Democrats Criticize Bishops for Threat to Deny Communion
Forty-eight Roman Catholic members of Congress who are Democrats have signed a letter to the cardinal archbishop of Washington, D.C., saying the threats by some bishops to deny communion to politicians who support abortion rights were ”deeply hurtful,” counterproductive and ”miring the Church in partisan politics.”
The letter is the first organized counter-punch by Democratic legislators since a handful of Catholic bishops set off an uproar in the church by declaring that they would withhold communion from politicians who favor abortion rights.
The letter’s signers, including about a dozen who are considered anti-abortion Democrats, said the bishops are ”allowing the church to be used for partisan purposes.” They also question why these bishops made abortion a litmus test while ignoring politicians who voted counter to the church by endorsing the death penalty and the war in Iraq.
”They’re helping destroy the church by dividing it on issues, and they’re politicizing the Eucharist,” said Representative Bart Stupak of Michigan, one of the anti-abortion Democrats who signed the letter. ”The bishops came out against the war, and I don’t see them saying to all the people who voted for it, you can’t receive communion because you voted for an unjust war.”
The letter, dated May 10, was sent last week to Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, who is the chairman of a bishops task force asked to devise recommendations for American bishops on relations with Catholic politicians. A copy of the letter was made available to The New York Times.
The debate has taken off with the campaign of Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, the first Catholic candidate for president on a major-party ticket since John F. Kennedy. The tactic of denying the sacrament has been urged for years by anti-abortion groups like the American Life League, Legatus and the National Right to Life Committee, said Deal Hudson, publisher of Crisis, a conservative Catholic magazine.
”The fact that so many Catholics hold public office and flout church teaching is a scandal that many of us have waited a long time to see addressed,” said Mr. Hudson, who serves as a consultant on Catholic issues to the Republican Party and the Bush White House.
He added that John Kerry had ”earned excommunication” for speaking to an abortion rights meeting soon after speaking privately with Cardinal McCarrick.
Only four of about 300 American bishops have announced that they intend to deny the sacrament to policymakers who support abortion rights in their dioceses, according to a telephone poll of bishops conducted by Catholics for a Free Choice, a Washington advocacy group. Fifteen more have said that Catholic policymakers who support abortion rights should voluntarily abstain from communion. The vast majority, 135, said that they did not agree with denying anyone the Eucharist or that it would be the last resort.
Though few, the hard-line bishops have provoked anger and anguish from some Catholics who say they can be loyal to their church while voting for abortion rights.
Among the letter’s signers are Representatives Nancy Pelosi of California, the House minority leader; Rosa L. DeLauro of Connecticut; Carolyn McCarthy and Nydia Velazquez of New York; John D. Dingell of Michigan; Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts; George Miller of California; James L. Oberstar of Minnesota; Dennis J. Kucinich of Ohio, a candidate for president; and Delegate Madeleine Z. Bordallo of Guam.
”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.”
In the letter, legislators asked to meet with Cardinal McCarrick and other members of the bishops task force.
”We wanted to look at the opportunity to open up a dialogue,” said Ms. De Lauro, who worked with Representative Nick Lampson of Texas to design a response to the bishops. ”People are really hurt by this.”
Susan Gibbs, a spokeswoman for Cardinal McCarrick, said that he was open to meeting with the legislators but that it might take some time to convene the task force.
Cardinal McCarrick said in his column on May 13 in his archdiocesan newspaper that he did not favor denying the Eucharist as a sanction.
The Cardinal was harshly criticized recently in an advertisement paid for by the American Life League as capitulating to politicians who favor abortion.
In his column, Cardinal McCarrick said that in a recent visit to the Vatican ”it was clear that so many of the highest authorities in the Church are in agreement with my position.”
Leslie W. Tentler, a professor of history at Catholic University, said she could not recall a time when bishops debated disciplining so many politicians, and even voters, as the bishop of Colorado Springs did last week.
”The negative fallout could be terrific,” she said. ”I think it will alienate a great many Catholics. There’s a lot of anti-Catholicism in the country that’s surfaced, especially around the sex-abuse scandal. This plays into the oldest stereotypes about the church, which is that Catholics can’t think for themselves. ”
Mr. Hudson said he did not believe it would provoke anti-Catholicism as much as retaliation against other Catholic politicians, many of them Republicans, who are out of step with the church on the death penalty, the Iraq war or fighting poverty.
”What I fear is an internal battle using excommunication as a weapon, something like, ‘If you are going to excommunicate our guys, we’re going to excommunicate your guys,”’ he said.
An article yesterday about 48 Roman Catholic members of Congress who criticized threats by some bishops to deny communion to politicians who support abortion rights referred incorrectly to the number of bishops who oppose the denial. Of the American bishops, totaling some 300, 135 said in a recent poll that they did not agree with denying anyone the eucharist, or that it would be a last resort. The 135 represent a majority of the 154 who responded — not a majority of the bishops.
This article originally appeared in the 20 May 2004 edition of the New York Times.