A Divisive Issue for Catholics: Bishops, Politicians and Communion

By Daniel J. Wakin
The New York Times [United States]
May 31, 2004

he Roman Catholic bishops who have recently suggested that Catholic politicians who support access to abortion are not fit to receive the sacrament of communion are few in number. But their words have stirred strong passions among Catholics far and wide, prompting discussions that raise questions about the meaning of being both an American and a Roman Catholic.

In interviews with two dozen Catholics, plenty of anger streamed toward the church's hierarchy for what was seen as meddling in politics. But there was also a sense of comfort among some that bishops were taking a stand on an issue - abortion - that has become so firmly fixed in the American landscape.

The effects of the clergy sexual abuse scandal on the current debate were inescapable, with a number of people faulting the bishops for cracking down on politicians while looking away from the sexual assaults of minors by some priests.

"I mistrust the bishops so much that I'm kind of cynical," said Daniel W. Sexton, 41, a lawyer in Jersey City. He described himself as strongly opposed to abortion and as an orthodox Catholic who attends a traditional Latin Mass. "We've got enough problems of our own."

But reflecting the ambivalent feelings of many Catholics, Mr. Sexton said there was a place for both Christian teaching and moral preaching in the public square and, principally, among all Catholics, not just office-seekers. "You have to articulate what the teaching is," he said.

Catholic politicians, abortion and communion merged into a recent subject of attention in the pews with the Democratic presidential candidacy of Senator John Kerry, a Roman Catholic who believes in the right to abortion.

According to a survey by Catholics for a Free Choice, an advocacy group, 4 bishops have said they would deny communion to politicians who support access to abortion; 17 have urged them to avoid taking the sacrament; and 138 said they would not readily impose such a sanction. The bishops who would deny communion are Archbishop Raymond Burke of St. Louis and Bishops Joseph A. Galante of Camden, N.J., Michael Sheridan of Colorado Springs and Fabian Bruskewitz of Lincoln, Neb. The group did not survey all 195 dioceses and archdioceses. Some Catholics have been spurred to action over the pronouncements by the bishops. Ashley Merryman, 36, a lawyer in Culver City, Calif., has a page on her personal Web site called Cast the First Stone on which she asks people to send stones to the four hard-line bishops as a sign of displeasure.

After 15 years away from the church, Ms. Merryman said, she recently returned. "If I was still on the outs wondering whether to go back to the church, and then I saw the sex scandal, and the bishops saying, 'You're not welcome if you vote this way,' I would never have re-entered," she said.

A businessman in the Colorado Springs diocese, Ric Kethcart of Parker, Colo., said he would retract a $100,000 pledge to build a new church in the diocese unless Bishop Sheridan withdrew his pronouncement that Catholics who vote for politicians who support abortion rights should abstain from communion. The retraction was previously reported in The Denver Post.

"The position that he took is basically an attempt to impose guilt and sin on people who choose to vote for politicians," Mr. Kethcart said in a telephone interview. "It's a direct slap at historic Irish Catholic Democrats in this country."

Matthew Guagliardo, 59, of Clovis, Calif., who said he was a liberal Catholic and had missed Mass only twice in 18 years, said that any bishop who condemned politicians or even voters over a position contradicting church teaching was effectively disenfranchising Catholics.

"No one, Catholics or otherwise, likes to be dictated to, particularly in a country where we cherish our freedom," said Mr. Guagliardo, an unemployed compliance officer for financial services companies.

For others, a higher law prevails. "There are rules that are rules, and you can't change them because times change," said Sorina Antela, an executive administrative assistant from North Miami, Fla. Even though she believes in abortion rights, she said, she supports the bishops who would deny communion to politicians who feel that way.

Ms. Antela, 33, said she attends Mass regularly but does not take communion because her view on abortion violates church teaching. "I'm just like a million other Catholics," she said. "I'm torn between the two issues."

Aaron Talbot, a 38-year-old banker in Denver, showed no such ambivalence. "I agree with what Bishop Sheridan and the others are doing," said Mr. Talbot, who called himself a devout and conservative Catholic. "These are beliefs and practices that go back for centuries, long before politics came into play. Politics is a Johnny-come-lately."

Some of those interviewed said they thought the bishops were diverting energy from persuading Catholics themselves of the church's position on abortion. (Catholic views roughly reflect that of the general population, according to polls.) Others said the bishops should also address Catholic politicians who do not share church disapproval of other matters, like the war in Iraq and the death penalty.

"It is jarring to hear a small minority of bishops single out Democratic politicians for their pro-choice thinking and seemingly not singling out Republican pro-choice Catholics, or pro-death-penalty Catholics of any stripe," said Kevin Doyle, who runs New York State's Capital Defender Office and said he considered himself a faithful Catholic.

Experts on the church are divided on what political effects the communion pronouncements will have. While some Catholic politicians like Mr. Kerry could possibly benefit by being seen as the victims of censorious bishops, the accusation that they are disloyal to their faith could resonate with some Catholics. Most of those interviewed said the four bishops' hard-line positions would probably not influence their vote.

Yet for some, the very intrusion of politics into the arena of faith left a bitter taste.

"Like everything else, politics seems to take over everything," said Maureen McLaughlin, 61, as she left Mass at St. Cecilia's in Boston on a recent Sunday. "It should not take over the church."

But for Michael Weicher, 26, a lawyer who was also at the St. Cecilia's Mass, the bishops were only doing their duty. "That's not influencing your politics," said Mr. Weicher, who came from Chicago to attend his sister's graduation from Boston College. "That's judging you as a Catholic, which is what they're supposed to do as a bishop."

Even some of those who agree with the church's teaching on abortion sounded alienated by the debate.

"If you're against it, you should be against it," Coleman Nilan, 35, a computer programmer who lives in Brooklyn, said of public figures who say they are personally opposed to abortion but accept its legality. "By the same token, I think some bishops are grandstanding a little bit."

A Republican, Mr. Nilan said the timing of the criticism was troubling. "If you're going to stick to your guns, I have no problem with it," he said. "But be consistent."

Reporting for this article was contributed by Julie Dunn in Denver, Ellen Harris in St. Louis, Mike Levenson in Boston and Geannina Munizaga in Miami.


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