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Leading His Flock: Has the new archbishop of St. Louis crossed a line?

Robert P. George & Gerard V. Bradley

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he Catholic Church proclaims the principle that every human being -- without regard to age, size, stage of development, or condition of dependency -- is entitled to the protection of the laws. In line with the indisputable facts of human embryogenesis and intrauterine human development, the Church teaches that children "hidden in the womb" are human beings. It is the obligation of legislators and other public officials to honor and protect their inalienable right to life. Yet many Catholic politicians, including the Democratic leaders of both houses of Congress, are staunch supporters of a "right to abortion." What should the leaders of the Church do about such people?

Raymond Burke, who was installed this past Monday as archbishop of St. Louis, has an answer. He has declared that public officials who act to expose the unborn to the violence of abortion may not receive Holy Communion, the sacramental symbolic of Church unity.

Pro-life citizens of every religious persuasion have applauded the bishop's action. Many commented that it is long past time for religious leaders to show that they are serious about their commitment to the sanctity of human life. Believers in "abortion rights," by contrast, were quick to condemn Bishop Burke. They denounced him for "crossing the line" separating church and state. In one of the wire stories we read, the partisans of abortion branded the rather mild-mannered Burke a "fanatic."

The "crossing the line" charge is silly. In acting on his authority as a bishop to discipline members of his flock, Bishop Burke is exercising his own constitutional right to the free exercise of religion; he is not depriving others of their rights. No one is compelled by law to accept his authority. But Bishop Burke has every right to exercise his spiritual authority over anyone who chooses to accept it. There is a name for such people: They are called "Catholics."

By demanding that Catholic legislators honor the rights of all human beings, the unborn not excluded, Bishop Burke may cause them to reconsider implicating themselves in the injustice of abortion. (Surely he hopes to do that.) But not even his harshest critics charge that the bishop said or implied that the law of the state should be used to compel anyone to accept his authority. Catholic legislators remain legally free to vote as they please. Bishop Burke, in turn, enjoys the legal right to exercise his spiritual authority as a bishop to order them to refrain from receiving communion so long as they persist in what the Church teaches are acts of profound injustice against their fellow human beings. Freedom is a two-way street.

Read the entire article on the National Review Online website.

Posted 2/11/04

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