De-forming Consciences

“Voting for a pro-abortion politician when a plausible pro-life alternative exists constitutes material cooperation with intrinsic evil, and those Catholics who do so place themselves outside of full communion with Christ’s Church and under the judgment of divine law. Persons in this condition should not receive Holy Communion until and unless they are reconciled to God in the Sacrament of Penance, lest they eat and drink their own condemnation.”

Who wrote these words? You might guess Joseph Ratzinger, before he became Benedict XVI, on several occasions, not only about voting for pro-abortion politicians, but about those politicians themselves, if they claim to be Catholics. In fact, the words were written by Fr. J. H. Scott Newman, pastor of St. Mary’s Church in Greenville, South Carolina, and inserted into the parish bulletin last Sunday. Fr. Newman was merely expressing the widespread, longstanding, and clear moral understanding of the Church. No good deed, as we know, goes unpunished. Fr. Newman did so good a deed that he’s been rebuked, not only by the usual media suspects, but by the Charleston diocesan administrator.

I have known Scott Newman since his freshman year at Princeton and would personally vouch for his every word. The managing editor of the magazine I ran back then identified him as a promising new student within days of his arrival on campus. He wrote some unusually mature and perceptive articles. I was not wholly surprised when he later decided to become a Catholic, and I was honored to be his sponsor. Scott subsequently worked in the Caribbean under Bishop Sean O’Malley, before going to Rome, where he became president of his seminary class – also not much of surprise.

He’s not only smart, holy, gifted in working with people, but humble. When the controversy arose, he received 5000 emails, “Most of the people who wrote seem to regard me as either a mighty champion of reform or an evil tool of the devil, and I am naturally hesitant to accept either title. In truth, I am but a useless servant of the Lord Jesus trying, despite my frailty, to be a faithful witness to Him Who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.” He also pointed out that he had not named any particular candidates in the original statement or, as was misreported by the Associated Press, “denied” anyone Communion.

A shrewd man, Fr. Newman put things in writing. After the bulletin appeared, The Greenville News asked him: “Are you saying that you’ll administer a no-communion policy unless Obama voters partake in penance?” He wrote in reply:

I cannot and will not refuse Holy Communion to anyone because of his or her political opinions or choices, even as I continue to teach what the Church teaches about the necessity of being in full, visible communion with the Church before receiving the sacraments. Only those who believe what the Catholic Church teaches and who seek to live according to that teaching should even be interested in receiving the sacraments of the Church, and on the question of the intrinsic and grave evil of abortion, there is and can be no doubt about what the Church teaches.

That “cannot” reflects Fr. Newman’s proper recognition of the Church’s teaching and his overall reply should have put an end to the matter.

The Catholic Thing has noticed how the national media have taken it upon themselves to reinterpret or ignore hard facts this election season – and now beyond. The AP story was an outrage, by simple journalistic standards, and the fact that the “priest denies Obama voters Communion” story was picked up by ABC and other outlets shows how uncritical our media have become. (Recall, in recent weeks, two young bloggers – Eitan Gorlin and Daniel Mirvish — created a fictional adviser to the McCain campaign, Martin Eisenstadt, and fabricated a story, widely picked up by sympathetic media, that Sarah Palin did not know Africa was a continent.) But the Newman story was not more of an outrage than several dozen others about religion and politics over past months.

What was truly unusual about Fr. Newman’s case was that his own diocese, trying to clarify the situation, has actually furthered confused American Catholic laity, precisely on the crucial matter of conscience. The administrator of the Charleston Diocese, Monsignor Martin T. Loughlin, wrongly construed the case from faulty news reports and publicly repudiated Fr. Newman. He quoted from The Catechism of the Catholic Church that we have the right to act freely in conscience. True enough. But he then went on to say: “Christ gives us freedom to explore our own conscience and to make our own decisions while adhering to the law of God and the teachings of the faith. Therefore, if a person has formed his or her conscience well, he or she should not be denied Communion, nor be told to go to confession before receiving Communion.”

Technically true, but saying this in an America where everyone already has an inflated sense of his right to his or her own opinion – without a very strong warning that a well-formed conscience means serious prayer and study that will take the average American Catholic a good distance from our popular ethos – translates in public as the Biden-Pelosi school of theology, a Catholic Church accepting of the notion of the sovereign self and, in consequence, moral relativism. Like it or not, that’s how our fellow citizens understand such statements. In other words, they’ve now had their consciences further de-formed.

Fr. Newman’s parishioners came to Mass in large numbers this weekend and applauded so long when he began his homily that they only quieted down when he turned and knelt to the Blessed Sacrament. If you want to know what properly formed consciences are like and what they do, that’s the real story – which you won’t hear about from the AP or ABC.

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing, and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His latest book is The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the West.

