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CFFC in the News - 2004

roll call

Church Scrutiny More Prevalent for Members

Amy Keller

21 April 2004

In the wake of Sen. John Kerry's (D-Mass.) standoff with some church officials over abortion, some Catholic activists are warning that other Roman Catholic lawmakers at odds with the church's anti-abortion stance should be prepared to face considerable scrutiny and even the potential of sanctions from church officials this election year.

"The pressure has been particularly intense on the bishops both by the Vatican - which issued a statement last year saying Catholic politicians were obliged to vote against legal abortion - and by right-wing Catholic groups who have mounted various low-intensity media campaigns against politicians who are Catholic and pro-choice," acknowledged Catholics for a Free Choice President Frances Kissling, who strongly opposes such tactics.

In February, Archbishop Raymond Burke of St. Louis said Kerry should be denied Communion because of his voting record on the abortion issue, and more recently Archbishop Sean O'Malley of Boston concurred - without addressing his criticism to any specific politician - that Catholic politicians whose political views are out of line with the church "shouldn't dare come to Communion."

The controversy over Kerry's voting record on abortion reached a peak Easter weekend, when Kerry attended Easter services at the Paulist Center, a nontraditional Catholic church in Boston, and received Holy Communion - a move that some Catholics say was tantamount to thumbing his nose at the church.

Last week, Kerry met privately with Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the Washington archbishop who is heading a task force focused on whether politicians who support abortion should be punished by the church.

"A lot of people for years have been saying 'Stop giving Communion to the Kennedys and Kerry,'" said Father Robert Carr, a Boston-based priest whose writings are frequently featured on the Web site Catholic Online.

Not that confrontation of Catholic politicians who disobey the church's teachings is anything new.

Former Rep. Geraldine Ferraro (D-N.Y.) was widely criticized by church officials including then-New York Archbishop John O'Connor for her support for abortion rights when she ran on the vice presidential ticket with former Vice President Walter Mondale in 1984, as was former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo (D).

Last year, Bishop William Weigand of Sacramento said that then-California Gov. Gray Davis could not in good conscience call himself a good Catholic while pursuing an agenda that included support for abortion and, at the very least, the governor should not receive Communion.

Several current and former Members of Congress have had their own run-ins with the church.

Last year, the Weekly Standard reported that Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) received a letter from Sioux Falls Bishop Robert Carlson asking him not to identify himself as a Catholic in his Congressional biography and in campaign materials. Neither Daschle nor Carlson have confirmed or denied the report.

Earlier this year, before he left the diocese of La Crosse, Wis., for St. Louis in January, Archbishop Burke notified several Wisconsin lawmakers - including Rep. David Obey (D-Wis.), according to press reports - that they would be refused Holy Communion until they publicly renounced their "grave public sin."

Obey told The Associated Press that while he respects Burke's instructions on faith in his personal life, the archbishop ought to use "persuasion, not dictation" when it comes to his legislative actions and he said Burke had "crossed the line into unacceptable territory."

Former Rep. Robert Drinan (D-Mass.), a Jesuit priest who served as a Member of Congress from 1971 to 1981, so enraged the church hierarchy with his defense of abortion after it was legalized in 1973 that the Vatican in 1980 issued a general order requiring all priests to withdraw from politics.

But Carr - who is doing his part to gin up opposition to pro-abortion rights Catholics holding political office - said he's tired of Democrats making Catholics feel "that we're not even second-class citizens" and he contends that pro-abortion rights Democrats like Kerry should "stop making Communion some kind of an election rite."

In a recent Internet column, Carr defended those bishops who are "excommunicating elected officials for not voting their baptismal beliefs."

"The bishop who turns to a Catholic politician and demands he either bring his faith to the political arena or he stop practicing his faith is not strong arming the elected official," Carr wrote for Your Catholic Voice's Web site. "He is, rather, calling him to understand that there is a certain truth and if he does not live it, he will make choices that will bring this nation down. He is calling him off the Catholic fence."

That message is being trumpeted elsewhere.

Last week, the archbishop's column in the Denver Catholic Register decried "Catholic Senators who take pride in arguing for legislation that threatens and destroys life - and who then also take Communion."

In a recent column, Crisis Magazine publisher Deal Hudson took direct aim at pro-abortion rights Catholic Members of Congress, writing: "Of the 150 Catholic members of the Senate and House of Representatives, more than 70 have pro-abortion voting records. That is a direct legacy of [John F.] Kennedy's public disavowal of this Catholic face."

The Catholic League has taken its crusade one step further, arguing that beyond the question of Kerry's stance on abortion, there is "no evidence that John Kerry and Teresa Heinz were ever married in the Catholic Church."

"To say this raises serious issues - especially given his willingness to present himself for Communion - would be a gross understatement," Catholic League President William Donohue recently said.

Kissling chalked Donohue's statements up to "eucharistic voyeurism" - "he's like the little old lady standing behind her lace curtains peeking out and seeing what time the kids come home and are they kissing on the steps."

But beyond that, she believes most bishops are going to avoid such tactics - at least on a broad scale.

"Ultimately, they just can't go after Kerry. That means going after 70 Members of Congress who are Catholic who are pro-choice," Kissling said. "If they do that, they might as well close up their lobbying shop. Bishops aren't one-issue men. They have to worry about health care and immigration."

"I think the bishops have to find a better way to agree with the fact that Catholics don't agree with them on the issue" of abortion, she added. agree with them on the issue" of abortion, she added.

This article originally appeared in the 21 April 2004 edition of Roll Call.