The papers are reporting that Cardinal Pell is considering denying the Eucharist to politicians who vote for the stem cell bill currently before the NSW Parliament.
The use by Catholic bishops of this particular sanction has caused a lot of acrimonious debate in the US, mostly in the context of abortion. The nub of the controversy is apparently the interpretation of Canon 915, according to which
Those upon whom the penalty of excommunication or interdict has been imposed or declared, and others who obstinately persist in manifest grave sin, are not to be admitted to Holy Communion.
This can’t be invoked against furtive sinners whose transgressions aren’t publicly known, as this would breach the confidentiality of the confessional. But proponents of the communion ban argue that politicians who vote to legalise abortion or stem cell research are obviously being quite manifest in their defiance of Church directives.
Opponents, on the other hand, think that
voting for legislation that protects a person’s right to choose an abortion is not equal to directly cooperating in the procuring of an abortion.
I can’t find any direct statement from Pell threatening to ban miscreants from communion. It all started with a press releaseyesterday condemning the bill and invoking Christian morality in general:
No Catholic politician — indeed, no Christian or person with respect for human life — who has properly informed his conscience about the facts and ethics in this area should vote in favour of this immoral legislation.
He doesn’t invoke the authority of the authority of the Church, but on the contrary invites the legislators to consult their conciences.
Then yesterday on PM we heard this:
SIMON LAUDER: For Catholic politicians who may be wondering how their position in the church will change if they support the bill, Cardinal Pell isn’t being specific.
He’s not suggesting politicians will be excommunicated, but is leaving open the option of denying communion.
GEORGE PELL: I don’t believe in crossing bridges before you get to them and I am hoping all the Catholic politicians here in New South Wales will do the right thing.
So we have to take Lauder’s word for it that Pell is threatening to invoke Canon 915. By this morning he had gathered some juicy indignant reactions to ‘Pell’s tactics’ from ex-Father Paul Collins and from two politicians, Labor’s John Watkins and the Nationals’ Adrian Piccoli, who said:
I think in Australia, if Sheikh Al Hilali had made that same kind of declaration to Members of Parliament of the Muslim faith, telling them how to vote, I think there’d be outrage.
If this interpretation of Pell’s statements is accurate, it is indeed a pathetic spectacle. I don’t mean that Pell shouldn’t defend the doctrines he is sworn to defend. That’s only reasonable. But what on earth would he hope to achieve by attempting to threaten politicians? If the likes of Iemma, Watkins and Piccoli are bound in their hearts by Church authority in itself, then it’s enough for the Archbishop just to clarify the doctrine for them.
If, on the other hand, they are prepared to defy Church authority — either for political expediency or because they actually think Catholic teaching is wrong — then they are hardly going to buckle to Pell’s threats. Does he really imagine that someone like Watkins will say to himself: ‘Well, I was all ready to vote for that bill, sinful as it might have been to do so, but now I’d better not sign it because otherwise I’ll never be able to queue for communion again, which means I’ll be committing a mortal sin. Not to mention the humiliation — I’ll never be able to look old Mrs Santini in the eye again.’
Pell must know that, directed at educated people in twenty-first century Australia, such threats have a probable efficacy of zero. The only possible motivation is to drive marginally committed people out of the Church or to enhance his standing with the Vatican.
But the bigger question is why the broader, i.e. non-Catholic, population, should take any interest in this. He is not inciting anyone to violence as arguably Hilali is. And it’s not as if Pell has kidnapped Iemma, Waltkins and Piccoli, and is demanding at gunpoint that they vote against the stem cell bill. He and his colleagues may have been instrumental in infecting them with a virus of the mind, but this happened long before they entered parliament, and it was well known to voters that they had the virus.
There must be no double standard here. If we are to insist that bigots like Pell get out of people’s bedrooms and reproductive decisions, we should keep out of the theological disputes he gets into with his flock. They are consenting adults.
The media’s voyeuristic fascination with the tactics adopted by the Archbishop parallels their obsession with internal tactical debates in political parties. Instead of asking the Minister to explain the merits of policy X, Jim Middleton or Michael Brissenden are more likely to ask, ‘how are you going to sell policy X to the Cabinet room?’
Who cares? It’s their problem; let them sort it out. Explain the issues, and demand that politicians justify their positions on the basis of public reason.