Anyone who has read my Sex and Herbs and Birth Control or browsed in previous blog posts knows that I am not always negative about the Catholic Church. I have fond memories of the openmindedness of my secondary school teachers (Sisters of Notre Dame) fifty years ago. In addition, I have acknowledged numerous saints, theologians, and even a Pope for their compassionate understanding of the reasons why women might need to terminate a pregnancy. The 16th-century Jesuit cleric Thomas Sanchez was able to conceive of several situations in which ending a pregnancy in its early stages (approximately first trimester) might be necessary, and he condoned abortion in the later stages of pregnancy if there was no other way to save the life of the woman. Elizabeth of Hungary, Hildegard of Bingen, St. Bridget of Ireland, and many other nuns, clerics, and saints who popularized and added to the folk pharmacopoeia of post-coital fertility regulation do not seem to have seen any contradiction with their religious beliefs. Peter of Spain, who became Pope John XXI in 1276, wrote a book which featured a long list of early-stage abortifacients, including rue, pennyroyal, and other mints.
Indeed, it is well known among historians (though often disputed by dogmatic Church theologians) that only in 1869 did the Catholic Church take an official stand against abortion at all stages of pregnancy (but even then without actively opposing so-called “therapeutic abortions”). It was only in 1930 that Pope Pius XI categorically forbade all therapeutic abortions even in cases in which the woman would die if the pregnancy continued.
The latest example of anti-abortion hysteria by the Catholic hierarchy (but in this case not the Vatican) is the 73% vote of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) in favor of drafting guidelines that would deny the sacrament of the Eucharist (commonly known as communion) to prominent Catholics, such as President Biden, who publicly support abortion rights. This stance puts the USCCB at odds with Pope Francis and many Catholic prelates worldwide, who are increasingly uneasy about using denial of communion as a political weapon in the so-called “culture wars.” The Vatican fears that USCCB’s politicization of the rite of communion is more likely to cause a further decline in the number of observant U.S. Catholics than it is to dissuade President Biden and others from supporting women’s reproductive rights. After all, opinion polls in the U.S. consistently show that the majority of those who identify as Catholic disagree with the Church’s stance on abortion. Even those who identify as extremely observant believe that abortion should be allowed under at least some circumstances (such as rape or to save the life/health of the woman). The extreme position of the USCCB is dangerously divisive among U.S. Catholics.
There is a marked difference between the extremism of the majority of U.S. bishops and the more moderate stance of the Vatican and many leading prelates worldwide. Outside of the U.S., most prelates would consider it unthinkable to deny communion to Catholic politicians for their advocacy of legal abortion. In a famous example, Pope John Paul II publicly offered the Eucharist to Francesco Ratelli, a former mayor of Rome and candidate for prime minister who supported abortion rights.
This past January, Archbishop José H. Gomez of Los Angeles, president of the USCCB (whom Pope Francis has repeatedly refused to promote to cardinal), publicly castigated incoming President Biden for his advocacy of “policies that would advance moral evils.” By contrast, on the same day the Vatican sent Biden a congratulatory telegram encouraging him to pursue policies “marked by authentic justice and freedom.”
In a sense, the vituperative posturing of Bishop Gomez and the 73% of U.S. bishops who support him are sound and fury signifying nothing. Ultimately, the decision on whether to offer communion to pro-abortion rights politicians remains with individual bishops. And Cardinal Wilton Gregory, archbishop of Washington, D.C. and the nation’s first African-American cardinal, has vocally opposed the denial of communion to Biden and other politicians.
(Sources consulted include New York Times articles by Elizabeth Diaz and Jason Horowitz, and a Vox piece by Cameron Peters.)