De-forming Consciences Print
By Robert Royal   
Sunday, 16 November 2008

“Voting for a pro-abortion politician when a plausible pro-life alternative exists constitutes material cooperation with intrinsic evil, and those Catholics who do so place themselves outside of full communion with Christ’s Church and under the judgment of divine law. Persons in this condition should not receive Holy Communion until and unless they are reconciled to God in the Sacrament of Penance, lest they eat and drink their own condemnation.”

Who wrote these words? You might guess Joseph Ratzinger, before he became Benedict XVI, on several occasions, not only about voting for pro-abortion politicians, but about those politicians themselves, if they claim to be Catholics. In fact, the words were written by Fr. J. H. Scott Newman, pastor of St. Mary’s Church in Greenville, South Carolina, and inserted into the parish bulletin last Sunday. Fr. Newman was merely expressing the widespread, longstanding, and clear moral understanding of the Church. No good deed, as we know, goes unpunished. Fr. Newman did so good a deed that he’s been rebuked, not only by the usual media suspects, but by the Charleston diocesan administrator.

I have known Scott Newman since his freshman year at Princeton and would personally vouch for his every word. The managing editor of the magazine I ran back then identified him as a promising new student within days of his arrival on campus. He wrote some unusually mature and perceptive articles. I was not wholly surprised when he later decided to become a Catholic, and I was honored to be his sponsor. Scott subsequently worked in the Caribbean under Bishop Sean O’Malley, before going to Rome, where he became president of his seminary class – also not much of surprise.

He’s not only smart, holy, gifted in working with people, but humble. When the controversy arose, he received 5000 emails, “Most of the people who wrote seem to regard me as either a mighty champion of reform or an evil tool of the devil, and I am naturally hesitant to accept either title. In truth, I am but a useless servant of the Lord Jesus trying, despite my frailty, to be a faithful witness to Him Who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.” He also pointed out that he had not named any particular candidates in the original statement or, as was misreported by the Associated Press, “denied” anyone Communion.

A shrewd man, Fr. Newman put things in writing. After the bulletin appeared, The Greenville News asked him: “Are you saying that you’ll administer a no-communion policy unless Obama voters partake in penance?” He wrote in reply:

I cannot and will not refuse Holy Communion to anyone because of his or her political opinions or choices, even as I continue to teach what the Church teaches about the necessity of being in full, visible communion with the Church before receiving the sacraments. Only those who believe what the Catholic Church teaches and who seek to live according to that teaching should even be interested in receiving the sacraments of the Church, and on the question of the intrinsic and grave evil of abortion, there is and can be no doubt about what the Church teaches.
 

That “cannot” reflects Fr. Newman’s proper recognition of the Church’s teaching and his overall reply should have put an end to the matter.

The Catholic Thing has noticed how the national media have taken it upon themselves to reinterpret or ignore hard facts this election season – and now beyond. The AP story was an outrage, by simple journalistic standards, and the fact that the “priest denies Obama voters Communion” story was picked up by ABC and other outlets shows how uncritical our media have become. (Recall, in recent weeks, two young bloggers – Eitan Gorlin and Daniel Mirvish -- created a fictional adviser to the McCain campaign, Martin Eisenstadt, and fabricated a story, widely picked up by sympathetic media, that Sarah Palin did not know Africa was a continent.) But the Newman story was not more of an outrage than several dozen others about religion and politics over past months.

What was truly unusual about Fr. Newman’s case was that his own diocese, trying to clarify the situation, has actually furthered confused American Catholic laity, precisely on the crucial matter of conscience. The administrator of the Charleston Diocese, Monsignor Martin T. Loughlin, wrongly construed the case from faulty news reports and publicly repudiated Fr. Newman. He quoted from The Catechism of the Catholic Church that we have the right to act freely in conscience. True enough. But he then went on to say: “Christ gives us freedom to explore our own conscience and to make our own decisions while adhering to the law of God and the teachings of the faith. Therefore, if a person has formed his or her conscience well, he or she should not be denied Communion, nor be told to go to confession before receiving Communion.”

Technically true, but saying this in an America where everyone already has an inflated sense of his right to his or her own opinion – without a very strong warning that a well-formed conscience means serious prayer and study that will take the average American Catholic a good distance from our popular ethos – translates in public as the Biden-Pelosi school of theology, a Catholic Church accepting of the notion of the sovereign self and, in consequence, moral relativism. Like it or not, that’s how our fellow citizens understand such statements. In other words, they’ve now had their consciences further de-formed.

Fr. Newman’s parishioners came to Mass in large numbers this weekend and applauded so long when he began his homily that they only quieted down when he turned and knelt to the Blessed Sacrament. If you want to know what properly formed consciences are like and what they do, that’s the real story – which you won’t hear about from the AP or ABC.

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing, and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His latest book is The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the West.

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