When Henry IV, King of the Germans was excommunicated from the Catholic Church in 1076, he traded his royal robes for a hairshirt and walked barefoot to the Pope’s fortress in Canossa to lift his excommunication. Henry’s act of penitence lasted three days and the phrase “going to Canossa” thereafter came to denote an act of utmost submission to a higher authority. At that time, the Church was at the apex of its coercive power, and for centuries the episode served as a reminder to temporal authorities of the spiritual limits to their political capacities.
Centuries later in 1989, Lucy Killea, a little-known candidate for the California State Senate would have her own confrontation with the Catholic Church. Killea was already serving in the California State Assembly and had adopted a pro-choice stance that she felt was consistent with her Catholic faith. The Bishop of San Diego disagreed and invoked Church law against her, prohibiting her from receiving communion in his diocese unless she stopped persisting in her “manifest grave sin.” Killea was catapulted onto the national stage and analysts attribute her narrow victory to increased energy among voters sympathetic to her cause.
Similarly, over the past decade, Catholic officials like former Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius, John Kerry, and Joe Biden have benefitted from their conflicts with the Church. Ironically, that is, the more the Church attempts to rein in the politics of its flock through communion, the more support it creates for the very policies it opposes.
Apart from this, American excommunication is fairly unique for two reasons. First, although official Catholic Church ideology is defined by global consistency, communion battles are almost never used outside of the United States. Second, although Catholic theology takes strong stances on a number of social issues including contraception, euthanasia, and homosexuality, politicians have only been denied communion over abortion. These conditions have less to do with the Church itself than with the power of the American pro-life lobby.
The Trench War Begins
The United States has had an especially energetic and persistent abortion debate in large part due to the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade. In many other countries, legislative branches have settled their own abortion debates. Pro-life activists in those countries were able to accept that their voices had been heard and they saw their defeats and successes as democratic and more or less legitimate outcomes. In the U.S., by contrast, there is lingering bitterness over the Supreme Court’s power to elevate the conflict from the political realm and establish abortion as a right that women are entitled to.
The Court’s decision resulted in the immediate reversal of a majority of state laws and in turn stimulated strong and immediate opposition. In the early days after the decision, opponents attempted to organize a constitutional amendment blocking abortion but when it became clear that such an amendment did not have broad support, they turned to other avenues.
Though the Catholic Church was highly organized in its efforts to oppose abortion prior to Roe v. Wade, the decision ultimately created a significant spike in volunteers and donations to organizations opposing abortion. For the last 40 years, abortion has remained the signature issue dividing liberals and conservatives: it pits the right to personal bodily integrity against the sanctity of human life in the most essential terms.
Most importantly, unlike gay marriage and contraception, opinion on abortion has largely stagnated. According to Gallup, about a third of Americans favor overturning Roe v. Wade, a percentage that has been more or less stable since 1989. About fifty percent of Americans favor legal abortion with some restrictions, around a quarter favor legal abortion under any circumstance, and about a fifth favor criminalizing abortion in all cases. All of these ratios have seen no real change since 1975. As a result of this political trench war, activists have attempted to open new fronts on the issue by taking their battle to the pews.
Lines of Battle: Canon Law and Catholic Opinion
One of the most vocal advocates for the politicization of communion is the American Life League (ALL), a Catholic anti-abortion group. ALL is one of many grassroots organizations that was founded in the first days after Roe v. Wade. According to Judie Brown, the League’s founder, ALL was born from a conversation she had with several friends about the need for an “unapologetically Catholic” response to the decision. Thus, her organization has pressured Catholic bishops to enforce Canon Law 915, which forbids anyone who chooses to “persist in manifest grave sin” from receiving the Eucharist. In ALL’s interpretation, the law requires bishops to deny communion to all Catholic public figures who are pro-choice.
Brown insists that the pressure the League places on bishops is intended to accomplish purely religious goals. They are less concerned with influencing elections than with protecting the Blessed Sacrament from desecration at the hands of those who support the “murder of innocents.”
It’s easy to hear Brown’s frustration with all bishops who have not “done their jobs” by denying communion and her approval of the 15 or so “heroes” who have upheld the law. ALL is in the process of compiling a list of pro-choice public figures in every diocese in the United States and establishing whether each bishop is “in compliance” with Canon Law 915 or not. Yet Brown admits that, despite ALL’s pressure campaigns and what Brown sees as a clear canon law requirement, most bishops remain silent on the issue to avoid upsetting their congregations.
Michele Dillon, a professor of sociology and religion at the University of New Hampshire, believes that this silence can be explained by the widening gap between the conservative views espoused by Church leadership and the views of most American Catholics. Despite the Church’s opposition to artificial contraception, Catholic women are just as likely to use it as non-Catholics. The same holds true for procuring abortions and supporting gay marriage, according to Gallup. Catholics are distributed fairly evenly along the liberal-conservative spectrum and actually tend to vote more often with the Democratic Party. Although abortion is considered a signature issue of the Catholic Church, Protestants are more likely than Catholics to identify as “pro-life.”
In fact, many Catholics insist that pro-choice advocacy does not necessarily conflict with Catholic teachings. Jon O’Brien, the president of Catholics for Choice (CFC) argues that Judie Brown and ALL have falsely interpreted Church doctrine. In an interview with the HPR, O’Brien noted that in 1974, when the Vatican released its “Declaration on Procured Abortion,” it “expressly [left] aside the question of the moment when the spiritual soul is infused.” In addition, CFC points out that in the guide to “Catholics and Abortion,” canon law allows for many circumstances that mitigate liability including “grave fear, necessity or serious inconvenience.” Most important to O’Brien is the idea of individual conscience in making decisions, and he sees Church leadership as a source of guidance that is by no means final. Moreover, he believes that Church officials who fail to respect the independence of Catholics risk alienating their followers entirely.
No Silver Bullet
According to a study by Dr. Richard Hofstetter, professor of political science at the University of California, San Diego, liberal Catholics respond negatively to what they consider political manipulation by Catholic bishops. In 2004, when several Catholic bishops condemned John Kerry’s support of pro-choice policies, Catholics who had heard of the bishops’ opposition were actually significantly more likely to vote for Kerry. In Hofstetter’s sample of Catholic voters, 70 percent responded that the Catholic Church should not try to influence the Catholic vote. Liberals who had heard of the bishops’ warnings against Kerry were 25 percent more likely to vote for him than liberals who had not. Among liberals who were familiar with a doctrinal note from the Vatican warning against liberal politicians, support for Kerry rose by 18 percent and support among moderates rose by 31 percent. In the overall population, exposure to the bishops’ warnings increased Kerry’s support by one percent and exposure to the doctrinal note increased Kerry’s support by ten percent. Ultimately, even though Kerry lost the 2004 election, the bishops likely did have a positive effect on Catholic Kerry voters.
The backlash of Catholic liberals against the Church parallels the conservative backlash against Roe v. Wade. Both cases reveal the dangers of winner-take-all political strategies. Liberals and conservatives have spent the last 40 years attempting to move the abortion issue outside of the sphere of policy by either elevating it to constitutional status or framing it as a religious imperative. Instead of searching for the silver bullet that will end the debate on abortion once and for all, both camps would do better to let the issue work itself out democratically and defer to the judgment of the electorate. Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like either side will be going to Canossa any time soon.