In the News

Abortion, Communion Dividing Catholics; Pro-Choice Politicians Felling Church’s Backlash


At St. Joseph’s on the Brandywine, the Rev. Msgr. Joseph F. Rebman is hearing many views from Catholics who sense a new direction in the church.

In conversations with some of the Greenville church’s 2,600 parishioners, Rebman said they have taken note that recently some bishops have announced they will deny the Holy Eucharist to pro-choice politicians.

The announcements followed a series of rules issued by the Vatican on April 24 aimed at stopping what it called “habitual abuses” of traditional church practices in the celebration of Mass. Included in the rules were instructions that politicians who support legalized abortion must be denied Holy Communion.

People opposed to abortion say it’s time bishops took this stand. Others say it’s wrong to tie Communion to politics.

And many in the church have questions after learning that Bishop Michael J. Sheridan of Colorado Springs, Colo., wrote to his diocese this month saying that voters who endorse candidates favoring “abortion, illicit stem-cell research or euthanasia” may not receive Communion until they have recanted.

He is the first to take this position and “there are people who feel no one should tell them how to vote,” Rebman said.

Similar views about the direction of the church are being expressed in the other 56 parishes of the Catholic Diocese of Wilmington, as well as parishes around the nation, church experts said. They see emotions running high for many of the nation’s 63 million Catholics, who are almost a quarter of the adult population and America’s largest Christian denomination.

Emotions are especially heightened among people who have staked out a strong conservative or liberal stance on abortion. They are people such as Edward T. Jarrell, a parishioner of St. Mary of the Assumption in Hockessin, who is against abortion. “The fact that several bishops have spoken fearlessly gives rise to a good feeling for a lot of us,” he said.

He would be pleased if Bishop Michael A. Saltarelli of the Diocese of Wilmington took a similar stance for the 220,000 people in his diocese. But the bishop has said he will not comment on politicians, who support abortion rights, until a report by the U.S. Conference of Bishops is released in mid-November – after the election.

In this, he is like most American bishops who have remained silent. But others have not and the moment is distinguished by the level of open dissent among the almost 300 bishops, who are free to respond to church law in their diocese as they see fit, church experts said.

Last week, two Arizona bishops said they would not deny Communion to politicians. Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted of Phoenix said he would attempt to educate politicians on church teachings, while Tucson Bishop Gerald Kicanas said sanctions against politicians would be “premature.”

In decades past, the bishops usually have maintained a public face of unity. Today in declarations and interviews with publications, such as the National Catholic Reporter, they are in open disagreement.

“It’s extraordinary to see this happening in the American hierarchy,” said Paul Lakeland, chair of the department of religious studies at Fairfield University in Fairfield, Conn.

He said this is partly the result of a younger generation of conservative bishops, appointed by Pope John Paul II, who are clashing with bishops more in tune with Second Vatican Council and the teachings of the 1960s. Those teachings placed an emphasis on Catholics responding to dictates of conscience as much as church law.

Looking to Washington

To clarify the divide among American church leaders, the Conference of Bishops has asked Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington, D.C., to head a committee on how the bishops can best approach the issue of public disobedience to church teachings.

However, he has become a controversial figure for saying in an Associated Press interview that he has not gotten to the stage where he is comfortable denying someone Communion. Taking note, the American Life League placed a series of ads in newspapers this month that showed Jesus on the cross and asked McCarrick: “Are you comfortable now?”An advocacy group based in Stafford, Va., the American Life League, has been calling for the enforcement of canon law in ads since January 2003 and in them has named Catholic politicians as the group it says violate church teachings on abortion, including Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del.

On May 10, McCarrick also received a letter signed by 48 Catholic Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives. The legislators said they were “deeply hurt” by bishops denying Communion and that the issue was “miring the church in partisan politics.” The representatives also asked why abortion had become so important, rather than the death penalty or the war in Iraq.

Asked about the stance of the bishops, Biden, a Delaware Democrat and Catholic, has steadfastly declined to comment. But Rep. Mike Castle, a Catholic and Republican from Delaware, said he supported the right of members of the church and elected officials to hold differing views on issues.

