Making room for political discernment
“Of all the instruments to use to coerce a politician…the Eucharist!” My friend, a senior Vatican official from Latin America, blurted out his shock as we discussed the majority vote at the U.S. bishops’ meeting in June in favor of a document on “eucharistic coherence.” My friend was scandalized that the Eucharist could be deployed as a weapon of persuasion or coercion—or indeed, any kind of weapon—against politicians. He saw it as a power move, all the more repellent because, he said, it was born of frustration at the Church’s failure to persuade the culture at large of its pro-life message.
The next day the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops insisted its document would not, after all, be aimed at any politicians in particular, or even in general. The USCCB made clear that the “Document on the Meaning of the Eucharist in the Life of the Church” was in fact intended to “reignite Eucharistic faith in our country” in the face of evidence of declining belief and understanding among the faithful, and would contain “no national policy on withholding Communion from politicians.” On his blog, Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston explained that bishops who had originally envisaged the document as “dealing with public figures and the reception of the Eucharist” had, “in light of instructions from the Holy See,” changed their focus to “the question of preparedness and Eucharistic consistency.”
The “instructions” had come a few weeks earlier, when the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith expressed his concerns, urging caution and time to build consensus. This inspired a letter from sixty-seven U.S. bishops, who proposed that the USCCB postpone discussion of it until they could meet in person. But the USCCB’s president, Archbishop José Gomez, disagreed, and the bishops voted overwhelmingly at the June 16–18 online meeting to proceed with writing the document.
The claim that it will not target politicians is hard to square with the speeches in its favor. More than one bishop had stood up to deplore Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi by name, and other bishops who voted in favor of the document have since made clear this is precisely what it is about. A full month after the USCCB walk-back, for example, Bishop David Konderla of Tulsa issued a letter to his flock explaining why a politician who professes to be Catholic and “supports the evil of abortion” should be denied Communion. It is, of course, a matter of record that in January a document on “eucharistic coherence” was proposed by a USCCB working group precisely in response to the election of a pro-choice Catholic to the nation’s highest office. The document that emerges in November may claim that its purpose is not to discipline politicians, but few doubt that it will be used to do so. And because it will be used in this way, the proposed document threatens to overturn a core plank of the Church’s engagement with public life since the Second Vatican Council—namely, the freedom of the politician’s conscience.
The “scandal” some of the bishops seek to address is that President Biden, a practicing Catholic, appears to be at odds with the USCCB on the one issue it has described as “pre-eminent.” To be clear: Biden does not question the Church’s moral teaching on abortion, and says that he is personally pro-life. But he does not support the criminalization of abortion. This is not very unusual. Many politicians might like to legislate against something they find morally abhorrent, but know they can’t. This is probably not the only issue where President Biden’s Catholic convictions do not readily translate into government policies. But abortion is the only issue the bishops in favor of banning Biden from Communion seem to care about, despite Cardinal Ladaria’s letter to Archbishop Gomez warning that accountability on Catholic moral and social teaching cannot be reduced to that issue alone. (The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith said the same thing back in 1994, in its doctrinal “note” on the participation of Catholics in public life. “The Christian faith is an integral unity, and thus it is incoherent to isolate some particular element to the detriment of the whole of Catholic doctrine,” it warned.)
According to Ross Douthat of the New York Times, the reason for excluding pro-choice Catholic politicians from the Eucharist is both “political” and “pastoral.” Politically, it “establishes that the church takes abortion as seriously as it claims—seriously enough to actually use one of the few disciplinary measures that it has at its disposal.” Pastorally, “the politicians in question are implicated in a uniquely grave and public sin,” from which they need to be saved. The first point seems doubtful. Is there anyone in the United States unaware of the Catholic Church’s opposition to abortion? And does denying Communion on that one issue alone imply that the Church does not take as seriously as it claims all the other issues it says it cares about? As to saving politicians’ souls, Bishop Konderla believes that “such a denial is actually charitable, intended for the salvation of a misguided soul who refuses to acknowledge the evil of abortion.” Yet he does not say how this acknowledgement is to be made. Does a Catholic politician have to bring it up on the campaign trail? Does silence signal approval of abortion? Is it enough to claim opposition to abortion in principle, or to call for the overturning of Roe v. Wade, or does a politician have to promise to do something in particular—and, if so, what? Should the bishops also withhold Communion from Catholic politicians who, in their judgment, have not tried hard enough to ban abortion, whatever their official position on the issue? Or from Catholic Supreme Court justices who have not taken every opportunity to overturn Roe?
