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Bishops Keep Status Quo on Politicians, Abortion

The decision of whether to deny Communion over the issue is left to local prelates.

June 19, 2004|Larry B. Stammer | Times Staff Writer

The nation's Roman Catholic bishops, under election-year pressure to take a stand on whether Catholic politicians who support abortion rights should be denied Holy Communion, said Friday that it was up to each local bishop to decide.

The issue had intensified after several bishops said that Sen. John F. Kerry, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee and a Catholic, should be barred from receiving his church's sacrament because he supported abortion rights.

The controversy went as far as the Vatican, found Kerry in private meetings with two U.S. cardinals and finally forced the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to take up the issue Friday during what was supposed to have been a spiritual retreat at Englewood, Colo.

In the end, the U.S. bishops, on a 183-6 vote, simply reaffirmed existing Catholic governance, which leaves such decisions up to the local bishop.

Bishops said there could be any number of reasons and a "wide range of circumstances" that a local bishop would have to take into consideration. "Bishops can legitimately make different judgments on the most prudent course of pastoral action," they said.

Church scholars and theologians said Friday that the fact that the bishops chose not to speak out more forcefully, as some conservative prelates had hoped, pointed to division within their ranks.

Nonetheless, the bishops underscored the church's view that "the killing of an unborn child is always intrinsically evil and can never be justified." Bishops also served notice that lawmakers had "an obligation in conscience to work toward correcting morally defective laws, lest they be guilty of cooperating in evil and in sinning against the common good."

In February, Archbishop Raymond Burke of St. Louis said he would refuse to give Kerry communion because of his stance, and Kerry's own archbishop, the Most Rev. Sean O'Malley of Boston, said such politicians should voluntarily refrain from receiving the sacrament. Then in April, a ranking Vatican cardinal said priests must deny communion to Catholic politicians who supported abortion. Later, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the Vatican's doctrinal watchdog, cautioned U.S. bishops not to allow Holy Communion to become embroiled in election-year politics.

Last month, Bishop Michael Sheridan of Colorado Springs, Colo., escalated the public controversy when he said that even Catholics who voted for politicians who supported abortion rights, euthanasia, same-sex marriages and stem cell research involving human embryos should be denied communion.

In the midst of the controversy, Kerry met privately with Cardinal Roger M. Mahony in Los Angeles and Cardinal Theodore McCarrick in Washington. But neither prelate would say what was discussed.

Mahony said Friday that in the Los Angeles archdiocese, the nation's largest, he and his priests would not deny communion to a Catholic politician who supported abortion rights.

He said the church taught that it was the duty of every Catholic to examine their consciences as to their worthiness to receive communion.

"That is not the role of the person distributing the body and blood of Christ," Mahony said.

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