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Catholics Politicians Face US Church Ban over Abortion Laws


America’s Catholic church yesterday faced the prospect of a backlash from its congregations against a campaign by hardline bishops to deny the sacrament to politicians who support abortion rights.

In a letter to Washington’s Cardinal Theodore McCarrick published yesterday, 48 Catholic Democrats in the House of Representatives, chastised church leaders for seeking to punish politicians who support abortion rights and stem cell research.

“As Catholics, we do not believe it is our role to legislate the teachings of the Catholic church,” the letter said. “Because we represent all of our constituents, we must, at times, separate our public actions from our personal beliefs.”

It also warned that the church risked provoking anti-Catholic bigotry by creating the perception that its clerics were playing politics.

A spokesperson for Cardinal McCarrick said he would not comment on the letter, but it was widely seen as a rare display of organised resistance.

“In the past when the bishops attacked politicians for their pro-choice views, the politicians tended to run for cover,” said Frances Kissling, president of Catholics for Free Choice. “What I am now seeing is Catholic politicians aggressively responding to the attacks from the bishops and holding their ground.”

With the Democratic challenger, John Kerry, the first Catholic to seek the presidency since John Kennedy in 1960, the role of religion is inescapable in November’s elections.

Mr Kerry is pro-choice – although he muddied that distinction this week by saying he might in some circumstances appoint an anti-abortion judge to the supreme court.

Mr Kerry’s candidacy set off a strenuous campaign by conservative Catholic groups to make inroads into what was a solid area of Democratic support a generation ago and bring more Catholics over to the Republican fold.

Larry Sabato of the Centre for Politics at the University of Virginia, said: “In 1960, 80% of Catholics voted for Kennedy. Now Catholics don’t vote as a bloc. They were split almost evenly between Bush and Gore in 2000.”

Karl Rove, the White House master strategist who created and nurtured Mr Bush’s support from Evangelical Protestant churches, has also reached out to the Catholic right, maintaining close contact with the conservative commentator Deal Hudson and other groups that have been very vocal on the issue.

After months of campaigning by anti-abortion groups, and a statement from the Vatican for Catholic politicians to follow church doctrine, four of America’s bishops have said they would deny Mr Kerry communion because of his pro-choice stand. The bishops, serving congregations in Lincoln, in Nebraska, St Louis, Missouri, Camden, New Jersey, and Colorado Springs, Colorado, represent only a fraction of churchgoers.

Fifteen others called on Catholic politicians to abstain on votes on abortion and stem cell research. However, the majority of America’s 300 bishops opposed denying the sacrament to politicians who opposed their views.

The debate about Mr Kerry and communion raised the hackles of some Catholics. They rebuked the bishops for hypocrisy, saying they failed to chastise politicians who voted for the Iraq war or supported the death penalty, in contravention of church teaching.

“Catholics are disgusted by this intrusion into American political life,” Ms Kissling said. “It is one thing for the bishops to say abortion is bad. It is another for them to use something that is sacred, like communion, as a political sledgehammer. People don’t like it.”

This article originally appeared in the 21 May 2004 edition of the Guardian.

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