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Issue Date:  October 22, 2004

A pro-choice Catholic politician speaks out


At my mother’s Catholic funeral last fall, a priest denied me Communion. No warning, no comments, just a refusal to give me the sacrament as I stood in line next to my mother’s coffin. He needed no direction from a bishop to put himself in the place of God in making earthly judgment on me.

I am -- and will remain -- a pro-choice Catholic elected official. I don’t advocate for abortion. I believe it should be rare and safe and that alternatives should be available. But I fully support a woman’s right to make that decision herself, without government -- or my -- interference. And, for some women, there is no realistic alternative.

My mother was a hall-of-fame level Catholic. The former president of the Winona Council of Catholic Women, she went to Rome to accept a medal from the pope and went to India to work with sick children. Her picture with Mother Teresa stood next to her pictures with my father, myself and my sister. She is undoubtedly on the board of directors in heaven now, looking down at me and giving me guidance.

She was also unalterably pro-life. We had to struggle to work through the issue of abortion between us. I don’t think she voted for me the first time I ran for office. But with the help of a wise priest and a bishop thoughtful on the differences between church policy and representative government, she came to understand my public policy decision-making process while continuing to disagree with my decisions in this area.

My mother also appreciated my great respect for the moral and ethical principles laid down by Pope John XXIII in his remarkable 1963 encyclical “Pacem in Terris: On Establishing Universal Peace in Truth, Justice, Charity and Liberty.” She and I shared an enthusiastic commitment to the direction given by U.S. Catholic bishops in their 1986 pastoral letter, “Economic Justice for All: Catholic Social Teaching and the U.S. Economy.”

Those writings plus other Catholic documents on such topics as the environment, young children, economic justice, racism, immigration, ecology, poverty, the death penalty, nuclear power, international trade, health care, corporate power and sustainable development are deeply rooted in my own worldview and reflected in my legislative activities. My mother understood that; the priest who cast solitary judgment on me at her funeral didn’t.

The current effort by some Catholic bishops -- and some clergy -- to deny Communion to Catholic elected officials who do not use Catholic doctrine on abortion as the sole guideline in their decisions on public policy issues is disconcerting.

I was a teenager when John Kennedy was elected president. Like many in my generation, it was an energizing call to public service. For those of us who were Catholics, it was a signal that America had gotten past decades of concern that Catholic officials would follow the lead of their pope rather than their constituents. While the Catholic church is structured on a top-down philosophy (the pope really is the boss!), our democracy is based on a bottom-up decision-making process. The hierarchy needs to keep aware of that distinction.

The Kennedy election was a part of the maturation of our political process and a reflection of a diminishing religious political division, a positive expansion of our democracy.

Few disagreed with the powerful role that deeply religious people could have on the country through their commitment to change in public policy. Few disputed the right of the clergy and religious leaders to weigh in on the morality of issues of the day. But at least citizens were aware that the ultimate decisions would be made in an atmosphere of allegiance to the common good of an official’s constituents rather than forced by the religious adherence of the official.

I admit that virtually all of my political judgments have been consistent with Catholic positions, but they are also the positions of almost all religions: human equality and respect, compassion and assistance for those plagued by hunger, homelessness and poverty; respect for the earth, its spirituality and our permanent reliance on it; wariness of unregulated corporate power; respect for individual economic opportunity and workers, and commitment to children, their innocence and their future.

Because of the panoply of Catholic moral issues, it is a mistake to choose one issue as the sole guideline for Catholics or their leaders to judge an elected official. Not only abortion but economic justice and other concerns make up the menu in deciding where a public official or candidate stands on “moral” issues.

The effort to use a political litmus test in providing Communion is wrong, and the tie to abortion-related issues alone is misguided.

John Hottinger is a senator in the Minnesota state legislature. A longer version of this article appeared in the Aug. 2 Minneapolis Star Tribune.

National Catholic Reporter, October 22, 2004

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