News Intelligence Analysis
From the New York Times
May 14, 2004
Bishop Would Deny Rite for Defiant Catholic Voters
By LAURIE GOODSTEIN
The Roman Catholic bishop of Colorado Springs has issued a pastoral letter saying that American Catholics should not receive communion if they vote for politicians who defy church teaching by supporting abortion rights, same-sex marriage, euthanasia or stem-cell research.
Several bishops in the United States have warned that they will deny communion to Catholic politicians who fail to stand with the church, but Bishop Michael J. Sheridan of Colorado Springs is believed to be the first to say he will extend the ban to Catholic voters.
"Anyone who professes the Catholic faith with his lips while at the same time publicly supporting legislation or candidates that defy God's law makes a mockery of that faith and belies his identity as a Catholic," Bishop Sheridan wrote.
In a telephone interview, the bishop said: "I'm not making a political statement. I'm making a statement about church teaching."
Since voting is a private act, there would be no way for the bishop or a priest to know whether to give communion. Catholics believe that those who know they are in the church's good graces may present themselves for communion.
Bishop Sheridan's order, published in his diocesan newspaper on May 5 and applying only to Catholics in his diocese, comes at a time when bishops across the country have issued a spate of conflicting directives on whether to discipline errant Catholic politicians. The dispute has intensified as the bishops debate whether to make an example of Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, the probable Democratic candidate for president and a Catholic who has consistently favored abortion rights.
Several cardinals and bishops have said they would rather try to persuade disobedient politicians in private talks than to threaten them with public sanctions.
Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick of Washington, who is heading a committee studying how bishops should relate to Catholic politicians, said Thursday in his archdiocesan newspaper that he did not favor using the eucharist as a "sanction."
Cardinal McCarrick wrote, "I do not favor a confrontation at the altar rail with the sacred body of the Lord Jesus in my hand."
Cardinal Roger M. Mahony of Los Angeles told the National Catholic Reporter in Rome on Thursday that Mr. Kerry would be welcome to receive communion in the Los Angeles archdiocese. Cardinal Mahony had a private meeting with Mr. Kerry on May 5.
The committee of bishops headed by Cardinal McCarrick is not expected to issue recommendations until after the presidential election.
In the absence of a unified national position, individual bishops are producing widely diverging directives, causing widespread confusion, said Russell Shaw, Washington correspondent for the Catholic publication Our Sunday Visitor and a former spokesman for the bishops.
"There's probably a rather small number of bishops who are strongly in favor of denying communion," Mr. Shaw said. "Probably a somewhat larger but not overwhelming number rather strongly oppose doing that. And the third and far away largest group are those who just wish the whole issue would go away."
The letter from Bishop Sheridan will undoubtedly intensify the debate, partly because it sounds in places like a political endorsement, Catholic observers said.
Bishop Sheridan wrote that the November elections were "critical" because for the first time since the Roe v. Wade decision by the Supreme Court legalizing abortion in 1973, the number of abortions was declining.
"We cannot allow the progress that has been made to be reversed by a pro-abortion president, Senate or House of Representatives," the bishop wrote.
Opposition to abortion "trumps all other issues," he wrote, and gay marriage is "deviancy."
Bishop Sheridan was appointed last year to lead the small diocese with 120,000 members in Colorado Springs, a conservative city where dozens of evangelical Christian ministries are based.
In the interview, the bishop said that his aim was to clarify the standards for Catholic voters and that he hoped they applied them in their choice of candidates. He said that on the "basic moral teachings of the church,'' there is no "wiggle room."
He also said he hoped to reform the "cafeteria Catholics" who believed it was acceptable to pick and choose the doctrines they agreed with.
"I pray for them, but it could very well mean they're going to go their own way,'' he said. "You never like to see it, but it happens."
The bishop wrote that Catholics who vote contrary to church teaching "jeopardize their salvation."
He said they would be denied communion "until they have recanted their positions and been reconciled with God and the church in the sacrament of penance."
Chester Gillis, a professor of theology at Georgetown, predicted that some Catholics would recoil at the notion that their votes would "threaten the perdition of their eternal soul."
Dr. Gillis said of Bishop Sheridan's order, "It might backfire because Catholics may resent what some may consider the intrusion of the church into politics."
He added that many Catholics still associated the current set of bishops with the clergy sexual abuse scandal. "This may strike many Catholics as an odd time for bishops to be asserting their moral authority," he said.
Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company
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