CHURCH AND POLITICS. Interview with the Archbishop of Washington
The sacraments should not become a point of dipute
Cardinal Theodore Edgar McCarrick comments on the proposal to forbid communion to Catholic politicians who do not campaign against abortion, on the presidency of George W. Bush and on the Palestinian crisis
by Gianni Cardinale
When, on 23 February last, the instruction Redemptionis sacramentum. Concerning some things that must be observed and avoided regarding the most holy Eucharist, was presented in the Vatican, the questions asked by the US journalists were particularly concentrated on the repercussions that this document could have on the race for the White House. It was somewhat unusual. But fairly predictable. The Democcratic candidate who will challenge George W. Bush is Senator John F. Kerry, a Catholic and pro- abortionist and for this reason under close scrutiny by the more conservative components of the American Catholic world. Lay people but also archbishops – such as that of Saint Louis – have intimated to Kerry, in so far as he is openly and publicly in favor of abortion, not to present himself to receive communion. Not only that, but they have also suggested that the Democratic candidate should indeed be refused communion, were he to present himself to receive it.
Cardinal Theodore Edgar McCarrick
Taking these polemics as a starting point, 30Days posed some questions to Cardinal Theodore Edgar McCarrick, Archbishop of Washington D.C., an important figure in the US episcopate. Before coming to lead the archdiocese of the federal capital the cardinal, who will be 74 years old next July, was auxiliary in his native city of New York (1977-1981), then Bishop of Metuchen (1981-1986) and Archbishop of Newark in New Jersey (1986-2000).
We met Cardinal McCarrick in the sacristy of the Roman basilica of Saint Paul’s Without the Walls where he had just finished celebrating mass along with other bishops of his ecclesiastical region on the occasion of their ad limina visit. «Saint Paul’s», the cardinal told us, “is a basilica I love: When I’m in Rome I always try to come here to pray. Saint Peter’s basilica is marvelous but Saint Paul’s is more tranquil, it’s easier to pray here».
Your Eminence, you are head of a task force set up by the American episcopate to define whether and which canonical sanctions should be adopted towards those politicians notoriously in contrast with the teachings of the Catholic Church. Why is this question felt more in the United States than elsewhere, so much so that no other episcopate, at least amongst the more numerous ones, seems to have considered it necessary to institute a similar commission?
THEODORE EDGAR Mc CARRICK : It’s a question which I also often ask myself. Perhaps it has happened for two reasons. To begin with because we are a democracy in which everyone is free to express his own opinion and then because the Catholic faithful have a great reverence towards the Holy Eucharist and feel upset if someone receives it without the necessary pre-disposition. To tell the truth I’ve written to different Episcopal conferences to see whether they also are studying the question …
John F. Kerry receiving Holy Communion
And are they replying?
McCARRICK: Yes, but in the majority of cases they have told me that the problem is not perceived in the same way as us in the USA.
On 15 April last you had a meeting of about 45 minutes with senator John F. Kerry. What can you tell us about that?
McCARRICK: It was a meeting between a man and a priest. It was an occasion to have a good discussion with the senator. We spoke about many subjects, but we agreed that, since it was a private meeting, there would be no public statements. And it is good that it was like that.
Will the works of the task force finish before the November elections?
McCARRICK: I hope so. We still have to meet a few times and we will consult with the other bishops and also with the Holy See. But I don’t know if we will finish it in time, since we are dealing with such a delicate and complex question.
Do you personally think that a Catholic politician notoriously favorable to abortion should be denied communion?
McCARRICK: I believe that many bishops amongst us think that there should be canonical censures on such people. But I also believe that many bishops wouldn’t like that the possibility of receiving the Eucharist or not receiving it to become part of the sanctions. Personally I think it should be pastoral concern to prevent the Eucharist becoming a point of dispute.
In 1960 you were a young priest when John F. Kennedy became a candidate for the White House and won. In November another Catholic could become president. What has changed over the forty four years?
McCARRICK: There is a great difference. At the time of Kennedy the fear was that he would pay too much attention to the Church. Today instead the fear is that a Catholic candidate will pay absolutely no attention to the Church. It is positive however that today in the United States there is generally no fear of a Catholic candidate, because it is known that people can be good Catholics and good US citizens at the same time.
George W. Bush
In an interview granted to 30Days three years ago you said that you judged the first three months of the presidency of George W. Bush as a “good beginning”. Was it only a “good beginning”?
McCARRICK. I believe that Bush has been a good president. He has made right decisions in many fields such as those in favor of life and against abortion or the funds allotted to combat AIDS in Africa. On some questions of foreign policy instead the attitude was more problematic, more worrying. In every administration there are good and less good things.
Before the meeting of 14 April in Washington between Bush and the Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon, the president of the USCCB (the Episcopal Conference of the USA), Bishop Wilton Gregory, sent a letter to the White House in which – along with other things – he warned against “unilateral initiatives” which could put the objective of “a just and lasting peace” in the Holy Land in jeopardy. It doesn’t seem that those words were much listened to …
McCARRICK: We weren’t present at the meeting and therefore we don’t know what was really said. It’s important however that the Road map should still be backed until peace returns to the Holy Land where the population has suffered and continues to suffer so much, where the Church suffers greatly, where the Catholic faithful are progressively decreasing because they’re emigrating, not seeing any prospects for their future. For these reasons it’s necessary that the nations of the world, beginning with the United States, should do everything possible for the constitution of an independent Palestinian State and for the security of Israel. As the president of the USCCB himself wrote on 26 April last: “We exhort the Bush administration to return to the traditional role of the USA as honest broker, working with the international community, the Palestinians and the Israelis to develop measures which increase confidence and to pursue peaceful means to negotiate their differences, in accordance with international law and the existing UN resolutions”.
Another “problematic” initiative of the Bush administration was the Iraq campaign? Was it a just war?
McCARRICK: We pray a lot for Iraq. In effect the war in Iraq was not – I’d say - a justified war. Because even though the end of a cruel dictatorship is undoubtedly a positive fact, it does not seem to me that that was the declared reason for the beginning of the campaign. The problem now is that one doesn’t see a clear strategy for getting out of the situation. We hope however that in the end the Iraqi people will be able to live in a pacified country and with a better quality of life.
Israeli bombardments of Jenin
Do you believe that greater UN involvement is necessary?
McCARRICK: I would like to see the UN more involved in the Iraqi drama. I believe that the US administration is now open to this possibility. The UN is certainly not a perfect instrument, but for now there is no better one on the international scene with its potentiality. It seems to me that is also the position of the Pope and the Holy See.
A last question. What do you think of so called “preventive war”?
McCARRICK: The Church has always expressed itself on what just war is and, as far as I understand, preventive war does not come within the criteria of a just war. I think that what is meant by a preventive war should be examined closely and then the question should be analyzed carefully. As it is presented today, the concept of a preventive war seems to me to be very difficult to accept. I don’t say it’s impossible but that we must first look at it hard to see whether it’s morally possible.