National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  May 28, 2004

Catholic Democrats decry Eucharist sanctions


Declaring that “it would be wrong for a bishop to deny the sacrament of holy Communion to an individual on the basis of a voting record,” two-thirds of the Catholic Democrats in the House of Representatives told Washington Cardinal Theodore McCarrick May 10 that such actions are “counterproductive and would bring great harm to the church.”

That warning came in a letter from the legislators to McCarrick, who chairs a committee of bishops drafting guidance for members of the hierarchy in their dealings with Catholic politicians, particularly those who support abortion rights. The presidential campaign of pro-choice Catholic John Kerry has made the question of denying pro-choice Catholic politicians Communion a hot issue. Only four U.S. bishops have explicitly said they would do so, though a number have advised pro-choice legislators to refrain from presenting themselves for Communion.

“We … are increasingly concerned about statements made recently by some members of the Catholic hierarchy indicating that the sacrament of Communion should be withheld from certain Catholic legislators because of their votes on public issues,” said the 48 Democrats.

Approximately a dozen of those who signed the letter have strong antiabortion records, including Reps. Bart Stupak, Michigan; James Langevin, Rhode Island; Mike Doyle, Pennsylvania; and James Oberstar, Minnesota. Among the pro-choice Catholic legislators signing onto the letter were House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, California; and Reps. Rosa DeLauro, Connecticut; and Nick Lampos, Texas. DeLauro and Lampos are leaders of a small group of Catholic legislators who have been working over several months to develop a strategy on how to interact with the hierarchy over a range of issues (NCR, April 30).

In the three-page letter the legislators:

  • Argued that while they differ among themselves on abortion, “each and every one of us is committed to the basic principles that are at the heart of Catholic social justice” on issues ranging from health care, war and peace, and promoting alternatives to abortion.
  • Cited Jesuit theologian John Courtney Murray in saying, “We … do not believe that it is the obligation of legislators to prohibit all conduct which we may, as a matter of personal morality, believe is wrong.”
  • Noted that legislators “are called to represent the views of our constituents even when those views may conflict” with their personal beliefs.
  • Warned of a rise in anti-Catholicism “if Catholic legislators are scorned and held out for ridicule by church leaders on the basis of a single issue” and coerced into voting a specific way through “the threat of withholding a sacrament.”

In addition, said the legislators, consistency would suggest that sanctions against pro-choice politicians would be followed by similar actions against Catholics who, for example, favor the death penalty or war with Iraq. “Such conduct would foster division within the church as well as division between the hierarchy and the laity,” said the letter.

On abortion, said pro-lifer Stupak, “It’s not something we just vote cavalierly for or against.” Of the bishops who would deny Communion, said the six-term representative, “I really wonder whether they have sat down with any of these individuals” before “lambasting them in the paper.”

Further, Stupak told NCR, sanctions are counterproductive. With approximately 35 pro-life House Democrats and a like number of pro-choice Republicans, “there is no pro-life legislation that can move in the Congress” without Democratic support. Such support is more difficult to obtain, said Stupak, if the bishops are perceived as threatening legislators.

Said Stupak, “We’re getting sick and tired of getting kicked around for something that is way outside the proper application of … the doctrines of the Catholic church.”

The issue of denying Communion, said a source familiar with the House Democrats’ thinking, goes “well beyond politics.” Many of the House Catholic Democrats, particularly those whose liberal views on economic issues flow from their Catholic upbringing, “are deeply hurt and confused” that they are being held to a single-issue “litmus test,” said the source.

In addition, said the source, the Democrats thought it was important to get their views on the record as McCarrick’s committee considers its guidelines. Though politicians are typically loathe to wade in deeply on controversial questions of abortion or to engage in a public spat with members of the hierarchy, in this case, the source said, they felt they had no choice. “If they didn’t do something here they feared they would get picked off individually” by bishops who would sanction them in their home dioceses, said the source.

The Catholic legislators asked McCarrick to arrange a meeting between his committee and the leaders of their group. Such a meeting will be scheduled, said a Washington archdiocese spokesperson.

National Catholic Reporter, May 28, 2004

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