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This article appears in the November issue of Catholic World Report.

As the US presidential campaign accelerated toward its conclusion, political analysts became increasingly persistent with their questions about how John Kerry’s Catholicism would affect the outcome. American Catholic voters appeared tobe split on that issue—as did their bishops.

By Philip F. Lawler
Philp Lawler is the editor of Catholic World Report and CWNews.com

Since July, when John Kerry formally accepted the presidential nomination of the Democratic Party, each passing month has brought a sharper question about the candidate’s Catholic identity. At first loyal Catholics were debating whether Kerry should be denied the Eucharist, because of his public advocacy for abortion, embryonic research, and homosexual unions. Later, the focus shifted to the question of whether it would be sinful for a Catholic to cast his ballot for a pro-abortion candidate. By late October a new and still more provocative question was raised: Was Kerry subject to the penalty of excommunication because of his support for legal abortion?

All of these questions figured, sometimes prominently, in the secular media coverage of the presidential campaign. Each question elicited a flurry of arguments and counter-arguments—not only from avowedly partisan supporters and opponents of John Kerry, but also from members of the American Catholic hierarchy. But none of these key questions would be resolved definitively before Election Day.

“A political battleground”

In June, at a closed-door meeting in Denver, the US episcopal conference had approved an interim policy that allowed each diocesan bishop to set his own policies as to when—if ever—a prominent public figure should be denied Communion. Archbishop Raymond Burke had forced the discussion of that issue, by announcing that he would not administer the Eucharist to a political figure who dissented from Church teachings on the dignity of life, and making it quite clear that he was including John Kerry in that category.

Several bishops quickly took the opposite position. In Cleveland, Ohio, Bishop Anthony Pilla issued a statement pointing out that “refusing Communion to politicians who support keeping abortion legal is not part of the pastoral tradition of the Church.” If by “tradition” he meant to refer to the past 30 years of pastoral practice in the US, his statement was undeniably correct. Since the Roe v. Wade decision, no American prelate has ever denied Communion to a pro-abortion politician, although—perhaps not coincidentally—the number of prominent Catholic officials endorsing legal abortion has grown steadily.

But now Archbishop Burke was calling upon his brother bishops to take more decisive steps. Church leaders had issued countless statements condemning the slaughter of the unborn, he reasoned; and authoritative Vatican documents such as Evangelium Vitae had made it abundantly clear that the Church’s teaching on this point was non-negotiable. Insofar as some politicians persisted in their public dissent, the time had come for disciplinary action.

But Bishop Pilla demurred. While conceding that abortion is a grave in justice, he argued that “the battles for human life and dignity and for the weak and vulnerable should be fought not at the Communion rail, but in the public square.” From Pensacola, Florida, Bishop John Ricard sounded a similar theme, saying: “I do not support those who would want to turn the reception of the holy Eucharist or the Communion line into a partisan political battleground.”

Bishop Ricard’s statement was remarkable in that his criticism seemed clearly directed at a brother bishop (Burke). Moreover, he seemed to be making the very damaging claim that a brother bishop’s policy was guided not by religious zeal or pastoral concern, but by political enthusiasm.

Who was it, after all, who proposed to turn “the Communion line into a partisan political battleground?” Archbishop Burke had explained that he felt compelled to deny the Eucharist to dissident politicians, in order to avoid a grave public scandal. And one could argue that it was Kerry who made the question a political issue, when he persisting in coming forward for Communion, even after several prelates— including his own Archbishop Sean O’Malley of Boston—had said that he should not do so.

There was an oddly asymmetrical quality to the debate among American bishops earlier in the summer. The “conservative” bishops like Archbishop Burke—soon joined by others including Bishops Robert Vasa of Baker City, Oregon, and Fabian Bruskewitz of Lincoln, Nebraska—directed their public statements against the actions of unrepentant public sinners. The “liberal” bishops replied by criticizing their own brother bishops. One group of bishops tried to address the source of a scandal; the other group tried to quiet the complaints without addressing the scandal itself.

Successive volleys

The debate started by Archbishop Burke had begun to simmer down in late July, when Bishop Vasa joined the fray by saying that he, too, would deny the Eucharist to pro-abortion politicians in his Oregon diocese. Asked whether that policy would apply to Kerry, he answered: “Absolutely.”

Two weeks later, three bishops from southeastern cities joined in a public statement, unequivocally saying:

. . . we declare that Catholics serving in public life espousing positions contrary to the teaching of the Church on the sanctity and inviolability of human life, especially those running for or elected to public office, are not to be admitted to Holy Communion in any Catholic church within our jurisdictions: the Archdiocese of Atlanta, the Dioceses of Charleston and Charlotte.

