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Catholic Bishops Playing Politics with Communion

Several Roman Catholic Bishops are getting national attention for their recent announcements that pro-choice Catholic politicians should not be able to receive communion.

After months of campaigning by anti-choice groups like the American Life League and a statement from the Vatican urging Catholic politicians to follow church doctrine, several Bishops have spoken out in favor of denying communion to pro-choice politicians. In January, Raymond Burke, a Roman Catholic prelate recently appointed as archbishop of St. Louis, ordered his priests to refuse to give Communion to Catholic politicians who support a woman’s right to abortion. He had imposed the same sanction previously as bishop in Wisconsin, but few took notice. In a presidential election year with a Catholic Democratic candidate all but set in stone, however, the edict is receiving far greater attention.

In early May, Colorado Springs Bishop Michael Sheridan wrote a pastoral letter to his 125,000 parishioners entitled, "On the Duties of Catholic Politicians and Voters." He wrote, "any Catholic politicians who advocate for abortion, for illicit stem-cell research or for any forms of euthanasia ipso facto place themselves outside full communion with the Church and so jeopardize their salvation."1 He went one step further and wrote that, "any Catholics who vote for candidates who stand for abortion, illicit stem-cell research or euthanasia suffer the same fateful consequences."2

Other Bishops in places from Camden, New Jersey to Lincoln, Nebraska, have voiced similar opinions. According to a survey conducted for Catholics for a Free Choice, four bishops have said they would deny communion to pro-choice Catholic politicians and another 17 have suggested that such politicians should refrain from communion.3

Some argue that these Bishops are using religion inappropriately and in the process advocating for more doctrine-friendly political candidates whether they happen to be Roman Catholic or not. As The New Yorker recently put it, "In 2004, the most prominent Catholic worrywarts are conservative prelates. Their fear is not that the candidate who happens to be Catholic will be defeated but that he will be elected."4 With 26% of the population who vote in this country identifying as Roman Catholic, the Bishops move may have a significant impact.5

The presumptive Democratic nominee, Senator John Kerry (D-MA), will be the first Catholic Democratic candidate for president since the successful 1960 run by the late John F. Kennedy. While Kerry has been mostly silent on the issue, other Roman Catholic politicos have been more vocal. For example, 48 Catholic Democratic members of Congress signed a letter to Washington, D.C.’s conservative Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, who is heading a panel of Bishops investigating how clerics should relate to Catholic politicians. The Congressional members said the threats by church leaders to deny communion to pro-choice politicians were "deeply hurtful" and "miring the church in partisan politics."6 They also pointed out that Catholic Church doctrine is against the death penalty and is highly skeptical of pre-emptive war, however the Catholic bishops haven’t refused communion to those politicians that support these policies. Finally, they requested a meeting with McCarrick. A spokesperson for McCarrick said that he was open to meeting with the legislators but that it might take some time for the other bishops on the task force to be convened.

New Jersey’s Senate Majority Leader, Bernard Kenny (D-Hoboken), left the Catholic Church after 57 years as a result of the Catholic Church’s stance on this issue. He told the Philadelphia Inquirer that he decided to leave after a meeting with his pastor. Kenny asked his pastor if, as a politician who supports abortion rights and stem-cell research, he would be denied Communion. His pastor said that should he receive Communion one more time, he would be asked not to come again.7

In reality, American Catholics tend to be more individualistic, particularly on the issue of abortion. In a 2004 telephone poll of 1,500 American Catholics conducted by Le Moyne College and Zogby International, 24% believed that a "woman has [a] right to choose in all instances" and 15% "support[ed] abortion rights but oppose late-term abortions."8 A 1999 study of 875 lay Catholics commissioned by the National Catholic Register found even greater dissension from the Vatican’s current position. In that poll, 53 percent of respondents said that it was possible to be a good Catholic without obeying the church’s teachings on abortion.9

As Frances Kissling, president of Catholics for a Free Choice, recently wrote in the San Francisco Chronicle, "By attacking Sen. Kerry’s practice of faith, conservative Bush Catholics hope to deny him the support of mainstream Catholics. What remains to be seen is the extent to which the Vatican and the U.S. bishops will participate in this strategy. If politicizing the sacraments for electoral gain serves as an indication of the campaign ahead, we are witnesses to bad faith and bad theology."10


  1. J. Nichols, "Kerry and Communion," The Nation, June 14, 2004.
  2. Ibid.
  3. D. Wakin, "A Divisive Issue for Catholics: Bishops, Politicians and Communion," The New York Times, May 31, 2004.
  4. H. Hertzberg, "New Time Religion," The New Yorker, June 7, 2004. Accessed on-line at
  5. J. Nichols, June 14, 2004.
  6. L. Goodstein, "Democrats Criticize Bishops for Threat to Deny Communion," Contra Costa Times (CA), May 20, 2004.
  7. D. Rose, "Pro-Choice Pol Leaving Church," Daily News (New York, NY), May 10, 2004.
  8. C. Eisenberg, "Bishops’ Order is Debated," Newsday (NY), May 25, 2004.
  9. G. Soulsman, "Abortion, communion dividing Catholics," The News Journal (Wilmington, DE), May 23, 2004.
  10. F. Kissling, "Politicizing the sacraments," The San Francisco Chronicle, May 3, 2004