The elevation of Joseph Ratzinger to Pope Benedict XVI has brought a new assertiveness to the Roman Catholic Church, especially at the intersection of politics and life issues. The new prefect of the Vatican Supreme Court, the former Archbishop Raymond Burke of St. Louis, warned in an interview with an Italian newspaper that the Democratic Party is well on its way to becoming the “party of death” in the United States. Burke called for greater discipline within the American church for holding Catholic politicians accountable for their actions:
Vatican officials seldom single out political leaders who differ with the Church on issues like abortion rights or embryonic stem cell research. But now that the Vatican’s highest court is led by an American, the former St. Louis Archbishop Raymond Burke, we can expect things to get more explicit in Vatican City — at least when when it comes to U.S. politics.
Burke, who was named prefect of the Vatican’s Supreme Court of the Apostolic Signature in June, told the Italian Catholic newspaper Avvenire that the U.S. Democratic Party risked “transforming itself definitively into a party of death for its decisions on bioethical issues.” He then attacked two of the party’s most high profile Catholics — vice presidential candidate Joe Biden and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi — for misrepresenting Church teaching on abortion.
He said Biden and Pelosi, “while presenting themselves as good Catholics, have presented Church doctrine on abortion in a false and tendentious way.”
Benedict chose Burke for a reason. He wants a closer focus on the way Catholics handle issues of life, especially abortion, in the public square. The church spent most of the last three decades quietly backing away from the notion of politicians who claim to be practicing Catholics and yet support abortions, which the church doctrine rejects so forcefully that it is a de facto ex-communicating event. Burke led the charge on this in 2004 during the presidential campaign when he openly called for John Kerry’s bishop to deny him the Eucharist.
Of course, politicians do not have to remain in the Catholic Church; it’s a completely voluntary association. If they disagree with the foundational doctrines of the church, of which opposition to abortion is a key tenet, then it behooves both the politican and the church to facilitate that separation. The silence from the American bishops over the last few decades has been seen as a tacit acquiescence to the arguments made by Nancy Pelosi and Joe Biden that abortion is just one of a number of “social justice” issues, and that Catholics can remain in good standing by trading abortion support for confiscatory policy measures that address poverty and starvation.
Burke goes farther, though, in this statement. Until now, bishops have restricted their criticisms to Catholic politicians who work to support abortion rights. Burke has expanded this into a broader political argument, one that will create more controversy in the pews and in the general electorate, especially with pro-life Democrats who will resent the accusation. The church should pursue their mandate of Catholics first, and avoid partisan shots while focusing on issues instead.
Update: I see that, once again, I have to provide the link to the Catechism to explain excommunication in relation to abortion. Paragraph 2272 of the Catechism makes this plain:
Formal cooperation in an abortion constitutes a grave offense. The Church attaches the canonical penalty of excommunication to this crime against human life. “A person who procures a completed abortion incurs excommunication latae sententiae,” “by the very commission of the offense,” and subject to the conditions provided by Canon Law. The Church does not thereby intend to restrict the scope of mercy. Rather, she makes clear the gravity of the crime committed, the irreparable harm done to the innocent who is put to death, as well as to the parents and the whole of society.
The phrase “latae sententiae” means the sentence applies automatically, without any action needed by the church. The act constitutes a willful abandonment of the church, a self-imposed excommunication. If the person repents of their sin through confession and resolves to sin no more, they can return to the Eucharist.
It’s not me “kicking people out for political disagreements”, as one commenter accused. It’s the rules of the church, and it couldn’t possibly be plainer. I don’t have the power to kick people out of any church community, nor would I want it. I’m explaining the actual doctrine of the church, and why Archbishop Burke and the Vatican have become much more assertive in applying it. And if people resolve to formally cooperate with abortion anyway, then they have chosen to live in a state of excommunication.
One more point. I’m not arguing that Burke doesn’t have the right to accuse the Democrats of being “the party of death”; of course he does. I just think it’s more effective to stay focused on the issues of abortion and life rather than get into a Dem-Rep debate. Saying “Democrats stink” is partisanship, if you will, while “abortion stinks” is issue-oriented debate.