Catholic Bishops Do the Right Thing by Not Denying Communion to Politicians

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Catholic Bishops Do the Right Thing by Not Denying Communion to Politicians

Ian

At Rewire, we’re willing to give credit where credit is due, and I think credit is due to the US Catholic bishops for their recent decision, reported yesterday, to not invoke a communion ban for politicians who do not support the Catholic Church’s perspective on abortion in their public life.

The possibility of bishops denying communion to such public officials made major news in the 2004 election cycle, when Sen. John Kerry, a Roman Catholic who supports reproductive rights, was targeted by critics for his views. The American Life League has led the efforts to pressure Catholic bishops to deny communion to Sen. Kerry and other politicians, and some in this camp have even called for the excommunication of such politicians. ALL started a campaign, the “Crusade for the Defense of our Catholic Church,” that produced ads demonizing a group they call the “Deadly Dozen” – the “most influential” pro-choice Catholic politicians, which has included Gov. George Pataki (R-NY), Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R-CA), Sen. John Kerry (D-MA), and Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK). There was even a blog – Catholic Kerry Watch – dedicated to defaming John Kerry on account of this issue during the 2004 campaign.

At Rewire, we’re willing to give credit where credit is due, and I think credit is due to the US Catholic bishops for their recent decision, reported yesterday, to not invoke a communion ban for politicians who do not support the Catholic Church’s perspective on abortion in their public life.

The possibility of bishops denying communion to such public officials made major news in the 2004 election cycle, when Sen. John Kerry, a Roman Catholic who supports reproductive rights, was targeted by critics for his views. The American Life League has led the efforts to pressure Catholic bishops to deny communion to Sen. Kerry and other politicians, and some in this camp have even called for the excommunication of such politicians. ALL started a campaign, the “Crusade for the Defense of our Catholic Church,” that produced ads demonizing a group they call the “Deadly Dozen” – the “most influential” pro-choice Catholic politicians, which has included Gov. George Pataki (R-NY), Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R-CA), Sen. John Kerry (D-MA), and Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK). There was even a blog – Catholic Kerry Watch – dedicated to defaming John Kerry on account of this issue during the 2004 campaign.

The bishops decided this week to leave the choice to deny communion up to local bishops, deferring to their personal relationships with politicians as the priority in such decisions. While it may not be a wild endorsement of plurality of belief, here’s why I like their decision: it endorses the separation of Church and State, while respecting both. It leaves the possibility of denying communion – a deeply symbolic and serious act for Catholics – to relationships between clergy and individual believers, within the context of ecclesiastical relationships. It does not endorse the views of radical groups like ALL that say a political perspective should be imposed by clergy on the faithful, nor does it open up further possibilities for political forces to corrupt the free practice of religion by gaining an unwelcome foothold inside church doors.

To look at Sen. Kerry’s situation as an example, groups like ALL repeatedly point to his statements that he does not personally support abortion, but also would not legislate against a woman’s right to choose because of his personal belief. ALL & co. suggest this is somehow being hypocritical. But this is classic American democratic thought. A politician is free to believe as she or he wishes – and free to believe strongly – but remains under an obligation to govern in ways that make room for others to freely exercise their own strong beliefs. For a conservative movement that loves to recall some mostly-imagined day in history when America was a “Christian” nation, I would think critics in this case might recognize the belief in justice, respect for others, and denial of autocratic rule that is bound up in such political thought as essential parts of this nation's past and present. No?

Roe is gone. The chaos is just beginning.

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With no disrespect to Sen. Kerry, even if his personal views on abortion were closer to Judie Brown’s than she would ever care to admit, he and others have held the high ground over her by behaving as American politicians should behave. He has downplayed his personal beliefs and preferences in order to pursue the best public health choices and to respect the beliefs of those he helps to govern. And the Catholic Bishops, I’m sure much to Brown's chagrin again, have at least affirmed that there is room for those politicians like Sen. Kerry to navigate the difficult waters of being faithful to their position in government – even as they are faithful to their religion – without fear of blanket censorship (or worse) from their clergy.

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