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The Politics of Communion

The bishops gain little and risk a lot from their use of the sacraments as a political football.

Sen. John Kerry cannot take communion in St. Louis, in parts of Colorado or in much of New Jersey. A lifelong Catholic, the Democrats’ likely presidential nominee has been warned by a handful of bishops that he should not approach the communion rail as long as he supports abortion rights. He could become the most powerful person on Earth—yet ostracized by some of the highest ranking leaders of his own church.

In a year in which Catholics could swing the outcome of the presidential election— the first in nearly a half century in which a Catholic stands as his party’s likely nominee—the sacrament of the Eucharist, holy and mysterious by definition, has emerged as a strikingly political symbol.

Roman Catholic bishops determined during a June retreat that prochoice politicians such as Kerry are “cooperating in evil” and guilty of “grave sin,” though they left up to individual bishops whether to withhold communion. They also said the Catholic community and its institutions should not give honors, awards or platforms to Catholics thought to defy the church’s “fundamental moral principles.” In the run-up to their retreat, one bishop went so far as to say voters who support prochoice candidates are unworthy of the Eucharist, and at least one state lawmaker quit the church when his parish priest told him he could no longer receive communion.

The bishops’ bold gambit could turn the 2004 presidential race into the most religiously-charged national contest in recent memory. They have put the Catholic church squarely in the glare of a national election in a way that it has not been since John F. Kennedy ran for president 44 years ago. They have sparked anger among Catholic lawmakers who, like Kennedy, don’t want to appear beholden to the Vatican. And they have, to some degree, shifted the debate, particularly among Catholics, during an election year in which voters will decide between a Catholic who supports abortion rights and a Methodist who does not.

A Historic Moment

"This is a moment of major historic proportions,” said Frances Kissling, president of Catholics for a Free Choice. “This is almost as important as the Protestant Reformation. And this is certainly as important as the decision on birth control. It is a moment in which, for the first time, it has been asserted that how you vote on legislation is a sin. That’s big stuff in Catholic terms.”

Kissling said the statement by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops will do little to change the minds of prochoice Catholic politicians, but will further alienate bishops from laypersons. “It just makes the bishops increasingly irrelevant to the moral struggle of ordinary Catholic people,” she said. “And it will not prevent a single abortion.”

The bishops’ statement also angered the antichoice lobby, which considered it weak. “We’re unhappy because they chose not to do what we think is the most critical thing, and that is to protect the Eucharist,” said Joe Starrs, director of the American Life League’s Crusade for the Defense of Our Catholic Church. “Even if they didn’t go the whole way, they could have been a lot stronger. I think they straddled the fence.”

"The Catholic vote has been critical from President Franklin Roosevelt forward,” [Charles] Dunn said. “Whenever Democrats have won the White House, they have won with the Catholic vote, the Jewish vote and the union vote. "

Fully one-quarter of likely voters are Catholic and their votes are up for grabs, political experts say. Although Catholics, long considered outsiders by mainstream America, traditionally favored Democrats, they have shifted toward Republicans in recent years. George W. Bush pushed particularly hard to gain support among Catholics in his 2000 campaign, and it worked. He won 47 percent of the Catholic vote four years ago, 10 percentage points more than Republican nominee Bob Dole received in 1996, according to exit polls. Among white Catholics, Bush won.

So far this year, Catholics appear to be evenly divided between Bush and Kerry. According to a poll conducted June 2-11 for Catholics for a Free Choice, 40 percent of 2,239 Catholics likely to vote in November preferred Kerry while another 40 percent backed Bush. A full 18 percent of respondents were undecided and two percent said they would vote for Ralph Nader if the election were held at the time they were polled.

The Catholic vote is critical to a Kerry victory, particularly in the 17 or so states considered key to the election, said Charles Dunn, dean of the Robertson School of Government at Regent University, a Christian graduate school founded by Pat Robertson in Virginia. “The Catholic vote has been critical from President Franklin Roosevelt forward,” Dunn said. “Whenever Democrats have won the White House, they have won with the Catholic vote, the Jewish vote and the union vote.

