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The Catholic Church has a Long History of Trying to Discipline Catholic Politicians (But Little Success)

On June 18, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops voted 168-55 to create guidelines on the meaning of Holy Communion following an impassioned debate over whether to deny the sacrament to politicians who support abortion rights. The debate isn’t new. Bishops long have excoriated politicians because of their support for access to abortion. But it has taken on new visibility with Joe Biden — the first Catholic president since John F. Kennedy — in the White House. Some within the church argue that refusing the Eucharist to pro-choice politicians is for their own good, an effort to save a wayward parishioner from consuming the body and blood of Christ in a state of sin. But others see it as a highly political act on the part of a church whose tax-exempt status precludes political involvement.

However, the tensions between the Catholic Church and government leaders run even deeper than recent debates over abortion. In fact, the Catholic Church has a long history of using the sacraments to discipline and control political leaders. At stake, then and now, is influence over the hearts, minds and behavior of the Catholic faithful. Political leaders want the imprimatur that approval by religious authorities confers, while the church wants secular rulers to carry out their preferred policies.

Once Roman emperors converted to Christianity, secular and religious authorities struggled for the upper hand. In the Middle Ages and beyond, prelates — high church officials — tried to force kings to submit to Roman Catholic teachings and to acknowledge church primacy. For example, during the Investiture Controversy of the late 11th century, a heated dispute emerged over whether secular rulers or popes should appoint church bishops and abbots. In the end, a compromise was reached that effectively allowed rulers to choose church officials, while the pope invested them with their religious authority. Church dignitaries played too important a governmental role in medieval Europe for kings to cede all control over their selection.

Yet, popes had three potent tools at their disposal to discipline insubordinate political authorities: excommunication (when a sinner is banished from the religious community), deposition (when a pope declares an individual unfit for office and deposes him) and interdiction (which bans celebration of the sacraments in the lands of a renegade monarch). Their willingness to employ these tactics usually depended on the political context, and the particular pope’s appetite for conflict.

Fights over marital practices and morals were perhaps the most contentious battles. At a time when marriage served political ends, medieval European rulers frequently would set aside wives who could not bear children or those who were no longer politically useful. The church, however, viewed marriage as indissoluble and would sometimes refuse to recognize the divorce and subsequent new marriage, threatening the monarch with spiritual sanctions that could lessen his legitimacy in the eyes of his subjects.

Annulment — a procedure declaring a marriage null and void because of a preexisting impediment to its validity — eventually became the workaround that allowed political elites to rid themselves of unsatisfactory spouses while still publicly adhering to church law. But this didn’t always work. When Pope Clement VII refused to allow Henry VIII to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon, Henry asserted control over the Church of England by creating the Anglican Church. His handpicked archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cramner, approved the dissolution of Henry’s marriage to Catherine and crowned his new wife, Anne Boleyn, as queen, cementing England’s break from Rome.

Read entire article at Made By History at the Washington Post