Papal spin

A SAYING ATTRIBUTED to St. Augustine translates from the Latin as “Rome has spoken; the matter is settled.” Fortunately for some Catholic politicians in the United States, that isn’t always the case.

On Wednesday, as he was flying to Brazil, Pope Benedict XVI answered “yes” when asked if he agreed with the excommunication of Catholic legislators in Mexico who had voted to legalize abortion. But almost immediately the Vatican began backpedaling from the impression that the church wants to discipline pro-choice politicians.

As the papal plane was still on its way to Brazil, the pope’s press secretary, Father Federico Lombardi, offered a clarification: Benedict wasn’t endorsing any formal excommunication of the Mexican lawmakers, just restating church teaching. Later, the Vatican released an edited transcript of the pope’s news conference in which the reference to events in Mexico was removed.

The clarification seemed to rule out any pending excommunication by U.S. bishops of pro-choice politicians such as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) or ex-New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani.


But what about the implication by Benedict at his news conference that legislators who support legal abortion might be cutting themselves off from “Communion with the body of Christ”? Was the pope endorsing the idea, popular among some conservative Catholics, that pro-choice politicians should be denied the sacrament of Holy Communion? Not necessarily.

“The pope has said every one of us has a Christian attitude and must have a Christian behavior, coherent with his faith and vision of life,” Lombardi said. “When this is not the case, then comes the problem of the true participation in the life of the church and also in the Eucharist.”

That statement straddled the opposing positions in the debate among Catholic bishops about whether priests should refuse Communion to pro-choice politicians (as the archbishop of St. Louis believes) or leave it to elected officials to search their consciences (the position of Los Angeles Cardinal Roger M. Mahony). That debate inspired an unedifying “wafer watch” during the 2004 presidential campaign in which journalists kept track of where Democratic nominee Kerry was worshiping and whether he received the sacrament.

Catholics can and do argue about whether a lawmaker who votes to legalize abortion triggers a provision of church law that provides for the automatic excommunication of anyone who “procures” an abortion. But in America’s pluralistic democracy, an attempt by church authorities to punish the way legislators vote would raise questions about representatives’ independence and responsiveness to constituents. As the Vatican seemed to recognize in clarifying the pope’s comments, that wouldn’t be good for church or state. Better to say that Rome has misspoken.