"George W. Bush has definitely played his hand well to penetrate the Catholic vote, and this issue (abortion) is a principal one for him,” he said. “This is the battle cry for him.”

Deal Hudson, publisher of Crisis magazine and an adviser to Bush on Catholic issues, said the 2000 presidential race represented a “sea change” in the way Catholics vote in this country. He said the church hierarchy is still clinging to old allegiances within the Democratic Party, creating something of a schism between Catholic leaders and laypersons.

"Bishops realize they’re being left behind,” Hudson said in an interview. He said because of their links to Democrats, the bishops had been reluctant in the past to penalize prochoice Catholic politicians. He said the political shift among an increasingly conservative Catholic laity as well as Kerry’s candidacy have spurred some bishops to withhold communion.

"The politics of the old loyalties to the Democratic Party and the new reality of the most aggressively pro-abortion Catholic candidate for president are simply going to create a boil within the Catholic church,” he said. “That’s why the tensions are running so high.”

Heavy Handed

The US Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a statement called “Catholics in Political Life” on June 18, during what was to have been a retreat in Englewood, Colo. “If those who perform an abortion and those who cooperate willingly in the action are fully aware of the objective evil of what they do, they are guilty of grave sin and thereby separate themselves from God’s grace,” the statement said. It went on: “It is with pastoral solicitude for everyone involved in the political process that we will also counsel Catholic public officials that their acting consistently to support abortion on demand risks making them cooperators in evil in a public manner.”

The statement did not forbid Catholics who support abortion rights from receiving communion, but said that all “must examine their consciences as to their worthiness to receive the Body and Blood of our Lord.” Individual bishops, it said, “can legitimately make different judgments on the most prudent course of pastoral action.”

It remains to be seen how many Catholic voters choose a presidential candidate based on his stance on abortion. A majority of Catholics support abortion rights in at least some circum-stances—61 percent of respondents in the recent poll said they “strongly” or “somewhat” agreed that abortion should be legal compared to 38 percent who did not. Slightly more than half—53 percent— identified themselves as “prochoice” and 45 percent as “pro-life” in a poll with a margin of error of 2.1 percentage points.

What is more apparent is that most Catholics do not feel an obligation to follow the dictates of the church when they vote. Nor do they expect Catholics in public office to do so. In fact, 83 percent of those polled said they did not believe that Catholic politicians were obligated to vote on issues based on bishops’ recommendations, and more than three-quarters said they did not think bishops should deny communion to pro-choice Catholics.

“If the bishops push this too far, they could create a pretty serious backlash among Catholics across the ideological spectrum,” said John Green, director of the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron in Ohio. “Even the most traditional Catholics may be offended if the Eucharist is politicized. So there’s a fine line between the bishops taking a strong stand on issues that are clearly central to them like abortion and actually denying politicians the Eucharist because of their stands on that issue. There is the potential that a very heavy-handed policy would generate widespread opposition.”

“Certainly,” he added, “the Catholic church has had enough controversy without really needing this.”

A Tunnel to Rome

In addition to creating controversy within the church, the actions of some bishops could foment anti-Catholic sentiment on the part of non-Catholics apprehensive that the church is trying to steer national policy, according to experts in religion and politics.

“The danger is that if Kerry cannot both articulate the positions he has and be Catholic, then they’re giving non-Catholics the license to vote against Kerry precisely because he’s Catholic,” said Dennis Goldford, a professor of politics and religion at Drake University in Des Moines. “And that’s not something they should want to do.”

Forty-eight Catholic members of the US House of Representatives, including three who oppose abortion rights, said much the same thing in a May 10 letter to Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington, DC, chairman of a Task Force on Catholic Bishops and Catholic Politicians.

“We firmly believe that it would be wrong for a bishop to deny the sacrament of holy communion to an individual on the basis of a voting record,” the Democrats wrote. “We believe that such an action would be counter-productive and would bring great harm to the church.”

