WASHINGTON — U.S. Catholic bishops are trying to decide just what should be done about pro-abortion politicians who profess to be Catholic.

Discussion about the issue came during an annual fall meeting in which the bishops grappled with several issues that pit the Church against popular and progressive culture in the United States, including same-sex unions, contraception and socially responsible investment.

Also on their agenda was consideration of stewardship, farm issues and liturgical matters. (See stories, page 3.)

The meeting, initially scheduled for Nov. 10-13, finished one day early as the bishops moved up their scheduled items of business to conclude at the end of the day Nov. 12.

A new task force will develop guidelines on how bishops should respond to Catholic politicians and others in positions of public influence who espouse abortion and other positions counter to Church teaching while claiming allegiance to the Catholic faith.

The guidelines, which are not expected to be in final form until after the 2004 elections, are meant to help bishops make distinctions between “respect for the office and approval of the officeholder … to distinguish between fundamental moral principles and prudential judgments on the application of those principles,” said Bishop John Ricard of Pensacola-Tallahassee, Fla., chairman of the task force charged with addressing the issue.

Pete Vere, a canon lawyer and author in Florida, said “it's about time” the bishops took action in this sphere.

Vere hopes bishops conclude that politicians who advocate abortion should no longer receive Communion unless and until they repent.

“We have people publicly cloaked in Catholicism who are caving in to pressure from an issue that appeals to a hedonistic, depraved culture,” Vere said. “Prelates should let it be known that if you prostitute for votes by supporting abortion, then no, you are not welcome to receive Communion — for the sake of your own soul. The Eucharist is the source and summit of the Gospel of life, and abortion is the anti-Eucharist.”

Vere said one hurdle for bishops is the fact that canon law doesn't tell them specifically what to do with politicians who support abortion. Rather, the canons deal only with those who participate directly in abortion.

However, Canon 915 states: “those … who obstinately persist in manifest grave sin are not to be admitted to Communion.”

Presidential hopeful Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., has cited the “separation of church and state” in arguing that his Catholic faith should not affect his vote on matters of abortion. An array of other pro-abortion politicians — including outgoing California Gov. Gray Davis and Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass. — make similar arguments.

Moral Content

Bishops who favor some form of sanctions, however, don't buy those arguements. Religion is morality, argues Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput, and all legislation is based in morality. If politicians didn't legislate morality, he insisted, the United States would still have racist segregation and no Civil Rights Act of 1964.

“All law has a moral content,” Archbishop Chaput told the Register. “That's what law is: the codified ‘ought tos' of a community. So it's perfectly natural and necessary to legislate morality. In a democracy, different moral viewpoints struggle peacefully, somebody wins and their view becomes the law. To behave otherwise is to behave disloyally to the purposes of a democracy. So whenever I hear Catholic politicians claiming that they can't ‘impose’ their Catholic convictions on society, I know right away that either they're not very bright or not very honest.”

If bishops ultimately decide to impose sanctions, Archbishop Chaput said they should involve a series of private steps between the politician and the respective bishop.

“The first, second, third and fourth steps in a bishop's approach should always be private persuasion of the individual politician over a reasonable period of time,” Archbishop Chaput said. “But I would never rule out public penalties. The believing community has the right to clear witness. A publicly obstinate Catholic politician who dismisses Church teaching on a vital issue has already separated himself or herself from the faith. Confirming that publicly may very well become an obligation for the bishop.”

Former Congressman Bob Schaffer, a Colorado Republican, said he allowed his Catholic morality to affect every decision he made as a politician and still managed to be elected three times before abiding by a self-imposed term-limit pledge that took effect in January.

As a politician, Schaffer said he approached priests and bishops on several occasions to suggest they take some form of action to address Catholic politicians who were voting in favor of abortion.

“I know of several conversations that have taken place between priests and politicians that never saw the light of public attention,” Schaffer told the Register. “I'm not convinced that denying a politician Communion or that a woodshed meeting ought to be done for the purposes of making a public statement. However, there comes a point at which a public statement provides tremendous encouragement for Catholics.”

Regardless of what bishops ultimately decide to do with pro-abortion politicians, Schaffer said the laity must take a more active role in calling to task societal leaders who advocate abortion and profess to be Catholic.

“Every Catholic has a moral obligation to confront the Catholic politician who's reckless with his or her moral authority,” Schaffer said.

Defending Marriage

On another issue involving sexual morality, the bishops overwhelmingly approved a short teaching document Nov. 12 on why same-sex unions should not be given the social or legal status of marriage. The bishops were told that rapid developments on the issue across the country led the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishop's Administrative Committee in September to seek development of the statement in time for the November meeting.

The 2,000-word statement, “Between Man and Woman: Questions and Answers About Marriage and Same-Sex Union,” states that marriage between a man and a woman is God's plan, seen in nature and in divine Revelation. It was approved in a 234-3 vote.

But consideration of same-sex marriage was not the only issue the bishops took up in an effort to save the institution of marriage.

During a discussion about publishing a simple brochure for popular use explaining the Church's teaching on contraception, Bishop Joseph Martino of Scranton, Pa., described the use of artificial contraception as a silent marriage-killer in much the same way that high blood pressure is considered a silent killer of people. The consensus of the meeting was that too many Catholics misunderstand and ignore the teaching.

In a voice vote Nov. 12, the bishops approved authorizing their Committee on Pro-Life Activities to prepare the brochure, which would also describe morally acceptable alternatives. It is expected to be ready for comment, amendment and approval at the bishops' meeting next November.

Since 1991, the manufacture of contraceptives, as well as the providing of abortions, has been one of many considerations preventing the bishops' conference from investing money in certain companies.

The bishops Nov. 12 adopted an updated version of their guidelines to help them avoid investments in companies and organizations engaged in activities against Catholic teaching. The update adds new areas of concern, including embryonic stem-cell research, human cloning, pornography, land-mine production, biotechni-cal research, labor sweatshops, human rights and predatory lending.

The abortion section now includes prohibitions against companies “involved in the manufacture of abortifacients and publicly held health care companies that perform elective abortions.”

Wayne Laugesen is based in Boulder, Colorado.

(Catholic News Service contributed to this report.)