C-ap 2013-12-25 16:01:42
From John Kerry to the governors of Indiana and New Jersey,
Roman Catholic politicians are being challenged by bishops in a new
and tougher way this election season over their stance on abortion.
Some bishops have taken the radical step of declaring that
officials who support abortion rights shouldn’t receive Holy
Communion, and one has even said he’d personally refuse Kerry at the
Critics think such tactics are fraught with risks. The
hierarchy could be seen as partisan, or morally suspect in the wake
of the clergy s** abuse crisis. A backlash could even hurt the
anti-abortion cause, or boost Kerry.
Historian John McGreevy, author of “Catholicism and American
Freedom,” says the church is on “new ground. The bishops have to
figure out what they want to do, and Kerry needs to figure how to
It’s quite a change from the Catholic pride during the 1960
campaign of John F. Kennedy, the only Catholic president and the
last church member even in position to win the White House.
Since the Supreme Court legalized abortion in 1973, the only
Catholic on a major party ticket has been Geraldine Ferraro in 1984.
Cardinal John O’Connor criticized Ferraro for her abortion stance,
while then-New York Gov. Mario Cuomo defended Catholic politicians’
choices — anticipating the debate of 2004.
This latest confrontation has been building for several
In 1998, a declaration from the U.S. bishops’ conference
said it’s a “grave contradiction” for politicians to claim to be
“credible Catholics” yet disagree with the church on a fundamental
matter like “direct attacks on innocent human life.” But that left
open exactly what the church should do about it.
Then, last year, a Vatican doctrinal decree directed at
Catholic politicians said a well-formed conscience forbids support
for any law that contradicts “fundamental” morality, with abortion
listed first among relevant issues. A second Vatican statement said
it’s “gravely immoral” not to oppose legalization of same-s** unions
— another matter on which Kerry and the hierarchy disagree.
Bishop William Weigand of Sacramento, Calif., then upped the
ante, saying then-Gov. Gray Davis should renounce support for
abortion rights or have the “integrity” to “abstain from receiving
The Vatican’s Cardinal Francis Arinze, Archbishop Alfred
Hughes of New Orleans and Archbishop John Myers of Newark, N.J.,
have since said the same without naming names, as has Kerry’s own
archbishop, Sean O’Malley of Boston.
But such statements effectively let individuals decide
whether to receive Communion, and O’Malley has specifically said he
wouldn’t refuse the sacrament to Kerry.
St. Louis Archbishop Raymond Burke, however, said just
before the Missouri primary that he would not serve Communion if
Kerry came to him at the altar.
“Catholic bishops have the right to deny John Kerry
Communion,” McGreevy acknowledges, but it’s a “terrible mistake” to
do so because Catholic politicians face such complex decisions.
The Rev. Thomas Reese of America magazine says Communion
bans could make abortion seem a matter of Catholic doctrine rather
than general human rights. And author-columnist Peter Steinfels
warns that a hard line could make American Catholics imitate
Europeans’ “nonchalant anticlericalism, that just brushes off church
teachings in public affairs.”
Without raising the Communion issue, other bishops have
denounced pro-choice Catholic politicians, either in general or by
name (Indiana Gov. Joe Kernan, New Jersey Gov. James McGreevey). And
Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle’s bishop asked him to remove
mention of Catholic membership in campaign literature.
Democrats and liberals note that George W. Bush’s policies
violate bishops’ pronouncements on many matters. But Catholicism’s
aversion to abortion is more absolute and the issues more clear-cut
than with foreign or economic policies.
To a conservative like Deal Hudson, editor of Crisis
magazine and a Bush campaign adviser, it would be “disastrous” if
Kerry, “with such aggressive pro-abortion policies,” becomes the
world’s most prominent Catholic politician. He thinks bishops should
stress their nonpartisanship, but denounce Kerry’s abortion dissent
in letters read from every pulpit in the land.
With few exceptions, he complains, “pro-abortion Democrats
have had a free ride from the hierarchy for 30 years.”
Other militants want abortion rights supporters barred from
campaigning at Catholic institutions. In 2000, Bishop James Timlin
of Scranton, Pa., disinvited Al Gore from a hospital and thereafter
the candidate was barely seen in Catholic venues.
But Reese says that’s difficult with Catholic colleges,
which are mostly controlled by religious orders, not bishops, and
favor open forums. Reese says the strongest protests erupt when
Catholic campuses give honorary degrees to Catholics who support
A special panel of the U.S. hierarchy, led by Cardinal
Theodore McCarrick — who isn’t comfortable denying Communion — is
sorting through what sanctions to impose on politicians. But it’s
not clear that action will come before Election Day.