Bishops debate politics, church

Task force discusses denying Communion to politicians whose views clash with teachings


LOS ANGELES -- It is one of the most sensitive questions American Catholic bishops have wrestled with the past few years: When Catholic public officials do not follow church teachings, should they be denied Holy Communion?

So it was no surprise when the question was posed to Washington's cardinal, Theodore E. McCarrick, after he addressed bishops last week on the topic of Catholic politicians.

Many bishops have talked to Catholic lawmakers whose views clash with the church, said Archbishop Elden F. Curtiss, of Omaha, Neb. "After we've made the effort, what do we do if the conclusion is not positive?"

The answer: It's a bishop's judgment call.

Still, it was clear where McCarrick and his Task Force on Catholic Bishops and Catholic Politicians stood. Bishops, they believe, should not try to force the hands of politicians by withholding Communion.

"We are in this together," McCarrick said, reading to the national gathering of bishops from his final report. "This is a time for respect for our common duties and different pastoral judgments as bishops, but most of all for building our unity as a body of bishops, recognizing how our individual actions affect other bishops and our entire community of faith."

St. Louis Archbishop Raymond Burke and a handful of other bishops have gone further than McCarrick would like and have used the Eucharist to bargain with Catholic politicians.

With a high-profile stem cell initiative being debated in the state and a Senate race that features a Catholic Democrat who supports embryonic stem cell research and abortion rights, the issue is likely to come up over the summer.

As bishops gathered here last week for their annual summer meeting, changes in the Roman Catholic liturgy got the most attention. But on Thursday, McCarrick issued his final report on Catholic politicians.

McCarrick's task force was set up to study how a 2003 Vatican document, called "Doctrinal Note on Some Questions Regarding the Participation of Catholics in Political Life," would be put into practice in the U.S.

Specifically, the task force was to address how bishops should handle American Catholic lawmakers who legislate contrary to church teaching.

McCarrick said his task force surveyed all U.S. bishops on their own policies, consulted with moral theologians and church lawyers, met with retired Catholic politicians, contacted bishops in other countries and consulted the Vatican.

In 2004, when Burke said he would deny Holy Communion to Democratic candidate John Kerry, he said he was only following the Vatican directive.

The Vatican note insists that "a well-formed Christian conscience does not permit one to vote for a political program or an individual law which contradicts the fundamental contents of faith and morals."

But the overwhelming majority of the bishops either stayed silent on the topic or took a more cautious, conciliatory approach.

Burke turned down an interview request at the bishops conference here last week, but in December 2003, he told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch: "I would consider it my duty, for their sake. ... Any Catholic who takes a public position contrary to the teachings of the church must refrain from taking Holy Communion."

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