“For many years, Catholics were denied public office by voters who feared that they would take direction from the Pope,” the Congress members wrote. “Opponents to John F. Kennedy expressed the view that, if elected, his first act would be to build a tunnel from the White House to Rome. While that type of paranoid anti-Catholicism seems to be a thing of the past, attempts by church leaders today to influence votes by the threat of withholding a sacrament will revive latent anti-Catholic prejudice, which so many of us have worked so hard to overcome.”

“We address the moral issues that our society faces without endorsing parties or candidates."
- Cardinal Theodore McCarrick

Rep. Mike Doyle of Pennsylvania, an abortion-rights opponent who signed the letter, said he recently attended mass with Kerry in Pittsburgh, where both received communion. “To use the Eucharist in a coercive way is not in keeping with church policy and it isn’t church policy,” Doyle said.

So why did the bishops step into the fray when they easily could have sidestepped the issue at what was booked as a spiritual spring retreat?

Politics, contend advocates on both sides of the issue. The bishops had been the targets of an intense public campaign to deny communion to prochoice politicians for 17 months—since the 30th anniversary of the Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion. The American Life League launched its crusade on January 22, 2003, little more than a year before Kerry emerged likely to be the first Catholic presidential nominee since the landmark Roe v. Wade ruling. Six representatives of the league traveled to Colorado for the retreat, staying in the same hotel as the bishops and lobbying them in the hallways, said Joe Starrs. Two days before the bishops issued their statement, adopted by a vote of 183-6, the league published a full-page ad in USA Today featuring a photo of a priest holding a communion wafer and a chalice and the admonition: “You can’t be Catholic and pro-abortion!” By Starrs’ count, 15 bishops have made “strong statements” regarding prochoice politicians and communion. A survey by Catholics for a Free Choice found that only five dioceses have indicated that they will deny communion to prochoice Catholic policymakers.

“Everything that we’ve been doing from the beginning is aimed at the bishops,” Starrs said in an interview. “We’ve been trying to influence the task force.”

Starrs said the point of the crusade is not to punish politicians but to convert them to the church’s point of view. He likened it to “tough love.” “I want John Kerry and I want Edward Kennedy, all those guys, to get to heaven. They are my brothers in Christ,” he said. But the bishops’ statement did not appease the American Life League.

The league’s president, Judie Brown, said in a statement that “election year politics has trumped the right to life of the innocent and the protection of Christ from sacrilege.”

McCarrick, head of the bishops’ task force, did not respond to an interview request for this article. But, in a statement on the USCCB’s website, he seemed to suggest the bishops were trying to avoid getting tangled in partisan politics. “We address the moral issues that our society faces without endorsing parties or candidates,” he said. Earlier, McCarrick made clear he would not deny communion to prochoice politicians.

“We should have no confrontation at the altar,” he told members of the Catholic Press Association on May 27, according to the Catholic News Service. “I’m not going to have a fight with someone holding the sacred body and blood [of Jesus] in my hand.”

Crossing the Line

The controversy broke into the open in January, when Archbishop Raymond L. Burke, then of the La Crosse Diocese in Wisconsin, wrote that prochoice politicians “are not to be admitted to holy Communion, should they present themselves, until such time as they publicly renounce their support of these most unjust practices.” Burke, now in the Archdiocese of St. Louis, warned Kerry before the Missouri primary not to attempt to receive communion there.

In May, Bishop Michael J. Sheridan of Colorado Springs, Colo., went further, writing in a pastoral letter that Catholic politicians who support abortion rights, stem-cell research or euthanasia—as well as the voters who back them—could not receive communion.

Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, filed a complaint with the Internal Revenue Service, alleging that Sheridan was using church resources for political purposes and that, as a result, the diocese should lose its tax-exempt status.

“When you use religious ritual as an enforcement mechanism for giving marching orders to voters, that’s what’s deeply troubling to us,” Lynn said. “He’s saying, ‘I’m going to tell you for whom to vote and on what to vote and that your soul and your right to communion is at stake.’ That amounts to religious blackmail.”

