Weighing in for the first time on a controversial, election-year issue, the leadership of the U.S. Catholic Church said yesterday that it is up to individual bishops to decide whether to give or deny communion to Catholic politicians who support abortion rights, such as Sen. John Kerry, the presumptive Democrat presidential nominee.
"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," the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops said in a statement at a week-long, private retreat in Colorado that ends today. "Bishops can legitimately make different judgments on the most prudent course of pastoral action."
In the statement, the bishops' conference also said for the first time that Catholic institutions should not honor people who defy the church's fundamental principles, which include defending the sanctity of life and opposing abortion. "They should not be given awards, honors or platforms which would suggest support for their actions," the bishops said.
In conclusion, though, the conference warned against using Catholic teaching as a political tool. "The polarizing tendencies of election-year politics can lead to circumstances in which Catholic teaching and sacramental practice can be misused for political ends," it said.
The statement, "Catholics in Political Life," was adopted by a vote of 183 to 6 at the bishop's semi-annual meeting, which was closed to the press. It follows several months of unusually public rancor in the church over an attempt by a small number of bishops to link political stands on abortion to receiving the communion wafer.
The debate over communion and abortion, while not new in the Catholic Church, took center stage this year as more bishops staked out tougher, more public positions in advance of the fall election. Archbishop Raymond L. Burke of St. Louis singled out Kerry by name, saying he would not give the Massachusetts senator the sacrament.
Bishop Michael Sheridan of Colorado Springs went even futher, saying Catholics who vote for politicians who support abortion rights, "illicit" stem cell research or euthanasia should not take communion and "jeopardize their salvation."
In an interview last month, Baltimore's Cardinal William H. Keeler said he opposed bishops politicizing communion. He said that it was up to individual Catholics to determine whether they are in a state of grace with the church before partaking in the Eucharist, the heart of Catholic worship.
"We don't need bishops to get into the act," said Keeler, who could not be reached for comment last night.
Yesterday's statement came after an interim report by the conference's Task Force on Catholic Bishops and Catholic Politicians. Conference officials said the task force, lead by Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick of Washington, D.C., is expected to issue a final report at the bishops' next meeting in mid-November - after election day.