A timely old homily

(I preached this homily on Good Shepherd Sunday, May 2004.  I decided to post it again here due to the recent exchange between Bishop Tobin and Patrick Kennedy)

I am the Good Shepherd; I know my sheep and mine know me.

Our Lord presents Himself in John Chapter 10 as the Good Shepherd, the model for all religious leaders who spiritually shepherd sheep. The Good Shepherd, the Good religious leader, Jesus says, gently leads the sheep of his flock to where the safe Green pastures are; The Good Shepherd often leaves the 99 sheep safely grazing on the hills and seeks after the 1 lost sheep of his flock; The Good Shepherd guards the sheep against the wolves that seek to devour the sheep; Finally, if necessary, our Lord says that the Good Shepherd must even lay down his life for his sheep.

And some days, it is not at all easy to be a Good Shepherd. Some days, the combination of lost sheep, prowling wolves, and severe weather conditions can make shepherding extremely challenging.

Such has been the case these days, in the lives of our shepherds, the Bishops of our Roman Catholic Church in the United States. Because of certain current events in our country, an internal matter of Church discipline — something that deals with things that only go on behind the Church doors — has come to the forefront of the world’s attention.

The issue came to a head of sorts on April 23, 2004, when Cardinal Francis Arinze, the head of the Vatican Office for the Discipline of the Sacraments, stated at a press conference that Catholic politicians who are “unambiguously pro-abortion” are objectively speaking not to be given Holy Communion.

Since presently in the United States, there are a good number of high profile, “unambiguously pro-abortion” politicians who profess to be Roman Catholic, and since these unambiguously pro-abortion Catholic politicians are frequently seen receiving Holy Communion every Sunday at Churches across the country, this statement by Cardinal Arinze certainly caught people’s attention, and made the phones ring in Bishop’s offices throughout the U.S. from the likes of the New York Times and CNN for their comments. In response to the statement, the U.S. Bishop’s Conference has set up a task force to study the issue, and to decide whether or not every diocese should be denying communion to politicians who continue to support legal abortion.

Clearly our shepherds have their shepherding cut out for them. For to be Good Shepherds in this situation, they have no choice but to walk down two very narrow and very treacherous paths: The path of refusing someone the sacraments because they are publicly sinning and refuse to repent; And the path of getting indirectly involved with politics as Church leaders.

The Good Shepherd, even any Shepherd, realizes that it is best to avoid at all costs going down either of these extreme paths. But at times, these paths must be taken. At times if the shepherds don’t take these paths, they put the innocent sheep at great risk; they lose the one lost sheep; they cause others led astray by him to be lost as well; and they give the wolves free reign in the pasture. At these times, if the shepherds don’t take these treacherous paths they betray their calling and fail to be Good Shepherds after the Heart of Christ.

The paths our Shepherds must walk down are treacherous because many people today have big misconceptions about these two issues. Some times we hear people say “the Church shouldn’t be trying to influence political elections.” The Church for the most part agrees. The political realm should have a rightful autonomy from the religious realm, and visa versa, but this autonomy is not an absolute one. For example, when a priest or a bishop violates a just civil law, the state has every right to prosecute that man. Likewise, when a politician breaks a moral law, or legislates an immoral law, the Church also has every right and in fact a moral obligation to speak out against this injustice.

This is why when we look back on things like the Holocaust, slavery, and communism, we always ask the question “what did the Church do when this was happening?” Certainly, the bishops who were vocally opposed to antisemitism in Nazi Germany, the cruel slave trade in America, and the communist gulag in Russia were the Good Shepherds of their day, while the ones who were silent because this was a political issue were those Jesus calls the “thieves and robbers” (John 10:8). The Good Shepherds cannot be silent when innocent human lives are legally being killed in our country at a rate of thousands per day. As Pope John Paul II said in the Encyclical the “Gospel of Life,” all Catholics have a “grave and clear obligation to oppose” any law that attacks human life. If to fail to oppose such a law is a grave sin, how much graver a sin is it to support such a law?

Another misconception is that no Catholic can ever be refused Holy Communion by a priest, that the sacraments are never to be denied any Catholic who requests them. Again, most of the time, this is correct. To deny the sacraments to a person who shouldn’t be denied them would be a terrible sin on the part of the priest, and the Church teaches this. As the saying goes, “the faithful have a right to the sacraments.” But this also is not an absolute right.

I as a priest, and all priests, also have an equally grave moral obligation to deny communion to any Catholic who publicly and persistently is acting contrary to Catholic teachings. This isn’t saying the person is evil, or even that he should know better. The person may even be sincerely following his conscience, but since what he’s doing is both objectively immoral and well known to the public, that person must be refused the sacraments to avoid scandal and for the person’s own good.

Finally, Church law is clear (see Declatation by the Pontifical Counsel for Legislative Texts, June 24, 2000) that the shepherd who is to determine these tough and individual concrete cases is first of all the parish priest who is immediately responsible for the particular community. Since it is the parish priest who is so to speak “in the trenches” (or to keep the analogy going, “in the pasture with the sheep” (but not “out to pasture”!)) and knows most intimately the community and what is and isn’t public knowledge, it falls first to him to make the prudential judgment regarding who if any in his flock is “obstinately persisting in manifest grave sin” as Canon Law phrases it.

But what if a priest thinks a certain group of people should be denied communion, but his bishop tells him to not deny those persons? Unless the Vatican has made an official statement, the priest is bound to follow the Bishop’s order and give Holy Communion to those persons. But no Bishop could contradict Rome’s official judgments. (And by the way, Cardinal Arinze’s comment isn’t an official Vatican judgement, it was just a comment made to a press reporter.)

My brothers and sisters in Christ, probably very soon we will get the official word (and perhaps, if not from our bishops, from Rome itself at the upcoming world Bishop’s synod) as to whether or not “unambiguously pro-abortion” Catholic politicians will still be given the Holy Eucharist in our country.

While good Catholics can disagree as to what the best sanction for these people should be, all Catholics must agree on the following: that to create and pass laws permitting the killing of innocent human life (which is what abortion is) is always gravely immoral; that those who actively support such laws commit objectively evil acts; and lastly, that even if they aren’t denied, they personally shouldn’t receive Holy Communion — not until they repent by going to confession and by publically renouncing their former pro-abortion position. May these men and women, to whom we otherwise owe the greatest respect and gratitude for their civil service, choose to repent of their pro-abortion stance by taking hold of the graces God right now so desires to give them as baptized Christians and as civil leaders.

And may the Virgin Mary, the Immaculate Conception and the Mother of Christ the Good Shepherd, guide the Shepherds and the Sheep to green pastures in this new springtime the Church now finds Herself in.

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