To some ordinary Catholics, the issue is not one of wrongful coercion, but of religious integrity. John Wagner attends mass every Sunday and three to four times during the week. The retired label salesman from Peoria, Ill., said, to him, the question of communion is crystal clear.

“[Bishop Michael J. Sheridan]'s saying, ‘I’m going to tell you for whom to vote and on what to vote and that your soul and your right to communion is at stake.’ That amounts to religious blackmail.”
- Barry Lynn, Executive Director, Americans United for the Separation of Church and State.

“The Holy Eucharist is the heart and soul of the Catholic church,” Wagner said. “If a person continually says that he or she is prochoice, then I feel they should be denied holy communion. He or she can get in line and receive a blessing from the priest or the Eucharistic minister, and that’s what they should do.”

To Wagner, a registered Republican, that goes for politicians as well as voters. “I’m talking about anybody,” he said. “If a Catholic goes around and says, ‘I don’t believe the church’s position on this,’ he has that right. But the Catholic church has the right to say under what circumstances you cannot receive holy communion.” Although Kerry himself has tiptoed around the communion issue—he now attends church only in dioceses where he knows he is welcome—other politicians have fought back in various ways.

New Jersey Senate Majority Leader Bernard Kenny left the church in May when Archbishop John J. Myers issued a pastoral statement suggesting that pro-choice politicians not present themselves for communion in the Archdiocese of Newark.

“They asked me to leave. That’s how I interpret it,” Kenny said in an interview. After receiving the statement from Myers, Kenny said he went to speak to his pastor at Sts. Peter and Paul Roman Catholic Church in Hoboken, where he has been a parishioner for two decades. Monsignor Frank LePrete has the letter on his desk.

“I asked him what his position was on the communion issue,” Kenny said. “He said if I came to church that Sunday he was prepared to serve me communion, but then he would ask me after mass not to come to communion again. That, to me, makes communion a political statement as opposed to an act of faith…. I view that as being asked to leave. And so I did.”

Kenny noted that he represents one of the most ethnically, racially and religiously diverse areas of the country. “My oath of office is to represent them. I’m not going to take direction from the bishop as to how I vote. And if the price is I can’t take communion, then I have to leave, and that’s how I feel about it,” he said.

US Rep. James R. Langevin, a Democrat from Rhode Island, opposes abortion rights. He also opposes using communion in what he deemed a “punitive” fashion. “It’s one thing for the church to disagree with the decision. It’s another to deny a sacrament,” Langevin said in an interview. “The church has always guided me in my personal life. My religious upbringing is a part of who I am. But it does not dictate in terms of how I make decisions. As a legislator, I’m guided by the Constitution, my conscience and my constituents.”

Langevin, who signed the letter to McCarrick, said he fears the bishops are going down a “slippery slope.”

“This is the first of many issues the church could make a litmus test,” he said, suggesting that opposition to stem-cell research and gay marriage could come next. Further, Langevin said, the bishops have focused on an issue that primarily would impact Democrats, who tend to be prochoice, rather than Republicans, who more often are not. “Why this issue and not politicians who support the death penalty, those who supported the war in Iraq?” he added, ticking off issues that could adversely affect the GOP. “Why not those who don’t do enough to support the poor?”

Indeed, Democrats and abortion-rights supporters have argued that aside from opposition to abortion and stem-cell research, the Catholic church has little in common with Republican leaders.“ I don’t think the social justice agenda of the bishops will find a home in the Republican Party,” Kissling said. Rep. Doyle said that, in the end, he thinks few voters, Catholic or otherwise, will be swayed by a small minority of bishops “who may or may not have political axes to grind.”

“This is not going to be the basis for why people vote for Kerry or vote against him. I think elections are about pocketbook issues and, in this particular election, foreign policy. This isn’t going to decide the presidency,” Doyle said.

“If it’s an effort to help Bush,” he concluded, “it’s a mighty poor one.

Jodi Enda is a political writer based in Washington, DC. She previously covered the White House, Congress and presidential campaigns for Knight Ridder Newspapers and national news for the Philadelphia Inquirer.