The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ political push to deny communion to politicians who support abortion rights is nothing new. In the 1960s, that body was just about the only organized voice against abortion. But were the bishops less political in those days? No. In 1967, as the New York State Legislature was poised to pass a bill reforming abortion laws, the bishops wrote a pastoral letter calling for Catholics in the state to oppose such reform and directed that the letter be read from every pulpit in the state. The bill was killed in committee–which led pretty directly to the formation of the Clergy Consultation Service on Abortion (CCS).
Were the bishops more in tune with average Catholics (or vice versa) back then? Again, no. In 1965, as now, a majority of American Catholics believed that legal abortions should be available, at least under some circumstances. Compassionate Catholic clergy–both priests and nuns–worked with the CCS, referring desperate parishioners to the group, or serving as post-abortion counselors for Catholic clients. The New York CCS found that about a third of their clients were Catholic. Though he was against abortion, Father Robert F. Drinan, a Jesuit, argued in The Dublin Review in 1967 for repealing laws prohibiting it, saying, “repeal would not mean that the state approves of abortion but only that it declines to regulate it.” Drinan served for a decade as a member of Congress from Massachusetts, but left office to comply with Pope John Paul II’s call for priests to stay out of politics.
The bishops, however, then and now, have never been shy about politics. As Mollie Wilson O’Reilly wrote recently in the Atlantic, “It has become an article of faith among some Catholics that to be a member of the Church in good standing means voting Republican; that this is not literally an article of our faith is something many bishops are content to obfuscate.” O’Reilly points out that Donald Trump’s attorney general Bill Barr, a Catholic, oversaw the reinstatement and increased application of the death penalty. The bishops said nothing about withholding communion from Barr, though the Church condemns capital punishment just as it does abortion.
Jamie Manson, president of Catholics for Choice, is quoted in Salon as saying, “To use what is most sacred about our church and sacred to Biden, to punish him or try to bully him into changing his views on abortion rights, is very troubling,” she said. “The bishops taking part in this are part of a right-wing political agenda in this country. It’s very scary.”
Where is the love in all of this? The most compassionate response we’ve read has come from Father John D. Whitney, a Jesuit, who wrote on his Facebook page: “I want to write a longer piece about those bishops who seek to keep some from the table of Christ, but for now I will say this: it is not you[r] table (nor mine). Bishops, priests, etc. are neither the hosts nor the bouncers nor the ones who wrote the guest list. The Eucharist is the resurrected body of Christ given for the life of the world. Jesus Christ is the one who invites the guests (‘all you who labor’); he is the host of those who come; he is the setter of the table; and he is the feast which is shared (‘Take this, all of you. . .this is my body, this is my blood’). We are guests at the meal, and sometimes (by his calling) servers. So stay in your lane, please. The wait staff doesn’t get to exclude those who want to come. If you don’t like the company Christ calls (and, admittedly, it is a rag tag bunch of sinners, one and all), it’s you who need to leave the table, not them.”