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Bishops take stand against Kerry view on abortion

Any decision by Massachusetts Senator John F

Any decision by Massachusetts Senator John F. Kerry to receive Communion at Mass is likely to be a controversial action, a line drawn in the sand of conflict between the presumptive Democratic nominee for president and his church over its teachings on the contentious issue of abortion, writes Charlotte Allen

That is because over the past few months, several prominent US Catholic bishops, including Sean O'Malley, archbishop of Kerry's hometown of Boston, have decided finally to take a stand against Catholic politicians who support abortion rights. Like many Catholic politicians in this age when the majority of Americans support legal abortion to some degree - and when the backing of abortion-rights groups can be critical to a candidate's electoral success - Kerry distinguishes between what he calls his personal opposition to abortion and his legislative support of unrestricted abortion.

The bishops want to make clear that Catholic politicians who defy the church's teachings on grave moral issues are not in good standing as Catholics and are thus ineligible for Communion. For a Catholic, being barred from the Eucharist is tantamount to excommunication. In fact, it is excommunication: the denial of the church's central sacrament and hence full participation in the Catholic community.

So far, only one US Catholic bishop, Raymond Burke, the newly installed Archbishop of St Louis, has said explicitly that he would refuse to give Communion to Kerry on the basis of the senator's stance on abortion. He warned the candidate a few days before the Missouri primary election on February 3rd "not to present himself for Communion" in St Louis area churches while campaigning. (Kerry finessed the issue by attending a Sunday service at a Baptist church in St Louis.) Archbishop O'Malley, replacing Cardinal Bernard F. Law, who resigned last year amid the Boston archdiocese's sexual abuse scandal, hasn't named Kerry specifically, but has been quoted as saying that Catholic politicians whose political views contradict Catholic teaching "shouldn't dare come to Communion". Ironically, Kerry and Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts's other Catholic Democratic senator and also a supporter of abortion rights, received the sacrament at the archbishop's installation Mass last July.

Archbishop O'Malley's stance marks a major departure from the passivity and confusion with which most American Catholic bishops have approached - and in many cases still approach - the conundrum of the Catholic politician who professes to be "personally opposed" to abortion but then, like Kerry, votes for abortion rights.

During most of the 31 years since the Supreme Court's decision in Roe vs Wade, legalising nearly all abortions, the overwhelming majority of the 275 Catholic prelates in America have shied away from imposing anything resembling a sanction on Catholic politicians whose votes do not support Catholic teachings on moral issues.

Times have changed, however. In January 2003, Bishop William K. Weigand of Sacramento ordered the Catholic governor of California, Gray Davis, whose administration boasted of making California "the most pro-choice state in America", either to change his views or to stop receiving Communion. (A Davis spokesman responded that the bishop was "telling the faithful how to practise their faith", and that the governor would continue to take Communion.)

A few months later, the Weekly Standard reported that Senate minority leader Tom Daschle, who also supports abortion rights, had received a private letter from Bishop Robert J. Carlson of Daschle's home diocese of Sioux Falls, South Dakota, instructing the senator to remove all references to himself as a Catholic from his congressional biography and campaign literature. (The bishop subsequently declined to comment except to say he had been in communication with Daschle, and Daschle, who also refused to comment, continues to identify himself as a Catholic.)

Bishop Burke, who headed the diocese of LaCrosse, Wisconsin, before his move to St Louis early this year, sent letters to three Catholic legislators living in his Wisconsin diocese warning them in private that they were jeopardising their standing in the church by their consistent votes in support of abortion. One impetus for the sudden energising of the bishops is a Vatican document on the participation of Catholics in political life, issued in January 2003. The "doctrinal note", as it is called, was addressed to Catholic bishops, politicians and other members of the laity who participate in political life.

Pope John Paul II had made it clear in a 1995 encyclical, Evangelium vitae, that Catholic citizens of democracies have an obligation to oppose laws that conflict with Catholic moral teaching on such issues as abortion and euthanasia. But the newer doctrinal note was unprecedented in its specific repudiation of the "personally opposed, but ..." option for Catholic politicians. The statement declared that Catholic teaching on abortion and the sanctity of marriage are not "confessional values" unique to Catholicism but "ethical precepts ... rooted in human nature itself". Catholic lawmakers, the document said, have a duty not to enact laws "which ignore the principles of natural ethics and yield to ephemeral cultural and moral trends".

Nonetheless, most bishops are still reluctant to respond publicly to Catholic politicians whose views contradict church teaching - for all kinds of reasons. One is that Canon 915 of church law makes clear that public denial of Communion is a punishment of last resort, to be invoked only against those who "obstinately persist in manifest grave sin". This suggests the bishop should contact the offender privately first. Moreover, the word "manifest" implies that such a form of ostracism is an inappropriate sanction against mere private citizens who disobey church teachings in their private lives. Then there is the perception that the recent sex scandals have robbed US bishops of their moral authority. Another reason may be that many politicians who support abortion rights are politically liberal on other issues, such as welfare and the death penalty, and thus perhaps acceptable to an episcopate whose members tend to be politically liberal themselves.

But the most likely reason is that excommunication so far has proved to be a two-edged sword. In 1989, Bishop Leo T. Maher of San Diego, California, forbade Lucy Killea, a former California Democratic assembly member who was a Catholic and was running for the state Senate, to receive Communion in his diocese because of her opposition to abortion restrictions. Killea cast herself as a martyr of conscience and flew to Sacramento, whose ultraliberal bishop at the time, Francis A. Quinn, assured her that she would not be denied the Eucharist in his diocese.

Killea won that election - and after the trouncing of Bishop Maher, few bishops until recently have considered following his example. Indeed, Kerry may be counting on a Killea-style national reaction should a Catholic priest ever turn him away in the Communion line. In a New York Times interview last week, Kerry declared with evident irritation that "our constitution separates church and state", and that the Catholic Church's Second Vatican Council of the 1960s had allowed for "freedom of conscience" for Catholics with respect to choices concerning issues such as abortion rights and same-sex marriage.

Kerry has defied the Vatican on other issues (by supporting gay unions, for example). But truth be told, he probably has little to worry about in terms of lost votes from all but the most faithful Catholics. Even among the 45 per cent of Catholics who attend Mass weekly or more often, fewer than one-third said in a 1999 poll conducted by the National Catholic Reporter that they thought church leaders should have the final say on the abortion issue. "People just don't like the idea of bishops telling them how to vote," says Philip Lawler, editor of Catholic World Report, a conservative Catholic magazine.

Undoubtedly for this reason, even Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, a prominent church conservative, said last week he was not ready to deny Communion to Catholic politicians who take positions on abortion rights that are contrary to church law.

Most other US Catholic bishops are so far imitating his caution - and his discretion. But the very fact that some are speaking out is evidence of a shift that may well lead to a time when Catholic politicians have to be concerned not only about the political consequences of their votes, but also the religious consequences. Which is as it should be. - LA Times-Washington Post

Charlotte Allen, who co-edits the InkWell Blog for the Independent Women's Forum, is the author of The Human Christ: The Search for the Historical Jesus (Free Press)