Thinking about 1962: Catholic politicos, an archbishop, excommunication, doctrine and race

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The equation was rather remarkable.

First you had some Catholic politicians who — in words and deeds — kept defying church teachings on an important and controversial topic in public life.

Then you had an archbishop who faced a tough decision about whether to do anything, beyond verbal warnings, to show them he was willing to defend these church teachings on moral theology and the sacraments.

When the archbishop stepped up and punished the politicos, denying them Holy Communion and more, the mainstream press — CBS and The New York Times, even — openly backed his actions with positive coverage.

Wait, what was that last thing?

Right now, the U.S. Catholic bishops are headed deeper into a showdown over the status of President Joe Biden and other Catholics who openly — through word and deed — defy church teachings on abortion, marriage, gender and other issues in which doctrines are defined in the Catholic Catechism and centuries of church tradition.

As part of the discussion this past week, America magazine — a strategic voice for Catholic progressives — can this fascinating essay: “What a 60-year-old excommunication controversy tells us about calls to deny Biden Communion.” It was written by Peter Feuerherd, a journalism professor at St. John’s University in New York City. Here’s the overture:

In April 1962, Archbishop Joseph Rummel of New Orleans not only denied Communion to three Catholics in his archdiocese; he went a step beyond. At 86 years of age and in ill health — he would die two years later — he formally excommunicated the three, who vehemently opposed his efforts to desegregate Catholic schools.

The nearly 60-year-old excommunication controversy in New Orleans is taking on new life. While some people now cite this as an example of a church leader willing to challenge opponents of Catholic teaching, this history is also used to buttress the argument for withholding Communion from President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and other public officials over their support for legal abortion.

Jackson Ricau and Una Gaillot, two of the people excommunicated by the archbishop, were leaders in segregationist organizations. The third, Leander Perez, was the political boss of Plaquemines Parish, La., a judge and a powerful figure in state politics.

The excommunication of Perez drew favorable publicity for the church in the national media, including reports in The New York Times and a CBS documentary from a young Dan Rather, then a reporter at the network’s Southern bureau. Advocates of segregation, a potent force in the Jim Crow Louisiana political world at the time, were furious.

While this essay doesn’t make the theological logic clear, this fight about racism centered on a principle directly related to abortion — the dignity and worth of every human being, from conception to natural death.

Most arguments on abortion focus on (a) whether it is possible to actively promote abortion rights, while being privately opposed and (b) whether there is a hierarchy of life issues, with abortion — the taking of unborn, innocent life — clearly being at the top.

Debates about Biden’s status frequently include his decision, while serving as vice president, to personally perform — not just attend and affirm — two same-sex union rites for colleagues.

Feuerherd notes that conservative Catholics have been quick to cite Rummel’s actions, while discussing the status of Biden. For example:

Robert P. George, a professor at Princeton University, was more succinct in a recent tweet praising the New Orleans archbishop’s historic example: “Archbishop Rummel knew how to be a bishop. He didn’t play.”

A key voice in the piece is R. Eric Platt, an education professor at Memphis State University — who clearly rejects any attempts to compare the Rummel decision with current debates about Biden and the Sexual Revolution.

Here is more background, via Platt:

Rummel’s decision, observed Dr. Platt, came after more than a decade of slowly prodding white New Orleans Catholics to accept integration. Though some view him as a social justice hero, others perceive him as an overly cautious foot-dragger in the pursuit of racial justice.

“Rummel knew his age. He knew his health was not well. He was ready to make a stand,” Dr. Platt said in an interview. “He needed an example. And he was fed some good ones.” …

After arriving in New Orleans, the archbishop methodically addressed issues of race. He desegregated the archdiocesan seminaries, integrated archdiocesan gatherings, ended official pew segregation in churches and, in 1955, closed down a church after white parishioners refused to accept a Black priest. …

Throughout his episcopacy, he met pushback.

Catholic segregationists appealed to the Vatican — which backed the archbishop.

Let’s end with this crucial passage:

If adherence to segregationist views was an excommunicable offense at the time, most white Louisiana Catholics would have been found guilty. But Archbishop Rummel’s judgment was provoked in large part by the public dissent of the three who questioned his authority over church matters such as Catholic schools. …

Nicholas Cafardi, a canon and civil lawyer from Pittsburgh, noted that the archbishop was acting within the Code of Canon Law of 1917, which was quicker to enforce punishments than the revised 1983 code.

The 1983 code, said Mr. Cafardi, prescribes that the power to deny Communion rests with the pastor of those who face that penalty. Mr. Biden, he added, would not be punished for arguing against church teaching but for failing to implement a particular legal response to the abortion issue.

Interesting. Under the so-called “McCarrick doctrine” (click here for background), decisions about the sacramental status of Catholics who — in word and deed — oppose church teachings have been delegated to the bishop of the controversial Catholic’s home diocese.

Whatever your views on this subject, this America piece is worth filing as background as the Eucharistic coherence debates continue.

Read it all.

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