Father Kenneth Doyle

Q. I read in the paper that Vice President Joseph Biden and House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi both received holy Communion at the Vatican during the installation Mass of Pope Francis, in spite of their pro-choice views on abortion. Is there an official church position on this?(Clifton Park, N.Y.)

A. In 2004, Catholic bishops in the United States held long discussions at several meetings on the very issue you raise. With a few bishops in favor of withholding Communion from politicians who favor abortion and the majority against, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops decided to leave such decisions to individual bishops in their dioceses.

The conference noted that Catholics in political life who act “consistently to support abortion on demand” risk “cooperating in evil and sinning against the common good.” Such persons should therefore examine their consciences seriously about their worthiness to receive Communion, said the conference, but decisions about any sanctions to be imposed should rest with each bishop in his own diocese.

Among bishops there are naturally diverse opinions — not about the clear moral wrong of abortion but with regard to pastoral judgments and tactical strategies. All would agree that bishops should meet privately and individually with politicians who favor abortion in order to explain clearly the church’s moral teachings and to encourage them to protect human life, not just privately but in their public decisions.

Several bishops have sided publicly with the position expressed in 2004 by now-retired Archbishop Alex J. Brunett of Seattle that those politicians who persist in public opposition to Catholic moral principles “should voluntarily withdraw from eucharistic sharing without the need for formal action by the church.”

“With that understanding, however,” Archbishop Brunett explained, “ministers of the Eucharist should not take it upon themselves to deny holy Communion to anyone who presents themselves.”

Other bishops have said specifically that no judgment should be made on the state of someone’s soul and that those who present themselves for Communion should be presumed to consider themselves in the state of grace.

All bishops are pledged to defend human life in the womb, but opinions vary as to how best to do it. While some would say that allowing lawmakers who favor abortion to receive Communion makes that seem an acceptable political position, others argue that Communion was not intended to be used as a weapon and that a pastoral and educational approach is more productive in the long run than sanctions.

Q. Recently a priest came to visit my elderly mother who is in a nursing home. He gave the sacrament of the (anointing of the) sick, not only to my mother but also to my sister and me, who happened to be visiting my mother at the time.

Then he gave holy Communion to all three of us, without inquiring whether we were all practicing Catholics. In fact, my sister, though she was raised a Catholic, never goes to Mass anymore, so it felt awkward to watch her take Communion. What are your thoughts on this? (Wisconsin)

A. Often when I make Communion calls to the homebound, there is a caregiver or family member with the one who is sick or elderly. Unless I know that person not to be a Catholic, after I have given Communion to the one I’m visiting, I turn and ask whether those present would also like to receive.

My expectation is that a non-Catholic or a nonpracticing Catholic will decline, and that is what they should do. I do not feel it is my place to “grill” the person by saying, “Are you a practicing Catholic in the state of grace?”

In the case you raise, I would hope that the priest asked whether you and your sister wanted to receive Communion and did not simply hand you the host; if he did ask, your sister should have said simply, “No, thank you.”

As for the anointing of the sick, the Catechism of the Catholic Church in No. 1514 and 1515 provides that it be administered to those “in danger of death from sickness or old age,” “just prior to a serious operation” or to “the elderly whose frailty becomes more pronounced.” I’m not sure, then, why the priest included you and your sister in that sacrament.


Questions may be sent to Father Kenneth Doyle at askfatherdoyle@gmail.com and 40 Hopewell St., Albany, NY 12208.