“I firmly believe in the separation of church and state and the privacy rights that go along with that,” he said.

Lt. Gov. John Carney, who is a Catholic and a Democrat, said he hoped to speak with Saltarelli about this issue and did not want to comment until then. He said, through a spokesman, that as a matter of personal belief he does not favor abortion but as a matter of policy he believes every person should have the right to choose.

In Delaware, the stance of conservative bishops does not appear to have strong resonance with voters and probably will have little impact on the election here, said David Crossan, executive director of the Republican Party of Delaware. In his view, it will not affect Castle, who won 72 percent of the vote in the 2002 election.

In general, Delaware voters are middle-of-the-road and focused on topics such as jobs and education “but there are always a fraction of people for whom this issue is near and dear to their hearts,” he said.

How will Catholics vote?

All this attention to Catholic politicians in an election year is something that Bessie McAneny of Newark welcomes. “It’s time the bishops set principles that follow the teachings of the holy father,” said McAneny, director of the Delaware Pro-Life Coalition, a group that opposes abortion.

In her view, the bishops are making this an issue because Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, the presumptive Democratic nominee for president, has said his Catholic faith is important to him.

Yet, she said, by his taking a stance for abortion rights he has defied the teachings of the pope who has said that Catholics must defend “the basic right to life from conception to natural death.”

She said public defiance hurts the spirit of the faith community and merits excommunication. “On this the holy father is clear,” she said.

Should Kerry become president, he would be a huge embarrassment to the church as an abortion rights Catholic, according to conservatives. That’s one reason why some bishops have been speaking against such politicians, said Frances Kissling, president of Catholics for Free Choice, an advocacy group in Washington, D.C.

“President Bush is the best hope that the anti-abortion movement has,” Kissling said.

To Kissling, the position of the bishop of Colorado Springs, Colo., was overtly political when Sheridan told Catholic voters they should refrain from Communion if they support politicians in violation of important church doctrine. In his pastoral letter to his diocese, he wrote: “You cannot have your ‘waffle’ and your ‘wafer’ too.”

Such statements have gotten widespread attention because adult Catholics make up 27 percent of the electorate and have been an important swing vote in past presidential elections. And while bishops can’t campaign, they can give candidates a thumbs up or thumbs down by pointing toward moral beliefs, said JoRenee Formicola, a professor of political science at Seton Hall University.

As a Catholic and religious scholar, Lakeland said he doubted that the bishops’ positions would have much effect on the election and that few voters select a candidate on a single issue. Most weigh many factors, he said.

And the position of bishops, such as Sheridan, could backfire in the election, Kissling said. Her organization has gotten more unsolicited reaction from ordinary people on this issue than most in its 22-year history.

“I think this is mobilizing people who resent being told how to vote based on one issue,” she said. “Many Catholics are appalled by bishops politicizing the Eucharist and for one to say it’s an absolute sin to vote for a pro-choice politician. That’s unprecedented. How can you know all the reasons that go into a person’s decisions in the voting booth?”

The American Catholic

Surveys have shown for decades that Catholics often dissent from major teachings of the church on birth control and the ordination of women, Lakeland said. A 1999 study of 875 lay Catholics commissioned by the National Catholic Reporter found that it is common for people to say “I’m Catholic but I don’t always follow what the church says.”

The survey also found that 53 percent of respondents said it was possible to be a good Catholic without obeying the church’s teaching on abortion, a finding that was up from 39 percent in 1987.

The issue of abortion, as it relates to the presidential election, will continue to be raised into the fall. But Kissling said a recent survey of bishops by Catholics for Free Choice found that most are reluctant to restrict Communion to politicians.

Four bishops said they would deny Communion and 15 said politicians taking such stands should voluntarily refrain. The majority, 136, made it clear they would not deny the Eucharist or do so only as a last resort.

“It’s no mystery why,” said Lakeland. “Unless you are dealing with a notorious sinner, you give the benefit of the doubt during Communion on the assumption the Lord can take care of himself.”

This article contains Associated Press information.

This article originally appeared in the 23 May 2004 edition of the Delaware News Journal.


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