Addressing a national controversy for the first time, Baltimore's Cardinal William H. Keeler said he opposes an attempt by some bishops to politicize Communion and deny the sacrament to Catholic politicians who support abortion rights.
Keeler said in an interview this week that it was not the business of bishops to choose who receives Communion. Instead, he said he supports church policy that individual Catholics should determine whether they are in a state of grace with the church before partaking in the Eucharist, the heart of Catholic worship.
"Our position is ... Catholics have a responsibility to examine their own conscience and see if they are in a state that is appropriate for the reception of the sacrament," he said. "We don't need bishops to get into the act."
In recent months, several bishops have said they would not give Communion to politicians who support a woman's right to an abortion, which violates church teaching on the sanctity of life.
At least one, Archbishop Raymond L. Burke of St. Louis, singled out Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry by name, saying he would not give the sacrament to the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee.
Keeler would not say whether he would give Communion to Kerry, but he strongly suggested that he would. With five months to go before Election Day, Keeler also expressed concern about bishops involving themselves in a national political race.
"We have said again and again as bishops, we are not in partisan politics," Keeler said. "We dare not be pulled into a dispute between one party and another."
The debate over linking Communion to politics seems unlikely to subside soon.
Earlier this week, Cardinal Francis George of Chicago said he had instructed priests not to give Communion to gay-rights protesters who might wear rainbow-colored sashes to churches this weekend. George said he wasn't denying the Eucharist to the protesters because they are gay, but because they are trying to politicize the sacrament.
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, the church's national leadership group, has set up a task force to address how the bishops relate to Catholic politicians, but it is not expected to report for several months.
While not new in the Roman Catholic Church, the debate over tying Communion to abortion has re-emerged with greater ferocity as conservative bishops found a high-profile target in Kerry, who is expected to become the first Catholic nominee for president from a major party in more than four decades.
The controversy raises difficult questions about the authority of church and state and the role of faith in politics. It comes at an awkward time for Catholic leaders trying to rebuild trust and moral standing after the priest sex abuse scandal.
"It's moronic," said Ted G. Jelen, professor of political science at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. "This is a crucial moment for the American church, and I think those bishops are handling it very badly."
Influence in Rome
In addition to four bishops who oppose extending Communion to abortion-rights politicians, 17 others have said that such politicians should voluntarily abstain from the Eucharist, according to an informal phone poll by Catholics for a Free Choice. Although those who oppose abortion-rights politicians taking Communion represent a fraction of the nation's 300 Catholic bishops, they appear to have some support in Rome.
Cardinal Francis Arinze of Nigeria, who is often mentioned as a potential successor to Pope John Paul II, said recently that a priest should refuse Communion to a politician who is unambiguously pro-abortion.
It is a sign of how American Catholicism and U.S. politics have evolved over the decades that a debate over abortion and Communion is surfacing as the country prepares for an election.
In 1960, voters questioned whether John F. Kennedy was too Catholic to be president. Today, some conservative bishops ask whether John Kerry is Catholic enough.
Not since Kennedy's bid for the White House, when some voters feared he would take direction from the pope, has the question of following faith over politics received such attention in a presidential race.
Analysts say the bishops are using Kerry to publicize and politicize long-standing concerns about faith and society. Among them: increasing permissiveness regarding sexuality and the sanctity of life, as well as what they see as the hypocrisy of Catholic politicians who say they oppose abortion personally, but not officially.
Turn back the clock
John Kenneth White, a professor of politics at Catholic University in Washington, D.C., says the bishops want to return to a time when there was a strong moral consensus in the country and religious leaders commanded respect and authority:
"What they would like to do, if they could, is turn back the clock entirely to 1959."