DENVER — In stark and dramatic language, the Roman Catholic bishop of Colorado Springs, Colo., has declared that anyone voting for a politician who supports same-sex marriage, abortion rights, stem cell research or euthanasia will be denied communion in the church.
The presidential election, Bishop Michael Sheridan said in a letter to the diocese newspaper May 1, will be one of the most important in history -- "critical in the battle to restore the right to life to all its citizens, especially the unborn and the elderly and infirm."
Though other bishops across the nation have said that politicians who support abortion rights would be denied communion in their diocese, Sheridan is the first to threaten Catholic voters with the sanction.
"Any Catholic politicians who advocate for abortion, for illicit stem cell research or any form of euthanasia ipso facto place themselves outside of full communion with the church and so jeopardize their salvation," Sheridan wrote. "Any Catholics who vote for candidates that stand for abortion, illicit stem cell research or euthanasia suffer the same fateful consequences."
The letter said nothing about capital punishment, but Sheridan in the past has said that the death penalty was not as weighty as the other issues.
Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), the presumed Democratic presidential nominee, is a Catholic who supports abortion rights. His candidacy has ignited controversy over church teachings and how they apply to politics. The archbishop of St. Louis, Raymond Burke, said he wouldn't give communion to Kerry because of his political views. Bishops in Boston, Portland, Ore., and New Orleans have agreed that politicians who support abortion rights shouldn't take communion.
But Cardinal Roger M. Mahony of Los Angeles told the National Catholic Reporter on Thursday that Kerry could receive communion in his diocese and that it was not the role of bishops to deny worshipers the sacraments.
Sheridan, who heads a diocese of 125,000 members, did not return calls seeking comment.
His letter is likely to have little practical effect, since most people receiving communion aren't quizzed about their political beliefs beforehand.
Still, it caused consternation.
Denver District Atty. Bill Ritter Jr., a Catholic who is against abortion, called Sheridan's statement tragic.
"What is disturbing is that he has broadened the field pretty significantly by saying anyone in an elected position, anyone who supports them or votes for them suffers the sanction of having communion withheld," he said. "Receiving the sacrament of communion is the most significant and sacred ritual available to Catholics, so to withhold it is an extremely punitive measure."
Ritter said the bishop's letter offered little nuance and confined voters to single issues without recognizing the complexity of the choices before them.
In the state legislative district where he lives, Ritter said, both candidates support abortion rights.
"If I abide by Sheridan, I am disenfranchised in that election," Ritter said.
Withholding sacraments from political enemies has a long history in the Catholic Church.
"It's been a tradition going back to the early popes who, if they didn't like a politician, would deny them communion," said Lynn Ross-Bryant, professor of Western religion at the University of Colorado. "It was done traditionally as a power play. To be cut off from the sacraments means you are cut off from the grace of God."
Sheridan, a 59-year-old St. Louis native, took over the Colorado Springs diocese in 2003. The city is home to more than 100 evangelical Christian organizations -- including the politically powerful Focus on the Family, led by James Dobson.
"It's very offensive to find a bishop ... threatening members of his own diocese," said Mary Lou Makepeace, the former Colorado Springs mayor who now heads the Gay & Lesbian Fund for Colorado. "I'd like an equally strong stance against priests who abuse children who, so far as I know, still take communion."
The bishop's letter called same-sex marriage deviant and said that denying homosexuals the right to marry was not denying them a human right, because "no one has a right to that which flies in the face of God's own design."
He said the future of the world depended on family, and family depended upon marriage. "For this reason marriage and family life cannot be whatever we want them to be," he said.
Sheridan went on to say it was a "distortion" to assume separation of church and state meant people could not let religious beliefs guide how they voted.
"In no way does the American separation of church and state even suggest that the well-formed consciences of religious people should not be brought to bear on their political choices," he wrote.