WASHINGTON – The agenda of the fall meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops said bishops would “debate and vote” on policies regarding Catholic politicians who support abortion.

The bishops, however, chose to do neither, raising concerns about Catholic politicians and Communion.

“I'm disappointed that it wasn't discussed publicly, because it's a great concern for all the people in our nation and for Catholics who are bound to give a very strong witness in this area,” said St. Louis Archbishop Raymond Burke, who's among a handful of bishops who have challenged pro-abortion politicians publicly.

Archbishop Burke said American culture seems poised for more definitive moral direction from Christian leaders, which U.S. bishops failed to provide by skirting the issue of pro-abortion politicians.

“We know from the elections that there's a concern among the general population about moral issues, so I'm particularly disappointed that it wasn't discussed openly at this conference,” Archbishop Burke told the Register.

But Cardinal Theodore McCar-rick, chairman of the Task Force on Catholic Bishops and Politicans, said the committee was not prepared to make any recommended changes to the Denver guidelines. Those guidelines stated that pro-abortion politicians should not be honored or awarded by Catholic institutions and recommended that bishops commit to “maintain communication” with public officials who make decisions about human life and dignity.

“It wasn't supposed to be debated; it was just a report,” said Cardinal McCarrick, defending the decision to forego discussion. “We have the statement that was issued in Denver, and this was basically a bringing-up-to-date of that document, and nothing changed, and there's nothing new in it.”

Cardinal McCarrick spoke to the Register Nov. 17, the last day of the conference and one day after a full-page ad in The Washington Times accused bishops of turning a blind eye to pro-abortion politicians.

“During this year's presidential campaign, only 10 of America's 186 [ordinaries] were bold enough to warn [Sen. John] Kerry that he would be denied the Eucharist in their dioceses,” said the ad, paid for by the American Life League in Stafford, Va.

“They (the American Life League) have been attacking me constantly,” Cardinal McCarrick told the Register.

Cardinal McCarrick has been at the center of the debate about pro-abortion politicians who receive Communion because he chairs the committee charged with studying the issue. Furthermore, as archbishop of the nation's capital, he oversees parishes that serve dozens of pro-abortion Catholic politicians.

“I don't judge people,” he said. “That's not my job. The Lord is the judge. I'll judge in the confessional, of course. But the most important thing is that we keep teaching the doctrine of the Church and that the people hear that and that ultimately they form their consciences by that.”

Last year, the bishops' conference decided to delay until after the presidential election a statement about Catholics in public life who support unjust laws.

Instead, at a June retreat in Denver, they developed a preliminary set of guidelines which said the issue should be dealt with by local bishops and which stopped short of recommending that they deny Communion to pro-abortion politicians.

Cardinal McCarrick said the bishops would develop a “Reader on Catholics in Public Life” and that their doctrine and pastoral-practices committees have agreed to take up the matter of Church teaching on when it is proper for Catholic politicians — and all Catholics — to receive Communion.

The cardinal said, “There will be continuing consultation on the complex theological and canonical aspects of these matters within our conference and with the Holy See.”

Other Business

The bishops, meeting at the Capitol Hill Hyatt Nov. 15-17, two weeks after President Bush was re-elected, chose their own set of new leaders, including Bishop William Skylstad of Spokane, Wash., as president and Cardinal Francis George of Chicago as vice president.

They also agreed to begin a National Pastoral Initiative on Marriage, to join a new national ecumenical forum, to approve a national catechism for adults and to gather annual information about new sex-abuse accusations against Catholic clergy and other Church workers. (See sidebar.)

During discussion of the sex-abuse scandal that the bishops have been dealing with since 2002, Archbishop Daniel Buechlein of Indianapolis reported that there was little support among the bishops for the idea of a plenary council or another suggested alternative, a regional synod of U.S. bishops that would examine root causes of the scandal. Archbishop Buechlein heads an ad hoc committee formed in 2002 to guide the bishops through the proposal to convene a national plenary council.

Faith and Politics

Regarding the task force report on Catholic politicians, Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput told the Register the issue was discussed in one of the closed sessions the bishops held each day.

“I think a lot of bishops in their own diocesan newspapers and in their own meetings with their own pastoral councils and priest councils encouraged activism on these issues, we just don't really know for sure,” Archbishop Chaput said. “I personally know some bishops who wrote wonderful pastoral letters to their people in the weeks before the election — letters that got no national attention. So I think there's a certain amount of criticism that's unjust. I'll do my part to keep this issue alive, because it's a foundational issue.”

Bishop Skylstad said he's satisfied that bishops are addressing the issue in the manner agreed upon in Denver. Although the conference ended one day ahead of schedule, he said discussion and debate was passed over because of a “time limitation.”

“The guidelines that passed in Denver indicated that each bishop in his own respective diocese could make a decision as to how he wanted to handle this in a practical, pastoral way,” Bishop Skylstad said. “As you are well aware, the bishops around the country have not taken the approach of refusing Communion but want to involve themselves in dialogue and in common teaching about the belief of the Church in this regard.”

Cardinal George told the Register he will reserve judgment as to whether bishops are following the guidelines developed in Denver.

“I don't know,” Cardinal George said. “We didn't ask everyone about that, so the conversation goes on.”

Though bishops are no closer to finalizing a policy regarding pro-abortion politicians, some believe the controversy has helped eliminate ambiguity about the Church's stand on abortion rights.

“I think one of the blessings of the last six months, which turned out to be a fiery campaign season, is that Catholic bishops have spoken unequivocally about the immorality of abortion and called on all Catholics to have an informed conscience, informed by the teachings of the Church,” said Milwaukee Archbishop Timothy Dolan.

Oakland, Calif., Bishop Allen Vigneron concurred.

“I, like a lot of bishops, wrote in my diocesan paper that these things — abortion, fetal stem-cell research and euthanasia — are always wrong and always involve terrible evil,” Bishop Vigneron said. “I wrote that, in voting, people need to conform their consciences to the Church's teaching on these important matters. So the message is being heard, even though we didn't address it here.”

Wayne Laugesen writes from Washington, D.C.