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San Jose Mercury News

Bishop Pushing Davis to Abandon Pro-Choice Stance


Following on the heels of a Vatican directive, Sacramento’s Roman Catholic bishop is challenging Gov. Gray Davis to follow church teachings against abortion and pressuring him to abstain from communion until he has ”a change of heart.”

Sacramento Bishop William K. Weigand warned Davis — as well as other Catholics — that he puts his ”soul at risk” by supporting abortion rights. His remarks came in a January homily at the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament, a short walk from the Capitol, on the 30th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Roe vs. Wade decision legalizing abortion.

The challenge from a head of the Catholic Church to the head of the state was clear: Bring yourself in line with church policy, Weigand told Davis, a self-described practicing Catholic. You ”can’t be a Catholic in good standing” and be pro-choice, the bishop later explained.

The dispute is rekindling discussions that have whirled around Catholic politicians since the 1960 presidential campaign of John F. Kennedy, whose anti-Catholic detractors said he would be controlled by the pope.

Decades later, church leaders say they have every right to counsel officeholders who are Catholic. While some observers charge the church with violating principles of church-state separation, the Weigand-Davis spat arises at a complicated moment when President Bush and other politicians routinely invoke God in their speeches.

In mid-January, an 18-page Vatican declaration warned Catholic politicians that they cannot be faithful to church teachings if they vote against church positions on issues such as abortion, euthanasia and same-sex marriage.

The governor, who attends a Beverly Hills parish, has pointedly remarked that he is one of many Catholics who don’t necessarily agree with the institutional church on such issues. In November, according to exit polls, 53 percent of Catholic voters favored Davis, while 39 percent went for Republican challenger Bill Simon, the losing gubernatorial candidate who strongly opposes abortion.

”I’m unapologetically pro-choice, and I’m not changing my position,” Davis said after the bishop’s sermon.

On Feb. 8, the bishop wrote in a diocesan newspaper column that he hadn’t meant to ”take on” the governor, only ”to teach and clarify the faith” for the faithful — who may be confused by Davis’s pro-choice statements. The governor and his staff have gone mum, though Democratic party consultants are calling the bishop’s comments a Republican-inspired breach of church-state barriers.

”It’s a political attack on behalf of the Republican Party and a way to direct attention from the church’s own problems,” said Bob Mulholland, a Democratic Party adviser in Sacramento. ”Anti-choice is an issue that rallies Republicans.”

But a spokesman for the bishop says the pendulum has swung so far to the secular side that Weigand is being chastised for sermonizing from the cathedra, or bishop’s seat, of his own church.

”These Democrats need to start thinking rationally,” said the Rev. Charles S. McDermott, who advises Weigand on theological matters. ”If anyone has trespassed” across the church-state wall, McDermott said, it is those Democrats who would limit the bishop’s freedom to sermonize for the benefit of 500,000 Catholics in a diocese stretching from Solano County to the Oregon border.

The dispute began before Christmas when Davis was all set to give toys to poor children at a Roman Catholic orphanage in Sacramento. The priest who runs the home barred the governor for his pro-choice views on abortion, so Davis moved the gift-giving to the state Capitol. Then came the Vatican declaration, followed by the bishop’s homily.

Catholic laity is predictably split on the matter. Weigand has ”not only the right but the obligation to guide the flock,” said Marcella Melendez, president of the Southern California-based Hispanics for Life and Human Rights. ”If the governor refuses to repent, then the logical next step would be for the bishop to mandate” that Davis can no longer receive communion.

But Frances Kissling, president of Catholics for a Free Choice in Washington, D.C., said that ”Davis has really shown a lot of courage. The Catholic politicians understand that they have a right to be pro-choice, that they have a right to be pro-choice and Catholic. And they seem to be very unwilling to be cowed by the institutional church.”

The bishop didn’t mince his words in his Jan. 22 homily: ”As your bishop,” he said, ”I have to say clearly that anyone — politician or otherwise — who thinks it is acceptable for a Catholic to be pro-abortion is in very great error, puts his or her soul at risk, and is not in good standing with the church. Such a person should have the integrity to acknowledge this and choose of his own volition to abstain from receiving Holy Communion until he has a change of heart.”

Shortly after, the National Catholic Register, a conservative Catholic weekly, reported that Weigand had threatened Davis with excommunication if he continued to receive the sacrament of communion. The bread and wine, which worshipers eat and drink at the close of Mass, is said to be the body and blood of Christ.

But Weigand, who declined to be interviewed for this story, wrote in his Feb. 8 column that he hasn’t threatened Davis with excommunication or any other penalty. Rather, Davis needs to examine his conscience because Catholic officeholders ”have a duty as disciples not to use their public office to confuse their brothers and sisters in Christ,” he wrote.

Still, the severity of Weigand’s remarks last month is ”unusual,” said John C. Green, University of Akron political scientist and expert on the role of religion in politics. Catholic officials will ”rarely sanction an office holder for following a law. What they will get on their case for is advocating a law that they regard as immoral.”

Russ Lopez, Davis’s senior deputy press secretary, said last month that the bishop was ”trying to beat us up, and we’re not backing down.”

Now both sides seem ready to tone down the rhetoric. Lopez wouldn’t comment on the dispute this week, other than to say that Davis is ”a practicing Catholic” and ”was raised to believe in the separation of church and state.”

McDermott, speaking for his boss, said Weigand has tried in the past to speak privately with Davis and would still like to do so. The bishop ”doesn’t want to give the impression that he’s carrying on some kind of campaign or that he’s badgering Gov. Davis,” McDermott said. ”The bishop was addressing Gov. Davis as a member of the Catholic Church. He feels that he’s done his job.”

This article courtesy of the San Jose Mercury News.


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