The statement was signed by Archbishop John Donohue of Atlanta, Georgia; Bishop Robert Baker of Charleston, South Carolina; and Bishop Peter Jugis of Charlotte, North Carolina.

But these statements were met by conflicting policy announcements from other American bishops. Archbishop Alexander Brunett of Seattle, Washing ton, for instance, counseled dissident politicians that they should “voluntarily withdraw from Eucharistic sharing.” [emphasis added] But at the same time he cautioned: “Ministers of the Eucharist should not take it upon themselves to deny Holy Communion to anyone who presents themselves.” [emphasis added]

Week after week, the statements by American bishops came in a series of volleys. Every bishop who spoke out on the issue agreed that Catholic politicians should oppose abortion—although a few pulled their punches by adding that a pro-life stance should include opposition to the death penalty and the war in Iraq as well. Most bishops agreed that public figures who opposed Church teachings on the sanctity of life should not receive Com munion. But only a few took the next step, and said that these dissidents should be denied the Eucharist. The few who took that stand emphasized that they would withhold Communion only with great reluctance, and only after having given ample warning to the individuals concerned. Those who took the contrary position invariably followed Archbishop Brunett’s insistence that it would never be appropriate to withhold Communion.

So once again the argument was not symmetrical. One group of bishops tried carefully to draw a line, arguing that any Catholic who crossed that line should not receive Communion. Their opponents in the public debate did not attempt to argue that the line was being drawn in the wrong location; they con tended that no line should ever be drawn at all.

Ranking the issues

In August, during his ad limina visit to Rome, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick told the Italian daily Avvenire that it was “impossible” to find an ideal presidential candidate in the US. Nevertheless, the cardinal said, the American bishops would “present the faithful with the criteria that should guide them toward political choices worthy of a Catholic.” Such choices, he said, should take into account the candidates’ views on issues involving respect for human life.” But he quickly added that voters should give equal weight to “questions tied to peace and social justice, as well as aid for the poor.”

Since Cardinal McCarrick heads a special committee of the US bishops’ conference charged with suggesting how the hierarchy should respond to public figures who oppose Church teachings, Avvenire understandably pressed him on the question of whether pro-abortion politicians might be denied the Eucharist. The cardinal—who had earlier said that he would not be “comfortable” withholding the Communion from anyone—offered what had now become a standard reply, saying that “the Eucharist is not the appropriate place for political battles.” He also confirmed that his committee would not issue any further recommendations on that topic until after the November elections. (At the June meeting of the US episcopal conference, the McCarrick committee had recommended against denying the Eucharist to dissident politicians; the body of bishops had set aside that recommendation in establishing their policy that allowed individual diocesan bishops to set their own policies.)

Cardinal McCarrick’s Avvenire interview created the impression that abortion, euthanasia, and homosexuality were important but not overriding questions. Moreover, when he cited war and welfare policy as equally weighty issues for Catholic voters to consider, he was raising issues on which the US bishops’ conference has been critical of the Bush administration. But if his statement hinted at partiality toward Kerry, it was soon directly contradicted by another member of the US hierarchy.

Writing in the Wall Street Journal on September 17, Archbishop John Myers stated flatly: “Certainly policies on welfare, national security, the war in Iraq, Social Security or taxes, taken singly or in any combination, do not provide a proportionate reason to vote for a pro-abortion candidate.”

Archbishop Myers (who succeeded McCarrick as head of the Newark, New Jersey, archdiocese) explained that since abortion involves the direct and intentional destruction of human lives on a massive scale, Catholic voters are morally obliged to give that issue unquestioned top priority. He continued:

Thus for a Catholic citizen to vote for a candidate who supports abortion and embryo-destructive research, one of the following circumstances would have to obtain: either (a) both candidates would have to be in favor of embryo killing on roughly an equal scale or (b) the candidate with the superior position on abortion and embryo-destructive research would have to be a supporter of objective evils of a gravity and magnitude beyond that of 1.3 million yearly abortions plus the killing that would take place if public funds were made available for embryo-destructive research.

If any readers were tempted to say that the war in Iraq constituted a moral crime equal in gravity to legal abortion, Archbishop Myers quickly closed that door, emphasizing that the circumstances he had sketched, under which Catholic voters might choose a pro-abortion candidate, were purely hypothetical. “Frankly,” he said, “it is hard to imagine circumstance (b) in a society such as ours.”

Read Part 2 of this article here.

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