“Catholic Members of Congress Express Concern Over Church Sanctions,” the press-release headline blared.  Finally, I thought, Catholic politicians are waking up to the increasingly tight legal restrictions being brought to bear on religious groups.  After all, California and New York recently passed laws that force Catholic hospitals to provide contraception as part of their health insurance, and Massachusetts drove Catholic Charities from the adoption business.  Or perhaps, I hoped, they were advocating for relief of the Church abroad, in China or the Middle East.  These days, strong sanctions are being imposed upon the Church and, indirectly, on those to whom She ministers.

I was wrong.  It turned out that 18 esteemed Democrats (including, of course, a Kennedy—this time, Patrick of Rhode Island) had issued a publicity-grabbing nonsense “statement” that does nothing other than reiterate what should be obvious: They are not going to let Church teaching stand in the way of their ambition.  The members express “concern” that Pope Benedict XVI would take seriously the Church’s views on abortion and that Catholic politicians who express or support pro-choice views were risking excommunication and should be barred from Communion.  While traveling to Brazil, the Pope had said as much—which was nothing more than a restatement of the Church’s teaching.

The statement disingenuously proclaims solidarity with the Church’s teaching on “the undesirability of abortion—we do not celebrate its practice.”  And here the rubes out in the pews thought the Church opposed the practice in toto as an evil, when all along, She just wanted no parties or banner waving in celebration of this “undesirable” practice.  It must be good to be a congressperson, immune from the dictates of logic, catechesis, or common sense.

The statement concludes by saying that the “religious sanction” of excommunication or refusal of Communion “directly conflicts with our fundamental beliefs about the role and responsibility of democratic representatives in a pluralistic America.”  These Catholic politicians apparently believe that vox populi—at least as expressed in the editorial pages of the New York Times—really is the vox Dei, and that they are bound to ignore the Church and place their consciences on the shelf as long as they are in public office.  Of course, this position makes no sense, as Edmund Burke long ago opined before the electors of Bristol.  A representative is not a mere agent of the mass, which cannot, by its nature, be of one mind.  While Burke agreed that, in general, a representative ought to put his constituents first, “[y]our representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.”  For a “pluralistic” society, by definition, has people of differing views within it; such diversity of opinion does not mandate that a Catholic politician take a stance understood by his Church to be furthering error.  The signatories’ stirring defense of their lack of principle also contradicts their earlier invocation of a presumably nonnegotiable commitment to the “dignity of life,” but this, too, has gone unnoticed.

The statement darkly intoned that the Pope’s comment “also clashes with freedoms guaranteed in our Constitution.”  These congresspeople must be reading a different Constitution, because the one that actually exists as a governing document places no restrictions on a private institution disciplining its own members on a principle of religious belief.  Indeed, some may have been excused for thinking that allowing churches to exercise their faith in such a manner was at the heart of that quaint “freedom of religion” the First Amendment was designed to protect.

Unfortunately, the Church too quickly backed away from the fight.  The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops was quick to assure everyone that the Pope had been misrepresented and that no one had been excommunicated.  While its response did include a sentence asserting the Church’s right to declare Her teachings publicly, it ended with a lukewarm call for politicians to “educate themselves about the teaching of the Church.”  Of course, the teaching in question is not especially obscure, and it would take little time to learn it.  And at least some of the statement’s signatories were educated at Catholic colleges, so they may have picked up the basics (or at least the telephone number for the theology department) that they could share with their cosigners.

And there is the rub: The members here know exactly what the teaching is and need no further “education” about it.  Given these circumstances, the Church should take whatever disciplinary steps She deems necessary, in the interest of charity and pastoral care, in response to this flouting of Her teaching for political gain.  Despite what the members of Congress might think, such action does not violate the Constitution—at least, not yet.