Bishops such as Thomas Paprocki of Springfield, Illinois, and Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco demand, in effect, that Catholic Democrats choose between Church and party. But they do not demand that Catholic Republicans who support the death penalty or free access to guns do the same, despite the clear meaning of the passage they quote from John Paul II’s 1995 encyclical Evangelium vitae that “those who are directly involved in lawmaking have a ‘grave and clear obligation to oppose’ any law that attacks human life.” They say this message is obviously about abortion. As George Weigel, rejecting Cardinal Ladaria’s intervention, put it: “What is there to ‘discuss’?”
Quite a lot, it turns out. It is impossible to draw a straight line between the general rule that “the support of pro-choice legislation is not compatible with Catholic teaching”—as the letter to Archbishop Gomez from Cardinal Ladaria puts it—and the claim that every Catholic politician must demand that abortion be criminalized, regardless of political circumstances or constraints. The Church cannot simply demand that a democratic country outlaw what a majority of its citizens do not consider criminal.
Catholic bishops in Europe and most of Latin America understand that no politician, however committed to her faith, can advocate the total criminalization of abortion and expect to be elected. Abortion law in most Western countries operates within a general consensus that abortion should be legal but time-restricted. Hence, few bishops or Catholic politicians call for full criminalization, arguing instead that the laws should be less permissive. They advocate for shortening the period during which abortion is permitted, or for restricting the grounds for abortion. Aware of the political limits of their time and place, they settle for “limiting the harm done by such a law,” as John Paul II put it in Evangelium vitae. In my experience of Catholic politicians in the United Kingdom, they weigh these interventions very carefully, often in consultation with their bishops and spiritual directors.
The Catholic Church cannot support legalized abortion any more than it can support the death penalty, euthanasia, embryonic stem-cell research, nuclear weapons, the small-arms trade, or indeed anything that disrespects the value of human life. If “choice” involves the wanton destruction of human beings, it is not a freedom that should be enshrined in law. But often it already is, and it is not simple, given this fact, to determine what Catholic politicians can or must do (or not do) in the particular circumstances of their office. The U.S. bishops’ electoral document, “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship,” notes that “the process of framing legislation to protect life is subject to prudential judgment and ‘the art of the possible.’” Betwixt the world that is (the earthly city) and the world that should be (a society transformed by the values of the Gospel) lies the gap that must be prudently negotiated through a process of discernment. The place of that discernment is conscience. And conscience must be free to search for and find God’s will in its own particular circumstances. These may be very far from ideal. As the U.S. bishops themselves say in “Faithful Citizenship,” “the Church’s guidance on these matters is an essential resource for Catholics as they determine whether their own moral judgments are consistent with the Gospel and with Catholic teaching” (italics mine).
As Christianity progressively loses its hold on the laws of Western countries, the Church’s mission to evangelize culture is becoming ever more pressing. This is what Pope Francis has been urging on the Church since Evangelii gaudium, which reformulated Paul VI’s call in Evangelii nuntiandii (1975) to penetrate the culture with the values of the Gospel. The danger, as Pope Francis told the Curia in 2019, is failing to grasp that “Christendom no longer exists,” that “we are no longer living in a Christian world.” The risk is to rely on simple declaration and condemnation, reducing the Gospel to a political project, as Paul VI warned, leaving the Church vulnerable to “monopolization and manipulation by ideological systems and political parties.” Abortion will need to become unthinkable to most citizens—not only to most Catholics—before the Church can credibly seek to make it again illegal.
In the meantime, no Catholic politician in the West will find an electable party that reflects Catholic teaching in its entirety. If Catholics are to continue to be part of political life, therefore, their discernment must expand beyond the ideal but currently impossible. Discernment is not an esoteric practice of an elect group, nor is it just a fancy way of “ignoring the rules,” as some suspect. It is integral to every true Christian life. Discernment, as Pope Francis says in Let Us Dream, “is as old as the Church” and “follows from the promise Jesus made to his disciples that after he was gone the Spirit ‘will guide you into all the truth’ (John 16:13).”
Discernment takes place in and through our relationship with God in the intimacy of our conscience, what Dignitatis humanae calls “man’s most secret core and his sanctuary,” where “he is alone with God whose voice echoes in his depths.” Properly understood, conscience is a way not of evading responsibility, but of assuming it. Discernment is what all good Catholic politicians need when they must choose between, on the one hand, staying and compromising in the hope of effecting change and, on the other, resigning to preserve their integrity. Most know there is a line they will have to draw, but the best of them stretch as far they can before getting there, in the hope of getting something done.
