AS heated as the abortion debate in Ireland has
become, there was palpable embarrassment and unease among many Catholics
at the raising of potential excommunications and public refusal of
communion at Mass for politicians who vote for abortion legislation.
This embarrassment was compounded by Cardinal Brady's failure to
rule the threat out in the future and his successor Primate elect
Archbishop Eamon Martin's
clear statement that politicians who vote for abortion are
excommunicating themselves and should not approach the altar rails for
The intervention sounded medieval to many and a
politicisation of the Eucharist. For those hostile to the church, it
was, they said, a return to the type of ecclesiastical bullying of
politicians common in the past.
Recently elected Bishop of Limerick Brendan Leahy and Archbishop Diarmuid Martin
seemed to agree, saying while politicians have to think seriously, they
were nervous about politicising the Eucharist. So was this a mis-step
by the heir apparent in Armagh?
Archbishop Eamon Martin appeared
to be taking the line laid down in 2004 by then Cardinal Ratzinger in a
letter of 'General Principle', which states that where a Catholic
politician consistently campaigns and votes for 'permissive' abortion,
he is to be cautioned that unless he changes his 'sinful' ways, he will
be denied communion at Mass. It says that a Catholic who votes for such a
politician because of his stand on abortion also cannot approach for
When this letter was written in 2004, the US bishops
were struggling to figure out how to deal with Catholic politicians who
voted for abortion. Ratzinger's letter taken to its ultimate conclusion
in the US, where some 46pc of the United States' 67 million Roman
Catholics identify as pro-choice, would mean excommunicating 32 million
people, something the church is not prepared to do. It is claimed that
when the American Cardinal McCarrick received the letter, he failed to
show it to the other US bishops until it was eventually leaked in Rome.
even Ratzinger's letter, which has some weight but is not church law,
provides for a level of discretion in these matters to avoid a public
politicisation of the Eucharist. He says that a politician's pastor
should meet with him and instruct him and warn him. In other words,
whether a Catholic should or should not attend communion is between the
priest/bishop and the individual.
Eamon Martin's public utterings in this matter failed to emphasise the
private pastoral nature of all of this. Otherwise the impression is
given, and many took it to mean this, that bishops are using the threat
of excommunication and refusal of the Eucharist to impose their
political will, thereby fighting politics at the altar rails.
The Pontifical Academy for Life
at the Vatican takes a clear line. Speaking to this correspondent this
week, a senior expert on abortion said that issues such as
excommunication should belong in the private forum and the bishop or
priest should approach the politician privately.
stated that excommunication was a pastoral issue, where the politician
who votes for abortion has pushed themselves outside of the Catholic
community and that the church wants him or her to reflect, change their
ways and come back.
So where does all this leave Irish
Catholic politicians? If they vote for pro-abortion legislation, they
are, it seems, automatically excommunicated. Their priest or bishop
would need to tell them that until they change their stance, they should
not present for communion. This suggests that there must be a dialogue
between politician and priest.
There may be an
arguable case for the politician that he is voting for medical abortion
where the life of the mother is at risk. This would not fall under the
heading of Ratzinger's 'permissive abortion' criteria.
is certain is that the Vatican will not be excommunicating any Irish
politicians and it is very unlikely that the Irish bishops will either.
Politicians are invited as Catholics to explore their conscience.
Could we see Taoiseach Enda Kenny
being refused communion at the Mass to inaugurate the new Archbishop of
Armagh? It is unlikely, as Mr Kenny will have made his own arrangements
with his own priest/bishop, and for another priest or bishop who wasn't
aware of those discussions to deny communion to Mr Kenny or anyone else
would be an abuse of the Eucharist and a political statement at the
Garry O'Sullivan is Vatican Correspondent for 'The Irish Catholic'