Letters & Op-Eds 2004
San Francisco Chronicle

Politicizing the Sacraments

There is something disturbing about the media watch on whether Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-San Francisco, will receive communion at Mass. The specter of paparazzi seeking photos of what most Catholics see as a private and sacred moment is unsettling.

Yet even more disturbing than this media circus is the attempt by some Roman Catholic leaders, from the Vatican to lay Catholic supporters of President Bush, to use the sacraments as a political sledgehammer. For the past 20 years, anti-abortion Catholics have pleaded with the Vatican to deny communion or even to excommunicate Catholic policy-makers who support legal abortion. Supreme Court Justices William J. Brennan and Anthony Kennedy; Govs. Mario Cuomo, George Pataki and Gray Davis; Sens. Patrick Leahy, Daniel Moynihan, Barbara Mikulski and Ted Kennedy — all have been impugned by name. But the Vatican has until recently ignored or rebuffed such pleas.

It is important to note that there is no basis in modern church law or theology for such actions. It has been widely recognized since the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) that Catholic policy-makers have the freedom to follow their conscience — even when it disagrees with church teaching — when voting on specific legislative measures. It is perfectly reasonable, then, for a Catholic legislator to personally accept Catholic teaching against abortion and also to support laws on abortion in a pluralistic democracy that do not limit the freedom of Jews, Methodists, Episcopalians and others who recognize abortion as morally justifiable. It is equally reasonable to believe that laws against abortion do not prevent abortions from taking place, but instead make abortion dangerous to women’s health and lives.

It is interesting to consider the fact that the U.S. bishops have for the most part understood that sanctions against pro-choice Catholic policy-makers don’t work. The few policy-makers who have been punished or attacked have not changed their views, and instead have been perceived as more sympathetic candidates, winning elections even when they were the underdogs.

While the vast majority of U.S. bishops still seem to understand this reality, they have invested their moral authority in claiming over the years that Catholics cannot hold pro-choice views or have abortions. Yet Catholic policy-makers, including more than 70 members of Congress, vote pro-choice. According to a scientific poll we conducted in 2000, more than two-thirds of American Catholics disagree with the bishops and believe that abortion should not be illegal. If all of them were denied the sacraments, we could stop worrying about the priest shortage. The churches would be empty.

But something has changed in the Vatican and among conservative Catholics: No longer are they simply anti-abortion, they are now Bush Republicans. Like their earlier counterparts in the Moral Majority and the Christian Coalition, winning elections has become more important than practicing good theology. They know that the Catholic vote will play a critical swing role in the 2004 election, and they hope to deliver that vote to George W. Bush. A Catholic Democrat is a serious obstacle to that goal.

By attacking Sen. Kerry’s practice of faith, conservative Bush Catholics hope to deny him the support of mainstream Catholics. What remains to be seen is the extent to which the Vatican and the U.S. bishops will participate in this strategy. If politicizing the sacraments for electoral gain serves as an indication of the campaign ahead, we are witnesses to bad faith and bad theology.

Frances Kissling is president of Catholics for a Free Choice, a nonpartisan nonprofit organization based in Washington.

Catholics for Choice