Last week, Cardinal Burke, the highest ranking American in the Catholic hierarchy, stated that Nancy Pelosi and all other pro-abortion government officials who go to Catholic Masses should be barred from taking the Eucharist, citing a certain bylaw in the Catholic legal system called “Canon 915” which states that: “Those who have been excommunicated or interdicted after the imposition or declaration of the penalty and others obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin are not to be admitted to holy communion.”However, the Archbishop of Washington DC, Donald Wuerl, who has authority over Pelosi and other pro-abortion officials in this regard, has publicly announced more than once that he will not bow to any pressure to deny them communion. Wuerl has justified this open stance by saying that he refuses to use communion as a “weapon” to bring politicians in line:
“That’s the new way now to make your point. We never – the Church just didn’t use Communion this way. It wasn’t a part of the way we do things, and it wasn’t a way we convinced Catholic politicians to appropriate the faith and live it and apply it; the challenge has always been to convince people.”
This raises a few important questions: by saying this, Wuerl questions the motives of those like Burke who want to deny Pelosi Communion. It also brings into the forefront serious questions about what it means to be excommunicated, why people are excommunicated, and whether abortion is really as serious as the Vatican hierarchy claims it to be. I hope to sketch an answer to all these questions, and by doing so, show how Wuerl is gravely mistaken in his understanding of Communion, excommunication, and the Catholic view of abortion.
Everything You Know about Excommunication is a Lie
Before I can answer why Cardinal Burke wants to excommunicate Pelosi and company, we must first gain an understanding of what excommunication truly is, and this is trickier than you might think, because it’s often misunderstood. In fact, it may very well be the case that you’ve never been given the actual definition of excommunication. It’s one of those doctrines that is often used in prejudiced rhetoric to make a mockery of Catholicism. Normally, excommunication is understood as what the Catholic Church does to someone who gets too smart (usually conceived as a scientist) and starts discovering “the truth” against that power-hungry pope. Perhaps something like “Galileo proved heliocentrism, so the Church excommunicated him to hell” or “the king stopped paying taxes to the pope, so they excommunicated him to hell”. I was actually taught both in a college-level European history class. But it’s a complete mischaracterization of excommunication. Here’s a much better definition from the New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia:
Excommunication… is a medicinal, spiritual penalty that deprives the guilty Christian of all participation in the common blessings of ecclesiastical society. Being a penalty, it supposes guilt; and being the most serious penalty that the Church can inflict, it naturally supposes a very grave offence. It is also a medicinal rather than a vindictive penalty, being intended, not so much to punish the culprit, as to correct him and bring him back to the path of righteousness. It necessarily, therefore, contemplates the future, either to prevent the recurrence of certain culpable acts that have grievous external consequences, or, more especially, to induce the delinquent to satisfy the obligations incurred by his offence. Its object and its effect are loss of communion, i.e. of the spiritual benefits shared by all the members of Christian society; hence, it can affect only those who by baptism have been admitted to that society. (“Excommunication“)
In regular language: excommunication is a severe penalty, but more of a diagnosis than a punishment; it is not done to condemn someone to hell out of papal rage, but rather it is simply a recognition that the person has given into so much immorality that their soul is in serious danger, and that they are “Christian” in name only. But this is done in the hopes of making the person realize their error and turn away from it completely. And because it has the goal of healing in mind, excommunication is not permanent & is removed once the person repents and gives up the sin:
“…such exile can have an end (and the Church desires it), as soon as the offender has given suitable satisfaction.” (“Excommunication“)
So leave behind the idea of angry Vatican officials drawing arbitrary lines in the sand and damning to hell all the politicians who won’t cave in to their demands. This isn’t a matter of rage, but about truth, diagnosing a severe spiritual cancer, and making last-ditch efforts to fight the infection. If we cannot understand the true meaning and motive of excommunication, we won’t be able to understand the rest of this issue, and suddenly everything begins to look like a bunch of repressive priests trying to control everyone. Excommunication is a medicine, and it’s meant for the good of the person, not for their eternal condemnation. In light of that, consider this statement Wuerl once made about the practice of excommunicating pro-abortion politicians:
“Incrimination of others has become a hallmark among some groups and individuals in the Catholic Church in our country today,” he wrote. But “the intensity of one’s opinion is not the same as the truth. Speaking out of anger does not justify falsehood.”
