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Communion Need Not Be A Political Weapon

Pepperdine’s Doug Kmiec, a conservative Catholic, raised quite a few eyebrows earlier this year when he endorsed Barack Obama for president. There h

Pepperdine’s Doug Kmiec, a conservative Catholic, raised quite a few eyebrows earlier this year when he endorsed Barack Obama for president. There have been several relatively high-profile Republicans to throw their support to Obama (some have taken to calling them “Obamacans“), but Kmiec was especially surprising.

Kmiec, after all, is also a staunch Republican who played a role with Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign. He also headed the Office of Legal Counsel for Presidents Reagan and H.W. Bush. Theologically, we’re talking about a man who can “cite papal pronouncements with the facility of a theological scholar,” and who opposes abortion rights and gay rights. He backed Obama despite his positions on these issues, not because of them.

And how did Kmiec’s Catholic Church respond after learning of his favored candidate? As E. J. Dionne Jr. explained today, by denying him Communion.

Kmiec was denied Communion in April at a Mass for a group of Catholic business people he later addressed at dinner. The episode has not received wide attention outside the Catholic world, but it is the opening shot in an argument that could have a large impact on this year’s presidential campaign: Is it legitimate for bishops and priests to deny Communion to those supporting candidates who favor abortion rights?

A version of this argument roiled the 2004 campaign when some, though not most, Catholic bishops suggested that John Kerry and other pro-choice Catholic politicians should be denied Communion because of their views on abortion.

The Kmiec incident poses the question in an extreme form: He is not a public official but a voter expressing a preference. Moreover, Kmiec — a law professor at Pepperdine University and once dean of Catholic University’s law school — is a long-standing critic of the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision.

Obviously, the Catholic Church is free to come up with its own rules. I’m not Catholic, and this doesn’t apply to me anyway. Who does or does not get Communion is the business of the church and its hierarchy.

That said, looking at this as an outsider, the church’s position — and punishment of loyal adherents like Kmiec — strikes me as wildly foolish.

I think it’s a mistake to deny Communion to public officials who, in their official capacity as policy makers, stray from the church’s doctrines. But this is adding insult to injury — targeting Catholic congregants based on their votes, rather than their beliefs and conduct.

In other words, at least in the abstract, John Kerry should be blocked from receiving Communion and Catholic voters who supported him should receive the same treatment.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a statement last year telling Catholics that they can’t vote “for a candidate who takes a position in favor of an intrinsic evil, such as abortion or racism, if the voter’s intent is to support that position.” That left voters plenty of wiggle room — a Catholic voter could back a pro-choice candidate (most U.S. Catholics are pro-choice by the way) and simply say that it wasn’t his or her “intent” to support the candidate’s position on abortion. Problem solved.

But that brings us back to Kmiec.

[B]ecause Kmiec is a private citizen and has such a long history of embracing Catholic teaching on abortion, denying him Communion for political reasons may spark an even greater outcry inside the church.

Kmiec says he is grateful because the episode reminded him of the importance of the Eucharist in his spiritual life, and because he hopes it will alert others to the dangers of “using Communion as a weapon.”

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