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Bishops try to move abortion-politics debate away from Communion rail

By Nancy Frazier O'Brien

Catholic News Service
July 2004

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- As the U.S. bishops attempted to move the debate about abortion and politics away from the Communion rail and into the hearts of individual Catholics, reaction to their June 18 statement on "Catholics in Political Life" indicated that discussion of the topic would continue.

Groups with differing stands on the issue of refusing Communion to Catholic politicians who support keeping abortion legal all seemed to find some support for their position in the 1,000-word document, approved on a 183-6 vote during the special assembly of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops held June 14-19 in Englewood, Colo., a Denver suburb.

"All must examine their consciences" about their worthiness to receive Communion, including with regard to "fidelity to the moral teaching of the church in personal and public life," the document said.

"Given the wide range of circumstances involved in arriving at a prudential judgment on a matter of this seriousness, we recognize that such decisions rest with the individual bishop in accord with established canonical and pastoral principles," the bishops added.

Father Frank Pavone, national director of Priests for Life, focused in a June 19 statement on the section of the bishops' document that said abortion "is always intrinsically evil" and politicians who consistently support abortion risk "cooperating in evil and sinning against the common good."

The document "dispels the confusion that leads some to conclude that all moral issues are equal, or that it suffices for one's opposition to abortion to be 'private and personal' rather than public," Father Pavone said.

Repeating the bishops' statement that abortion "can never be justified," the priest added, "This cannot be said about war, capital punishment or particular policy decisions that do not contradict fundamental moral principles."

Cardinal Roger M. Mahony of Los Angeles, who had strongly opposed any move toward sanctioning Catholic politicians who support abortion by refusing them Communion, said in a June 18 statement of support for the document that the archdiocese would "continue forward with clear teaching and respectful dialogue with all members of the church on the value of human life."

"The archdiocese will continue to follow church teaching which places the duty on each Catholic to examine their consciences as to their worthiness to receive Holy Communion," the cardinal added. "That is not the role of the person distributing the body and blood of Christ."

William Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, had special praise in a June 21 statement for the bishops' declaration that "the Catholic community and Catholic institutions" should not honor those "who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles" with awards, honors or "platforms which would suggest support for their actions."

"For too long, Catholic colleges and universities have bestowed honors on those who have worked overtime to advocate abortion rights, including partial-birth abortion," Donohue said. "They would never honor someone associated with anti-Semitism or racism, but when it comes to abortion, too many have let radical feminists on the faculty rule the day."

The abortion-politics link also has played a role in the Canadian federal elections scheduled for June 28.

If political leaders claim any right to call themselves Catholic, they must "unequivocally and publicly state their opposition to abortion," said Archbishop Anthony Meagher of Kingston, Ontario.

The archbishop, writing in his column for the June-July issue of the archdiocesan newspaper, Journey, also said that Catholic political leaders must be "willing to do what can be done to protect the dignity of all human life."

Although the archbishop did not refer specifically to any Canadian politician, Prime Minister Paul Martin, described in the secular press as "a devout Catholic," has repeatedly defended what he says is a woman's right to have an abortion.

"It is never appropriate for Catholic leaders to claim that acceptance of such denial of human dignity -- for example, abortion on demand -- is a sign of Canada's tolerance and goodness. It is not; it is simply cowardice," Archbishop Meagher said.

Earlier, Bishop Frederick Henry of Calgary, Alberta, called Martin's positions on abortion and same-sex marriage "a source of scandal."

Recalling the 2000 federal election campaign when he took party leaders Jean Chretien and Joe Clark, both Catholics, to task for their support of abortion, Bishop Henry said, "This is more of the same."

In the days leading up to the U.S. bishops' meeting in Englewood, many voices had joined in the debate over support of abortion by Catholic politicians and others.

Writing in the June 21-28 issue of America magazine, Archbishop Raymond L. Burke of St. Louis said "the church herself must refuse the sacrament" when a Catholic politician who "has publicly violated the moral law in a grave matter" does not recognize on his own that he or she does not have "the proper disposition to receive Communion."

An affiliate organization of the American Life League called Crusade for Defense of Our Catholic Church published a full-page ad June 16 asking the bishops to "end this public sacrilege being perpetrated by so-called Catholic, pro-abortion public figures against the body and blood of Christ." The ad cited Canon 915 of the Code of Canon Law, which says that those "obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin are not to be admitted to holy Communion."

Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of Denver, who has been writing a series of columns about the abortion/politics/Communion debate in the Denver Catholic Register, his archdiocesan newspaper, said in his latest column, "None of us earns the gift of Christ's love. None of us 'deserves' the Eucharist."

Denying anyone Communion "should be reserved for extraordinary cases of public scandal," Archbishop Chaput said. "But the church always expects Catholics who are living in serious sin or who deny the teachings of the church -- whether they're highly visible officials or anonymous parishioners -- to have the integrity to respect both the Eucharist and the faithful, and to refrain from receiving Communion."

Bishop William S. Skylstad of Spokane, Wash., USCCB vice president, took a different tack in a column for the June 10 edition of the Inland Register, diocesan newspaper.

"I strongly oppose using Eucharist as a weapon," he wrote. "As a bishop, I believe we are called to persuade, not to bludgeon. ... We have neither need nor call to take God's gifts ... and turn them into weapons of divisiveness and anger."

Speaking at a June 13 Mass at Corpus Christi Parish in Carol Stream, Ill., Bishop Joseph L. Imesch of Joliet, Ill., agreed that "the Eucharist should not be used as a sanction."

"Both the good and the wicked can approach the table,"

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