You get the sense from Wuerl that the Vatican wants these excommunications because they’re super-angry and want to make an example out of Pelosi for disobeying them, like some sort of spiritual tyrant. But remember what we just discussed: excommunication is not done for such an immature reason. It is done for grave reasons. It is chemotherapy for spiritual cancer. Burke wants excommunication not “out of anger” but because he wants the Church to be brutally honest about an infection. Moreover, to say that this stems from Burke’s “intensity of opinion” is to not only misrepresent the point of excommunication but to misrepresent Catholicism on a fundamental level. Allow me to illustrate this with a metaphor.
The Mathematician Who Never Did Math
Let’s say that we’re in a prestigious college society devoted to mathematics. While we’re at it, let’s push the metaphor and say that we’re actually really good at math. And the society we’re in is called the Trig Club. Hot-dog, do we love math. And we all get together weekly to work on math problems, help each other get the right answers, mess around with asymptotes and square roots, whatever. Everything is all fine and good until one day, one of us does something blatantly wrong: he divides by zero. Because the unalterable laws of our beloved and sacred mathematics have been violated, this would bother us badly, and we would politely, yet firmly, tell him and walk him through why he’s wrong. But that doofus just won’t change it; he demands to divide by zero. The next week, he’s done it again in other solutions and proofs, and before long we’re pretty sure he’s just throwing random numbers and operator signs together in sophisticated looking ways. We’re upset at this point. We go to him and tell him “You can’t just pretend to be doing math like this. What you’re doing isn’t even math anymore, and if you keep doing this, you’re not even a real Trig Club mathematician, you’re just pretending to be.” The guy gets really indignant and storms out. But then later that week, while you’re walking from class to class, you see that freakin’ guy again. And this time he’s in the lecture hall, teaching a room full of impressionable freshmen (is there any other kind of freshman?) that you actually, totally can divide by zero. A few people don’t believe it, but he refutes them by saying “Look here, bucko, this is what mathematicians think now. See? Here’s my membership card proving I’m a member of the Trig Club, so I know how math really works.” And this convinces everyone that not only is it ok to divide by zero, but that everyone in the Trig Club believes it too.
At this point, you go home and you’re upset. Naturally, you get on Facebook and start messaging all the freshmen you can find, telling them that there’s an imposter mathematician telling everyone to divide by zero. You do this not so much out of wanting to spite the guy, but because 1) He’s pretending to be something he really isn’t, and that’s also going to make the real mathematicians look wrong 2) He’s teaching people something that is literally wrong. You can’t divide by zero. There is no squabbling about it. If this continues pretty soon the entire college is going to be doing incoherent math. And the worst thing is 3) he’s making it even harder for the freshmen to learn real math, because he’s convincing them they know it when they actually don’t. You’ll have to un-teach them all the errors they picked up before you can teach them real math.
And this is how Catholicism thinks about heresy and grave sin: it’s like dividing by zero to us, and if left unchecked & unchallenged it not only leads others astray, but begins making Catholicism itself look wrong. And excommunication is the equivalent of getting on Facebook and posting warnings: it’s an honest declaration that “No, we don’t actually endorse that, and ok, he’s acting like he’s the real McCoy, but he’s really not.” It’s not spite or anger so much as it is protection.
Not a Weapon, but a Noose
So then, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. Everyone ought to examine themselves before they eat of the bread and drink from the cup. For those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgment on themselves. That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep. 1 Cor 11:27-30
With this medicinal, protective understanding in mind, maybe we can begin to make some progress. “OK,” you might be saying, “so Burke doesn’t want to excommunicate Pelosi out of rage, but why not just let her take communion? Is it really that big of a deal? Isn’t that the loving thing to do, and aren’t y’all Christians all about love?”
First off, yes, it is that big of a deal. One of the reasons is that St. Paul in the verse above is very clear that those who are immersed in grave sins, like supporting abortion, should not take Communion because it will severely hurt them. In fact, St. Paul is stating in the last verse that taking Communion while in a state of serious sin has been a cause of death. We must keep in mind that the Eucharist is literally the Body of Christ, and that is an awful, literally divine thing. It isn’t something to play with; remember that the last place God chose to dwell in, the Ark of the Covenant, had a tendency to kill or otherwise ruin everyone who didn’t treat it reverently (1 Samuel 5 & 6 is a terrific illustration of this). And I’m not even saying God gets angry and punishes the sinners, but I am suggesting that, simply by being in a state of grave sin, God’s loving presence becomes something that suffocates us. When God comes to us, He just can’t help but blast away all the sin choking our souls. But if we attach ourselves to that sin, and refuse to let go of it, we just might get blasted away too by accident.