(c) 2008 The Catholic Thing. All rights reserved. For reprint rights write to: info at thecatholicthing dot org

  • Richard A

    I understand that St. Gerard Majella and St. John Vianney could “read” consciences. Unless Fr. Newman is also blessed with that “gift” – which was not reported to be the case – how could he deny communion to one who presented himself? Isn’t voting in South Carolina done by secret ballot?

  • Robert

    Richard, please re-read the column. The whole point is that Ff. Newman did NOT deny Communion to anyone, but was falsely represented as doing so — he acknowledged that he “cannot” deny anyone Communion. Either the false reports were woefully sloppy or something even worse.

  • Joe

    It looks like BXVI did actually write that statement, unless the Priests for Life people added in the Nota Bene to his letter:

  • Marie

    Fr. Newman is a gift to the Church and the world. Too bad many are missing the point, including it seems, the administrator of the Charleston Diocese, Monsignor Martin T. Loughlin. Who rebukes him for blowing the oportunity to confirm Church teaching, share the beauty of the sacraments, and support a priest for the compassion, mercy and goodness that he obviously embodies? I certainly don’t want to provide the media with more to distort but where is the Bishop’s voice during this?

  • Nancy Danielson

    Thank you ,Father Newman, for speaking the Truth. A person with a well formed conscience would never support the gruesome act of abortion from the start.

  • Virginia Hoyns

    How can we conquer the moral decay in our country unless we have a good priest speak out with being rebuked. We had better look within our church immediately to rid ourselves of this timidity. Thank you Fr. Newmann for speaking out.

  • Bill

    It seems to this observer that the long communion lines and the short or absent confession lines would indicate that the development of a proper conscience is an exercise in relatavism. This is a sign of our postmodern culture? Sometimes, unfortunetly, I think we have a postmodern episcopacy. Aren’t there some absolute Christian truths that are not subject to equivication?

  • Gail

    Thank you, Mr. Royal for the most accurate and sane presentation I have read regarding this matter, and your more intimate knowledge our our shepard at St. Marys is most appreciated. We are blessed to have a parish priest of such intelligence,diligence, and uncompromised understanding of his duties to this parish and to his flock.

  • Michael Fragoso

    “…Some men, by rejecting the guidance of conscience have made a shipreck of their faith….” 1Tim 1:19

  • Marie

    I really hope and pray that the Diocese of Charleston can use this great media glare teaching moment in a way that shows solidarity and strength and beauty of the Church in all its glory and all the joy it offers. How can we expect people to turn to the Church as a solid rock to stand on when we sound like shifting, sinking sand? Clearly, this story is in the spotlight because abortion is – though many would like to deny it – a great challenge to the conscience of America.

  • Paul Q

    Richard A!

    You haven’t read carefully. Fr. Newman denied communion to no one. He merely stated that those who had voted for a pro-abortion candidate, when a plausible pro-life altnerative was available, were materially complicit in an intinsic evil. As such they should refrain from communion until they have gone to confession. He didn’t withold the Sacrament from anyone. Those who voted for pro-abortion candidates were warned, but not prevented from communing.

  • Roger V

    The Pope has said the Iraq war “threatens all of humanity” and unequivocally condemns the violence of war. Should we extend our voting conscience to this issue also? What if one political candidate loves war more than the other candidate loves abortion?

  • Sam

    Would that we had more like Fr Newman! I believe it was St Josemaria Escriva that said “this time is a crisis of saints,” meaning that we need more. I know Fr Newman would flee from any suggestion that he’s saintly, but his actions in service to the truth certainly have that odor of sanctity. I’m praying for him and all of us as we enter these dark days.

  • PMcGrath


    TO: The Congregation of Bishops
    c/o The Apostolic Palace
    Vatican City State

    FROM: Me

    RE: Father Jay Scott Newman

    Would you guys please measure him for a miter? Now? We’ve got a bunch of open dioceses in this country that need a major butt-kicking, and Father N. is the butt-kickingest pastor in America right now. And I mean any Christian pastor, not just Roman Catholic.

    Personnel is policy, as they say, and if you want the pastor in America who can best run the B16 playbook, Father N. is your go-to padre.

  • Bev

    Beverly O\\\
    Thank you for making clear Fr. Newman’s position. Isn’t there any way ABC an AP can be given the straight information, and correct what they have reported? Don’t they want to be professionals, and not an adjunct of the National Enquireror? I think us Catholic/Christians have to come to grips with the fact that we are a true “Sign of Contradiction.” Never more so than now.
    And we will be defamed…always. But we can offer that as a pleasing fragrance, for the love of Jesus and Mary.

  • Dean Herrick

    Thank you!

  • Ramona Haywood

    Kudos and blessings for Fr. Newman and others like him. I am not aparticularly saintly Catholic, but he is right on about being pro-abortion and communion. Ramona Haywood

  • Richard Zesig

    Father, of course, is right on! I think this line of reasoning should also be applied to the political parties in this Country. Time, treasure or talent should not be given to a party denying justice to the unborn when there is another that supports justice for all.