The Forum: Cardinal Egan’s rebuke to Giuliani: important subtleties

by Phil Lawler
special to

Apr. 29, 2008 ( – In his public rebuke to Rudy Giuliani for improperly receiving Communion during Pope Benedict’s visit to New York, Cardinal Edward Egan raised two subtle but very interesting points. First, the cardinal says that Giuliani should not receive the Eucharist because of his support for legal abortion; he does not base his argument on Giuliani’s irregular marital status. Second, the cardinal reveals that he had reached a quiet agreement with Giuliani. The former New York mayor violated that agreement– apparently for his own political purposes.

But before discussing those rather subtle aspects of Cardinal Egan’s message, let’s begin with the obvious. Cardinal Egan deserves praise and thanks for his public statement, in which he shows himself to be a leader, a teacher, and a pastor of souls.

By emphasizing the gravity of support for the legalized killing of the unborn, the cardinal takes a strong stand in defense of human life. Since Giuliani is not currently a candidate for political office, the cardinal’s statement cannot be misinterpreted as a partisan gesture. Rather, he is using an opportunity to instruct the faithful.

At the same time, the cardinal is protecting the Church from further scandal. And as a pastor he is showing his concern for Giuliani, who is endangering his own soul by receiving the Eucharist improperly. The cardinal’s message should not be lost on countless other Catholics who are receiving Communion while in a state of serious sin; in that respect, too, his is a valuable pastoral statement.

In all these respects, Cardinal Egan’s statement stands in stark contrast to the official silence from Washington’s Archbishop Donald Wuerl after several prominent pro-abortion Catholics– most notably Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senators John Kerry and Ted Kennedy– received Communion during the papal Mass in that city. Although these prominent politicians had indicated beforehand that they planned to receive the Eucharist, the archbishop made no statement to discourage them or to indicate to the public that they would be receiving Communion in violation of Church law. A spokesman for the US bishops’ conference issued only a lame statement: “People go to church and people go to Communion if they feel in their heart they are prepared to receive Communion.”

After the fact, Archbishop Wuerl had another opportunity to clarify Church teaching. He remained silent, and his silence appeared to give consent. Perceptive reporters like John Allen of the National Catholic Reporter and Bob Novak of the Washington Post concluded that the net effect of the papal visit had been to encourage the notion that “pro-choice” Catholics are eligible to receive Communion– a notion that the future Pope Benedict himself very clearly rejected during his exchange with American bishops in 2004.

The public statement from Cardinal Egan, then, corrects the record and prevents the further dissemination of a very misleading and damaging perception about Catholic Church teaching and pastoral practice. For that reason, too, the cardinal deserves our thanks.

But the value of Cardinal Egan’s statement goes beyond that, for the two reasons mentioned above. Notice, in the text of the statement, the passage which I have highlighted here:
The Catholic Church clearly teaches that abortion is a grave offense against the will of God. Throughout my years as Archbishop of New York, I have repeated this teaching in sermons, articles, addresses, and interviews without hesitation or compromise of any kind. Thus it was that I had an understanding with Mr. Rudolph Giuliani, when I became Archbishop of New York and he was serving as Mayor of New York, that he was not to receive the Eucharist because of his well-known support of abortion. I deeply regret that Mr. Giuliani received the Eucharist during the Papal visit here in New York, and I will be seeking a meeting with him to insist that he abide by our understanding.
While there is some debate among American bishops as to whether a pro-abortion politician should receive the Eucharist, there is no debate about Catholics who have divorced and remarried outside the Church. They are not eligible to receive Communion. Rudy Giuliani is divorced and remarried. Therefore he should not receive Communion. That logical and canonical argument is airtight. So it is noteworthy that Cardinal Egan does not invoke that argument. Instead he says that Giuliani should not receive Communion “because of his well-known support for abortion.” Thus the cardinal’s statement underlines the point that support for legal abortion is a grievous offense.

More than that: By basing his argument on Giuliani’s advocacy for abortion, Cardinal Egan has sharpened the contrast between his stand and the stand (or non-stand) taken by Archbishop Wuerl. If the cardinal had cited Giuliani’s marital status as the factor that disqualified him, the argument would not have applied to Pelosi, Kerry, and Kennedy, all of whom are properly married (with annulments in place where appropriate) in the eyes of the Church.

Notice, too, that Cardinal Egan mentions he “had an understanding” with Giuliani. Some American bishops have said that they think it would be improper to take the very public action of barring a prominent Catholic from the Eucharist. But the first step– a private meeting with the erring individual– need not be public. Cardinal Egan had taken that step. Evidently the cardinal had spoken quietly with Giuliani, hoping to avoid both a public confrontation and a public scandal. He had done his pastoral duty by warning Giuliani against receiving Communion; there was no urgent need, then for a public statement as long as the former mayor abided by their “understanding.”

When he was apprised of the cardinal’s rebuke, Giuliani responded through a spokesman with a statement claiming that his Catholic faith “is a deeply personal matter and should remain confidential.” But if he had really wanted to keep the matter confidential, he would have abided by his agreement from Cardinal Egan. Instead he received Communion at the very time when his action would receive the most widespread publicity. He richly deserved the cardinal’s rebuke.


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