Christians are about love, that’s why we don’t let people in grave sin take Communion; it’s a matter of protecting them. Protecting them 1) from a Presence that they could not currently survive and for all we know could blast them away 2) from coming to treat the Body of the God-Man as something typical and unimportant 3) from letting others get to thinking that the grave sin is alright, and allowing them to be influenced by a bad example. It’s certainly not the kind of “do-whatever-just-don’t-bother-me” freedom that Americans are used to, but Catholicism is neither American nor all that into negative freedom.
On top of that, by denying Communion we are trying to make them realize something important: “Stop hanging onto that which will kill you!” & this is done out of genuine concern for them. Wuerl is half-right: the Eucharist is not a weapon, but it is a noose for those too attached to sin.
Who Cares if She’s Pro-Abortion?
Wuerl, in an interview he did on this issue in 2009, made this comment as part of a dis against the pro-excommunication-for-Pelosi crowd:
“In his circles of Hell, Dante places the people with sins of passion at the very brim – barely burned. But at the core are those who sinned against the truth.” (Check it)
I found it supremely ironic. I won’t go after how this is kind of a bad oversimplification of Dante’s Hell (because all sins are sins against some truth according to Catholicism). But I will go after how if this is true, then Wuerl is by his own admission letting pro-abortion politicians wade into the deeper regions of Hell, and consequently doing a terrible job as bishop. Because according to the set rules (dogmas) of Catholicism, abortion is a sin against truth, specifically the truth that a human soul begins to exist at the moment of conception. Straight from the Catholic Catechism (the rulebook for Catholics):
2274 Since it must be treated from conception as a person, the embryo must be defended in its integrity, cared for, and healed, as far as possible, like any other human being.
2319 Every human life, from the moment of conception until death, is sacred because the human person has been willed for its own sake in the image and likeness of the living and holy God. (READ IT ALL)
Essentially, it’s like trying to divide by zero to Catholics. Wuerl seems to treat this as such a political issue that he forgets it to be a truth issue too: the main thrust of Burke’s argument to deny Pelosi communion is not that he wants her to arbitrarily agree with the politics of Catholicism (whatever those are) it’s that she’s adamantly attached to legislation that violates a truth of human nature, and thus far willfully disobedient to recognizing that truth. It is not an arbitrary “incrimination of others”. Moreover, the motive is not “speaking out of anger” and the condemnation is not a “falsehood”, but an attempt to keep others from being led into falsehood.
Contra Wuerl, there is no squabbling over who is Catholic & who is not, as if it is a matter of who is most sincere. Being an institution with certain beliefs that are set in stone (the technical word for this is “infallible dogma”) finding out who is and is not a real member of it is simple: do they contradict the rules of conduct? Yes? And do they do so knowingly and without care? Then they can’t really be a member; they shouldn’t be allowed to do members-only things. Should the ex-mathematician who divides by zero be allowed to participate in the weekly meetings, or accompany the rest of the group to the pub after for the meal they share as a math community? Not as long as he insists on dividing by zero. There’d be nothing to squabble over; he’s wrong and he can either fix it or not.
Now, one could (and everyone has for millennia) argue that the Catholic idea of a human soul beginning at conception is non-sense, or a lie. But that’s much different from claiming to believe it when in practice you act like you don’t. It’d be one thing if a rival math society rose up against the Trig Club’s hatred of zero-division and claimed that dividing by zero is the way of the future. It’d be quite another thing if someone within the Trig Club started proclaiming that and planning sabotage. Likewise, Burke is simply calling out Pelosi for not really believing what she pretends to by calling herself Catholic, in the hopes of diagnosing the growing illness before it requires amputation.
Enemies Charge in Ceasefires
Here’s one last thing to consider: Wuerl, in my view, is playing right into the hands of those who want Christians to give up the fight against abortion, and those in general who want the Christians to stop being such sticklers about morality. The refusal to do anything is not standing ground and fighting, but a ceasefire. And when our frontline stops shooting, that’s when the enemy captains blow the whistle to charge forward. It would be like a doctor saying “Ya know, I could actively fight this infection, but it might get messy so I’m not going to operate. I will, however, pray about it as the wound turns gangrene.” Inactivity on the part of a bishop means a gain for the pro-abortion crowd. Because while we’re praying about it and talking about educating Catholics better, the “catholic” abortion crowd is already educating Catholics, and going into church with them, and following them right up to the altar.