Bishops warn elected Catholic Politicians who back abortion rights are 'seriously mistaken'

November 19, 1998|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Roman Catholics, particularly public officials, who support abortion rights cannot be considered faithful members of the church, the nation's bishops said in a document they approved yesterday.

In the strongly worded "Living the Gospel of Life: A Challenge to American Catholics," the members of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops said that Catholic politicians who say they oppose abortion but are reluctant to foist their views on constituents are "seriously mistaken."

"No public official, especially one claiming to be a faithful and serious Catholic, can responsibly advocate for or actively support direct attacks on innocent human life," the document said.

The bishops' position on abortion has often been stated before. But the document approved yesterday, at the bishops' semiannual meeting in Washington, is the first time that the bishops sent such a message specifically to elected officials.

In Maryland, several high-profile public officials are Catholic and have supported abortion rights. They include Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, Rep. Constance A. Morella, Gov. Parris N. Glendening, Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend and Maryland Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller.

Telephone calls to most of these officials were not returned. An aide for Mikulski said that she would not be available for comment but that "her record speaks for itself."

Instead of publicly denouncing Catholic public officials, the document counsels bishops that "a private call to conversion should always be the first step in dealing with leaders."

Baltimore's Cardinal William H. Keeler, who was elected this week to chair the bishops' Committee on Pro-Life Activities, which wrote the document approved yesterday, agreed with the low-key approach. The document "gives us some guidelines for our dialogue" with legislators who favor abortion rights, he said. "But public challenge, no. The first thing it advises is private discussion."

Although it uses sharp language, the document does not advocate sanctions for Catholic public officials who stray from .. church teaching. Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston, who has been chairman of the Committee on Pro-Life Activities, said the

document is a teaching tool and not something that should spark a witch hunt against errant politicians. "People who are looking for sanctions in this document will be disappointed," he said.

Although there is no new teaching in the document, Law said, what is new is "that we are acting in consort in a very focused way on this issue."

But an earlier draft of "Living the Gospel of Life" did include a phrase stating that bishops should do "whatever else may be pastorally required" to convince politicians to follow Catholic teaching. That phrase was deleted from the final draft because some bishops interpreted that wording as encouraging sanctions or canonical punishment of public officials.

One approach for dealing with public officials at odds with Catholic doctrine, suggested Bishop Joseph A. Galante of Beaumont, Texas, would be to ask them not to accept speaking invitations at Catholic institutions and to instruct officials who lead those institutions not to invite them.

An example occurred last week, when Seton Hall University officials ordered a student-sponsored event featuring New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman to be held off campus because of her support of abortion rights.

'Consider the consequences'

In the document, public officials are warned that they could be jeopardizing their salvation by flouting church doctrine.

"We urge those Catholic officials who choose to depart from church teaching on the inviolability of human life in their public life to consider the consequences for their own spiritual well-being, as well as the scandal they risk by leading others into serious sin," the document said.

"We call on them to reflect on the grave contradiction of assuming public roles and presenting themselves as credible Catholics when their actions on fundamental issues of human life are not in agreement with church teaching."

Catholic bishops say they have both a right and a responsibility to criticize politicians who stray from church prohibitions against such "sanctity of life" issues as abortion and euthanasia.

"As chief teachers in the church, we must therefore explain, persuade, correct and admonish those in leadership positions who contradict the gospel of life through their actions and policies," the document said.

Anti-Catholicism fears raised

One bishop, however, expressed concern. Bishop Howard J. Hubbard of Albany, N.Y., said he fears that such a directive from the nation's bishops to Catholic politicians could trigger a wave of anti-Catholicism, particularly if the clerics are seen to be dictating to officials what positions they can and cannot espouse.

The officials, Hubbard said, "could well be accused of caving in to the dictates of the church, a tool of the bishops," he said in debate before the vote.

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