A former politician I admire, Ruth Kelly, served in the Labour governments of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. She is a Catholic and a member of Opus Dei. When the Labour government in 1996–1997 introduced laws making it illegal to refuse adoption rights to same-sex couples, she stayed in cabinet, securing permission to be absent from the vote. Inside the system, Kelly says, she just had to do “the best I could to limit the damage that I see in any particular piece of legislation.” In this case, she stayed to argue for exempting the thirteen or so Catholic adoption agencies, and only resigned when the vote went against her and Blair. Dr. Kelly took the view, made famous by a speech by Edmund Burke, that politicians are elected to exercise their own consciences, not anyone else’s. They are not the tools of their constituents, nor of bishops.
A politician can exercise her conscience only if she is living in the gap between the starting-point principle and the concrete choices she faces on the ground. Part of the Church’s mission in contemporary Western society is to create that gap: to proclaim fearlessly what the Kingdom of God demands. This is what bishops must do, while at the same time understanding that the conscience of Catholic politicians must be given freedom to determine how and when to act. As Pope Francis notes in Amoris laetitia: “We find it hard to make room for the consciences of the faithful, who very often respond as best they can to the Gospel amid their limitations, and are capable of carrying out their own discernment in complex situations.” Priests and bishops, he writes, “have been called to form consciences, not to replace them.”
Gaudium et spes asks laypeople to use their “well-formed Christian conscience to see that the divine law is inscribed in the life of the earthly city,” and to “penetrate the world with a Christian spirit.” It asks priests and bishops, meanwhile, to so “preach the news of Christ that all the earthly activities of the faithful will be bathed in the light of the Gospel.” Active citizenship is a virtue, voting an obligation, politics a high form of charity. The teaching Church helps form consciences, and laypeople are asked to use them in the hurly-burly of political life, to discern what is possible and prudent, to apply the principle in the here-and-now. For it is in reality, not in the idea, that the Kingdom of God is born.
Any threat to deny the Eucharist to “disobedient” Catholic politicians, however deeply buried in the document to be voted on by bishops in November, would encroach on the freedom necessary for discernment and indeed good governance. St. Thomas Aquinas made clear that not all sins are crimes, nor all crimes sins. A government is not obliged to prohibit or punish all evils, but only those the conscience of the people recognizes (Summa theologiae, I-II q. Q.96 a.2).
It is true that law has an important pedagogic function, but a law introduced without sufficient popular backing can badly backfire, making it harder, not easier, to bring about the good. Indeed, an important part of the judgement of any legislator is to understand when something has matured in the conscience of the people to the point where a good law can “nudge” citizens in the right direction. In politics, timing is all: what can be all but impossible at one time suddenly becomes possible at another. A good politician knows how to wait, biding his time until the propitious moment. A Catholic politician might conclude that to press for a particular policy in accord with Church teaching right now will not only fail but make it harder to press for in the future.
That conclusion may be misguided. But we can only get to truth through conscience. That’s why, as the Church teaches, a person must always follow their conscience, even when it is wrong: coscientia erronea obligat.
The moral theologian James Keenan, SJ, suggests that Americans may find this harder to accept than Europeans because of their contrasting experience of fascism and war. In Europe, shocking evidence of the acquiescence and passivity of Catholics led to an awakening of the vital role of conscience through remorse. In the United States, by contrast, there was no such crisis of conscience “because Americans, including their theologians, believed they were on the right side.” Appeals to conscience in postwar America instead came to be associated not with assuming ultimate responsibility but with individual opt-outs from laws and rules.
If there is a silver lining to the U.S. bishops’ painfully divisive debate, it is perhaps this: the chance for a recovery of the true meaning of the conscience of politicians. In Amoris laetitia, Pope Francis summarizes St. Thomas Aquinas’s explanation that “general rules set forth a good which can never be disregarded or neglected, but in their formulation they cannot provide absolutely for all particular situations.” The work of conscience is to identify those situations when such a general rule must be obeyed directly, and other situations where the general rule doesn’t apply, or doesn’t apply directly.
The Church teaches not just that we must follow our consciences, but also that we are responsible for the state our conscience is in. A malformed conscience will yield bad judgments. The bishops’ job is to remind us all, including politicians, what the Church teaches and what the Gospel demands, and to challenge us to avoid the corrosion of conscience by the surrounding culture. With freedom comes responsibility and accountability: politicians must obey their consciences, and voters must hold them to account for their choices. The Church’s task is to walk with them, assisting and guiding them. That means keeping open the channels of grace—not sending Catholic politicians away from the Communion rail but holding them close.
Austen Ivereigh is a regular contributor to Commonweal and a Fellow in Contemporary Church History at the Jesuit-run Campion Hall at the University of Oxford. His most recent book is Pope Francis’s Let Us Dream: A Path to a Better World. Conversations with Austen Ivereigh (Simon & Schuster).
With thanks to Commonweal Magazine and Austen Ivereigh, where this article originally appeared.