Church politics

May 26, 2004

CATHOLIC BISHOPS can say what they want in ministering to their flocks. But when they refuse to serve politicians Communion because they hold views antithetical to church teachings, bishops are wielding a holy sacrament as a clumsy, political weapon.

Publicly sanctioning parishioners -- whether they are a presidential candidate, a schoolteacher, or a factory worker -- for their political beliefs may be within the bounds of canon law, but it serves neither the church nor democracy well.

The controversy erupted earlier this month when four of the country's 300 Catholic bishops threatened to withhold Communion from Catholic politicians whose views on abortion differ from those of the church. Bishop Michael J. Sheridan of Colorado Springs, Colo., went further in a pastoral letter by saying Catholics should not receive Communion if they vote for politicians who support abortion, stem cell research, euthanasia or same-sex marriages.

Archbishop Raymond L. Burke of St. Louis said flatly that he would refuse to give communion to Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry. Another 15 bishops advised pro-abortion rights Catholic politicians to voluntarily refrain from receiving Communion.

Their public threats have upset Catholics who view the bishops' focus on abortion rights as disingenuous. Why focus on abortion rights as a test of faith? Surely, those politicians -- or parishioners -- who oppose the church's views on contraception, the death penalty and the war in Iraq could be called to account as well.

Forty-eight Catholic lawmakers raised that very point in a letter to Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington, D.C., chairman of a bishop's task force on Catholic political life. The members of Congress, from House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California to Rep. Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts, were absolutely correct. If the church wants to punish those who don't adhere to its teachings, that is its right. But taking this stand in an election year, when the candidate opposing an anti-abortion rights president is a pro-abortion rights Catholic, exposes the bishops' threat for what it is -- political maneuvering.

Their focus on abortion, to the exclusion of other issues important to the Catholic Church, raises questions about the bishops' motivation and mission. Is Bishop Sheridan going to ask parishioners how they voted before he gives them Communion? Of course not, which exposes the hollowness of his threat and the political impetus for it.

Lawmakers, whatever their beliefs, represent people of all faiths. In a democracy, they can choose to set aside their personal beliefs in deference to the community, or they can choose to vote their religious conscience. That's the beauty of America.

Religious freedom is a founding principle of this country -- but so is political freedom.

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