A South Carolina priest who sent a letter warning parishioners who voted for Barack Obama that they may have placed themselves outside of the communion of the Catholic Church has received the backing of his diocese.  The Diocese of Charleston agrees with Fr. Jay Scott Newman’s letter despite the controversy it generated, which brings the debate over “formal participation” into a new context:

A Greenville priest who told parishioners those who cast ballots for President-elect Barack Obama risk placing themselves “outside of the full communion of Christ’s church” is simply enunciating church teaching and has the full support of the Diocese of Charleston, a spokesman said Thursday.

The provocative letter from the Rev. Jay Scott Newman to members of St. Mary’s Catholic Church has sparked some controversy and yet another conversation about faith and public policy.

“Voting for a pro-abortion politician when a plausible pro-life alternative exists constitutes material cooperation with intrinsic evil,” Newman said in the letter posted on the Greenville church’s Web site, www.stmarysgvl.org, “and those Catholics who do so place themselves outside of the full communion of Christ’s Church and under the judgment of divine law.”

Newman said that those who did not choose the anti-abortion candidate, in this case U.S. Sen. John McCain, “should not receive Holy Communion until and unless they are reconciled to God in the Sacrament of Penance, lest they eat and drink their own condemnation.”

Calling Obama “the most radical pro-abortion politician ever to serve in the United States Senate,” Newman went on to say Catholics must pray for the newly elected chief executive.

“Let us hope and pray that the responsibilities of the presidency and the grace of God will awaken in the conscience of this extraordinarily gifted man an awareness that the unholy slaughter of children in this nation is the greatest threat to the peace and security of the United States and constitutes a clear and present danger to the common good,” Newman said in the letter.

Most Catholic bishops have stopped short of this conclusion.  They have focused their criticisms on self-proclaimed Catholic officeholders who vote to enable abortions, calling those votes “formal cooperation” with the intrinsic evil of abortion.  According to the catechism, in paragraph 2272, formal cooperation in abortions constitutes an automatically excommunicating event:

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,”77 “by the very commission of the offense,”78 and subject to the conditions provided by Canon Law.79 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.

So far, the church has not officially applied 2272 explicitly to the act of voting for a pro-choice candidate.  They’ve had enough trouble rousing the energy to apply church teachings to politicians such as Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi.  They’ve only been interested in doing that much for just a few years, but this letter is the next logical progression if the church wants to assert its beliefs more clearly in the parishes.

Catholic Democrats objected to the statement:

“Father Newman is off-base,” said Steve Krueger, national director of Catholic Democrats. “He is acting beyond the authority of a parish priest to say what he did. … Unfortunately, he is doing so in a manner that will be of great cost to those parishioners who did vote for Senators Obama and Biden. There will be a spiritual cost to them for his words.”

It’s an odd moment indeed when someone accuses a parish priest of being off-base for quoting the catechism.  Krueger appears to have more concern with membership statistics than the reason for belonging to the church in the first place.  As far as the “spiritual cost” for talking about abortion and the church’s position, one might wonder whether Krueger doesn’t concern himself with the “spiritual cost” of supporting abortion.  On what basis would a Catholic conclude that the spiritual cost of discussing the catechism would outstrip that of abortion itself?

Will the church broaden its definition of “formal cooperation” to explicitly include supporting abortion rights and voting for pro-abortion candidates?  If so, Krueger’s prediction that many Democrats may leave the church will probably come true.  However, the church has to apply its beliefs rather than worrying about popularity contests.  Matthew 7:12-14 warns:

So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.  Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.

The point of the church is to provide the truth and light the narrow road, so that as many as possible can find it.  The church does not exist to endorse the broad road simply because many people insist on following it, or to mislead people into thinking that the choice of road doesn’t matter at all.  Priests do no favors to their parishioners when they avoid teaching the difference, and the spiritual cost of willful silence on the subject of abortion far outstrips the cost of speaking the truth.

Update: Via Tom Shipley, the statement of Monsignor Laughlin seems less than a full endorsement of Newman’s letter, and the spokesman or the reporter got it wrong:

This past week, the Catholic Church’s clear, moral teaching on the evil of abortion has been pulled into the partisan political arena. The recent comments of Father Jay Scott Newman, pastor of St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Greenville, S.C., have diverted the focus from the Church’s clear position against abortion. As Administrator of the Diocese of Charleston, let me state with clarity that Father Newman’s statements do not adequately reflect the Catholic Church’s teachings. Any comments or statements to the contrary are repudiated.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church states, “Man has the right to act in conscience and in freedom so as personally to make moral decisions.” The Catechism goes on to state: “In the formation of conscience the Word of God is the light for our path; we must assimilate it in faith and prayer and put it into practice. We must also examine our conscience before the Lord’s Cross. We are assisted by the gifts of the Holy Spirit, aided by the witness or advice of others and guided by the authoritative teaching of the Church.”

Christ gives us freedom to explore our own conscience and to make our own decisions while adhering to the law of God and the teachings of the faith. Therefore, if a person has formed his or her conscience well, he or she should not be denied Communion, nor be told to go to confession before receiving Communion.

The pulpit is reserved for the Word of God. Sometimes God’s truth, as is the Church’s teaching on abortion, is unpopular. All Catholics must be aware of and follow the teachings of the Church.

We should all come together to support the President-elect and all elected officials with a view to influencing policy in favor of the protection of the unborn child. Let us pray for them and ask God to guide them as they take the mantle of leadership on January 20, 2009.

That sounds like a vacillation, not an endorsement.  On one hand, Laughlin repudiates Newman, but on the other hand, notes that church members have to follow church teachings on abortion.  Laughlin says that anyone who thinks they have a clear conscience can take communion, and yet the “teachings of the Church” clearly state that anyone who formally cooperates in abortion is automatically excommunicated, whether they feel guilty about it or not.

This, unfortunately, has been the kind of double-talk that leads people to believe that abortion is compatible with the Catholic faith, when the church itself teaches that it fundamentally is not.