question of the Holy Father, Pope John Paul II, which of these men is presenting the truth'."

"The document which the US Bishops task force headed by Cardinal McCarrick finally put out called Catholics in Political Life had some very good points and received praise from the pro-life community. 8  The document also was acceptable to the Vatican and then-Cardinal Ratzinger wrote the US Bishops Conference to note that the document was 'very much in harmony' with his general principles."

"The USCCB document never contravened Ratzinger's insistence that obstinately pro-abortion 3 politicians after being duly instructed and warned 'must' be denied communion." 

"On the question of Holy Communion, the USCCB document stated: 'The question has been raised as to whether the denial of Holy Communion to some Catholics in political life is necessary because of their public support for abortion on demand. Given the wide range of circumstances involved in arriving at a prudential judgment on a matter of this seriousness, we recognize that such decisions rest with the individual bishop in accord with the established canonical and pastoral principles. Bishops can legitimately make different judgments on the most prudent course of pastoral action. Nevertheless, we all share an unequivocal commitment to protect human life and dignity and to preach the Gospel in difficult times'."

"Of critical importance in that passage is the stipulation that actions are undertaken by bishops 'in accord with the established canonical' principles.  The Catholic Church in its code of canon law sets out in canon 915 that 'Those upon whom the penalty of excommunication or interdict has been imposed or declared, and others who obstinately persist in manifest grave sin, are not to be admitted to Holy Communion'." 

"Thus, with that stipulation in the USCCB document, it was 'very much in harmony' with Cardinal Ratzinger's guidelines on 'Worthiness to Receive Communion'."

"Cardinal McCarrick in his speech to the CCCB seems to have another interpretation. 'What was essential to me,' he explained of the USCCB document, 'was that whereas the Conference was clearly willing to respect the right of individual Bishops to make decisions in their areas, it also made clear - and the letter from Cardinal Ratzinger reinforced this - that a Bishop could not be accused of being unfaithful to his pastoral responsibility if he did not enforce a more restrictive policy'."

"In saying this, Cardinal McCarrick was referencing this specific line in the USCCB document: 'Bishops can legitimately make different judgments on the most prudent course of pastoral action'."

"One interpretation of the USCCB document would see it as natural that Catholic bishops may legitimately take different judgments since they are dealing with different Catholic politicians.  However, Cardinal McCarrick seems to suggest that bishops may take different actions dealing with the same cases, which would preclude criticizing a bishop who would opt not to deny communion even to the likes of John Kerry."

"However, the latter interpretation is at odds with St. Louis Archbishop Burke who in an interview with Catholic writer Barbara Kralis was asked about that very question.  Asked, 'Does this mean that one Bishop can deny Senator John Kerry Holy Communion and another Bishop can give Kerry Communion and both Bishops are correct?,' Archbishop Burke replied, 'No, in fact, Canon 915 must be applied.  It does not give an option.  Canon 915 says that those persons who obstinately persist in grave manifest sin must be denied the Eucharist.  I strongly believe that if a bishop has spoken to someone who obstinately persists in grave manifest sin and he still presents himself for Holy Communion, he should be refused'."

"Kralis persisted in questioning, 'Can one bishop admit and another bishop not admit? Is this teaching clear? Is it not a contradiction of Canon 915, for one bishop to refuse John Kerry the Eucharist in one diocese and for another bishop to give John Kerry the Eucharist in another diocese'?" 

"Burke answered, 'Yes, it would be a source of confusion.  I have refused to talk about individual candidates, but when a "Catholic" pro-abortion politician knows the actions he has taken are gravely sinful in a public matter like supporting abortion, the only way to uphold church teaching is to withhold Holy Communion. It is not right for one 'minister of Holy Communion' to give the Eucharist and another not to'." 9

"Despite the fact that he never mentioned it in his speech, much of the Canadian media reported that Cardinal McCarrick encouraged Bishops to deny communion to Canadian Catholic politicians who defy church teaching on vital issues such as abortion and same sex marriage." 10

"The reason for the discrepancy comes thanks to Canadian Bishop Fred Henry, the fearless Bishop of Calgary in Alberta.  Bishop Henry, who has stated publicly that he would deny communion even to the (former) Prime Minister because of his obstinate support for abortion and homosexual marriage, 11 pressed Cardinal McCarrick on the issue during a question period following the Cardinal's address."

"In a very pointed question, Bishop Henry asked 'What do you do when you have politicians who refuse to the invitation to dialogue, and act rather contemptuously with regard to Catholic teaching?'  It was at that point that Cardinal McCarrick, for the first time, publicly seemed to indicate Rome's constant direction on the matter. 'You have no choice in the matter. That person should not partake of communion. Sometimes you just have to do it,' he replied, according to press reports."

"However, there is some notable ambiguity in McCarrick's answer in that he still did not explicitly respond that communion must be denied. It could be taken that he was indicating that the person must be told that he should not receive communion which leaves it up to the individual, rather than the particular pastor, to determine the outcome of the situation."

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The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, "Worthiness to Receive Holy Communion. General Principles," 2004-JUN, at: http://www.lifesite.net/
  2. John-Henry Westen, "Cardinal McCarrick Continues to Conceal Rome's Insistence that Pro-Abort Politicians Be Denied Communion. Part I," LifeSiteNews.com, 2006-OCT-23, at: http://www.lifesite.net/
  3. The use of the term "pro-abortion" to describe persons who are "pro-choice" is commonly seen in Catholic and conservative Protestant writings.
  4. "Second U.S. Bishop Says Vatican Letter on Pro-Abort Politicians Withheld from Bishops," LifeSiteNews.com, 2004-AUG-06, at:
  5. John-Henry Westen, "Vatican Cardinal Compares Abortion to Killing Politicians - 'Pro-Choice' and Communion," LifeSiteNews.com, 2005-NOV-14, at:
  6. John-Henry Westen, "Cardinal McCarrick and the Concealing of Rome's Position on Denying Communion. Part II," LifeSiteNews.com, 2006-OCT-24, at:
  7. "Address of Cardinal Theodore McCarrick to the Plenary Assembly of the Canadian Conference of Bishops," Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops," 2006-OCT-17, at: http://www.cccb.ca/
  8. "U.S. Catholic Bishops Conference Says Pro-Abortion Politicians Should be Shunned. Warns lawmakers against 'cooperating in evil and in sinning against the common good'," LifeSiteNews.com, 2004-JUN-221, at: http://www.lifesite.net/
  9. Barbara Kralis "Archbishop Raymond L. Burke, the new 'John Fisher'," Catholic Online, 2004-AUG-05, at: http://www.catholic.org/
  10. Jennifer Green, "Cardinal advocates denying communion to defiant politicians," Canwest, 2006-OCT-18, at: http://www.canada.com/
  11. "Homosexual marriage" is not a precise phrase. "Same-sex marriage" is preferred, because it includes cases where two bisexuals or a bisexual and a homosexual marry.

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Copyright © 2006 by LifeSiteNews.com. Used by permission
riginally posted: 2006-OCT-25
Latest update: 2006-OCT-25
Author: B.A. Robinson

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