Wis. Bishop's Ban on Communion for Some Politicians Causes Furor

By Juliet Williams
Green Bay News Chronicle [Wisconsin]
Downloaded January 11, 2004

MILWAUKEE (AP) - A Roman Catholic bishop who waded into politics with a decree that lawmakers who support abortion rights can no longer receive Holy Communion has ignited a debate over the separation of church and state.

Bishop Raymond Burke of La Crosse cited Vatican doctrine, canon law and teachings by the U.S. bishops in an announcement telling diocesan priests to withhold communion from such lawmakers until they "publicly renounce" their support of abortion rights.

"This is about as stark a decree to come down against Catholic politicians as we've seen in recent history," said Barry W. Lynn, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Americans United for the Separation of Church and State.

"The problem with it is that elected officials have to represent people of all faiths and none, and not adhere to one religious demand like the bishop's," he said.

Burke, 55, became diocesan administrator in December, when Pope John Paul II named him archbishop of St. Louis. Burke signed the decree in November, when he still had the authority to do so, but it was not made public until Thursday.

This week, a national Catholic Church audit named La Crosse as one of about 20 dioceses in the country that failed to fully comply with a policy on sexual abuse by priests, adopted in June 2002.

La Crosse diocesan spokeswoman Rose Hammes issued a statement Friday saying the diocese was taken off the list. She said Burke filed an appeal Friday of the "erroneous listing" and was notified about 4 p.m. by the general counsel's office with the U.S. Conference of Bishops that it had been granted.

In November, Burke wrote letters to at least three Catholic lawmakers, telling them they risked their faith by continuing to vote for measures he termed anti-life, including abortion and euthanasia.

U.S. Rep. David Obey, a Democrat from Wausau who received a letter from Burke, said Friday that he respects the sacred oath he took to uphold the U.S. Constitution.

Obey said Burke can instruct him on faith and morals in his private life, but should use "persuasion, not dictation" to affect his political votes. He said Burke had "crossed the line into unacceptable territory."

State Senate Minority Leader Jon Erpenbach, D-Middleton, who was raised Catholic but is no longer practicing, said good works by Catholics in the past have been done "without prejudice or judgment."

"Dictating public policy for people of all faiths by holding sacraments hostage from those who believe does not sound right," Erpenbach said.

Dan Maguire, a professor of theology at the Jesuit Marquette University in Milwaukee, called Burke a "fanatic" who has embarrassed the Catholic Church by using bullying tactics.

"He is not a theologian and he is making terrible mistakes that have been addressed in theology in the past," Maguire said. "He's making a fool of himself. And the politicians are absolutely within their Catholic rights to ignore him."

Sister Mary Ann Walsh of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops said she had not seen the decree and could not comment on it, but "those generally are matters to be decided between a bishop and a person he's dealing with."

The Vatican and U.S. Bishops have for years urged Catholic legislators to consider their faith when they vote, and a task force of bishops is weighing whether to recommend sanctions for Catholic politicians who support policies contrary to church teachings.

In his notification, Burke said his duty as bishop is "to explain, persuade, correct and admonish those in leadership positions who contradict the Gospel of life through their action and policies."

Other Wisconsin dioceses say they are not likely to follow suit.

"There's been no indication in the five months Bishop (Robert) Morlino's been here that he's ever done something like that or plans to do that," said Bill Brophy, spokesman for the Diocese of Madison.

The Rev. Philip Heslin of the Diocese of Superior also did not expect Bishop Raphael M. Fliss to do anything similar.

Milwaukee spokeswoman Kathleen Hohl said Archbishop Timothy Dolan was on a retreat Friday and would not comment on the decree.

Green Bay Bishop David Zubik issued a statement that did not follow Burke's approach but said Zubik's effort to encourage Catholic legislators to advocate pro-life issues demands "first a pastoral outreach on my part and a willingness to receive my concerns on the part of the legislators."

Burke is to be installed in St. Louis Jan. 26, raising concerns that he may issue the same decree there.

Missouri state Rep. Tom Villa, D-St. Louis, said he votes against abortion rights but doesn't like the idea of a bishop telling him he must.

"I happen to be right as far as the incoming bishop is concerned on the pro-life stuff. I am clearly wrong on capital punishment," Villa said. "I would have a problem with anybody telling me I can't receive communion. Your faith is something that's very personal."

Pro-Life Wisconsin hailed Burke's decree as a moral victory against abortion, saying it would help the group hold all Christian politicians and voters responsible for upholding "natural and moral law."

Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin spokeswoman Lisa Boyce said politicians are the servants of the public, not religious groups.

"This is a much more coercive tactic than any special interest group could get away with," she said.

On the Net:

Americans United for Separation of Church and State:

Catholic Diocese of La Crosse:

U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops:


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