Cardinal Francis Arinze, a top Vatican official, lived up to his reputation for outspokenness and over-the-top humor during a weekend visit to Western Pennsylvania during which he answered a "hot potato'' question about Catholic legislators who consistently advocate the right to legal abortion.
After giving a speech on the importance of the Eucharist for family life, he took written questions on a wide range of topics at a benefit dinner at the Le Mont restaurant on Mount Washington for the Apostolate for Family Consecration in Bloomingdale, Ohio. One question concerned whether Catholic legislators who support legal abortion should "be refused" Communion.
"Should the person be given [Communion]? And I ask you, do you really need a cardinal from the Vatican to find the answer?" he said to laughter and applause from an audience of 120 ardent Catholics. "Are there no children from First Communion to whom you can pose the question and receive the answer? You do not need a cardinal to answer that. Because it is a straightforward matter."
Many U.S. bishops have found it less straightforward, however. Bishop Donald Wuerl, of Pittsburgh, is among those who have argued that, while such legislators should be persuaded to refrain from Communion, if one comes forward, the priest cannot make a snap judgment about his or her spiritual state and should give them the benefit of the doubt. The bishop of each diocese has the right to decide such matters, and a minority, including Archbishop Raymond Burke of St. Louis, have said they would refuse Communion to such politicians. A document that the U.S. bishops issued in June 2004 left room for varying judgments.
"Given the wide range of circumstances involved in arriving at a prudential judgment on a matter of this seriousness ... bishops can legitimately make different judgments on the most prudent course of pastoral action," said the document Catholics in Political Life.
Neither Arinze, a U.S. bishop who attended the dinner or a spokesman for the U.S. cardinal in charge of drafting the 2004 statement would offer an opinion on whether Arinze's remarks directly contradicted the bishops' document. Although Arinze had been asked if abortion rights politicians should be "refused" Communion, he never used the word "refuse" or "deny."
"Write it as I said it, don't interpret it," he said, declining to elaborate or clarify his meaning.
Arinze's opinion is important because the Nigerian cardinal heads the Vatican office that deals with sacramental matters, so reception of the Eucharist is part of his portfolio. However the Vatican as yet has no official policy on the matter, though the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is said to be working on something about it. It is likely to be discussed by an international body of bishops this fall at a synod on the Eucharist, since the topic was mentioned in a working paper for participants.
Arinze, 72, was long considered a possible successor to the late Pope John Paul II -- and Arinze extolled the virtues of Pope Benedict XVI on Friday, saying he had never once seen him angry in 21 years at the Vatican. English-speaking journalists held Arinze in high regard for his direct answers to questions that other church officials dodged. But those very officials were said to worry that Arinze's bold sense of humor, which relies on outrageous analogies delivered in a playful tone of voice, would leave them scrambling for damage control.
Bishop Daniel Conlon, of Steubenville, Ohio, was the only bishop at the dinner. Asked about Arinze's comments, he tied them into his answer to a later question, in which Arinze said that the key to ending poverty and abortion was "conversion of hearts."
"The most important issue is that people should be honest with themselves. No one should present himself or herself knowing that he or she has committed a grievous sin or has separated themselves from union [with the church] through something like public support for something as evil as abortion," Conlon said.
Susan Gibbs, a spokeswoman for Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, of Washington, D.C., who led the task force that drafted the U.S. bishops' guidelines, likewise declined to comment on Arinze's statement.
"Without knowing all the context and the nuance I can't respond to that," she said. "The document of last year says that each bishop has to make a decision based on pastoral circumstances."
Last year, during the U.S. presidential primary season, Arinze made national headlines when he fielded a question at a Vatican press conference about whether Democratic candidate John Kerry, a Catholic, should be allowed to receive Communion.
He replied that it was up to the local bishop. But pressed further about whether a hypothetical "unambiguously pro-abortion" politician should receive, Arinze said such a person "should not be given" Communion......