PHOENIX — Upon his return from the bishops' June 14-19 retreat in suburban Denver, Bishop Thomas Olmsted, like hundreds of his fellow Church leaders, found reporters knocking down the doors.
He held a press conference, and they demanded to know if he would deny Communion to the politicians who enact abortion laws.
“I would like to be in conversation with them ahead of time to explain why they should not receive Communion, and I would hope that they would not present themselves for Communion on the basis of my explanation,” Bishop Olmsted said.
Bishop Olmstead won't be alone in privately confronting Catholic politicians who receive Communion while they work to keep abortion legal.
An interim statement about Catholics in public life — approved by a 183-6 vote of the bishops June 18 — made two things perfectly clear: Abortion is evil and local bishops should make that known to pro-abortion Catholics in public life.
Other bishops have added that they will also refuse communion to Catholic politicians who present themselves.
No final decision on that point will be announced by the bishops until after their November meeting.
The bishops' document reflects some Vatican input. All members of a bishops-appointed task force on communion and politicians met with Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith at different times this year during their ad limina visits to the Vatican.
The task force has never met with Cardinal Ratzinger as a group and may never.
Most communication takes place through private letters and telephone calls between Cardinals Ratzinger and Washington, D.C., Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, according to the cardinals press spokeswoman.
“We commit ourselves to maintain communication with public officials who make decisions every day that touch issues of human life and dignity,” said one of five points the bishops chose to highlight in their statement.
The other four points said bishops should:
• continue to teach clearly and help other Catholic leaders to teach about the need for legal protection of human life from conception,
• persuade all people that human life is precious,
• encourage Catholics to act in support of pro-life principles and
• forbid Catholic institutions from honoring those who defy fundamental moral principles of Catholicism.
The statement about honoraria should help put an end to the growing phenomenon of celebrities with pro-abortion views giving commencement speeches at Catholic colleges and universities, said Susan Gibbs, communications director for the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C.
“We're still trying to live down the Larry Flynt speech at Georgetown,” Gibbs said, explaining that bishops don't wield full control over Catholic colleges and universities.
In 1999, Georgetown, a Jesuit university, hosted pro-abortion pornographer Flynt — publisher of the hard-core porn magazine Hustler — as graduation speaker.
That year, at least 14 other major Catholic colleges and universities invited pro-abortion commencement speakers, and a few were given honorary degrees.
Gibbs said with the interim statement, bishops have agreed to preclude Catholic institutions from awarding or honoring people in public life who espouse views contrary to Catholic teachings. Inviting a person to speak for graduation, she said, clearly equals honoring that person.
The bishops released the interim statement during a spring retreat they take every five years, even though in weeks leading to the retreat they had no plans for a statement about Catholics in public life until after the November elections.
Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington, D.C., heads the U.S. bishops' Task Force on Catholic Bishops and Catholic Politicians, a seven-member committee appointed in October to examine relations of Catholic politicians and bishops in light of the Holy See's “Doctrinal Note on Some Questions Regarding the Participation of Catholics in Public Life.”
The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, headed by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, published the doctrinal note in November 2002 and directed it to bishops and politicians serving in democratic societies.
“This is a broad-reaching, international document, and the task force is trying to determine which elements of it most need to be addressed in the United States,” Gibbs said. “Abortion is one of the concerns in the note that is clearly an issue in the United States.”
Gibbs said the task force will continue working and will release a permanent statement or statements sometime after November.
She said bishops decided to issue an interim statement partly because several bishops were already speaking out publicly about pro-abortion politicians who receive Communion.
In months leading up to the retreat, several bishops spoke out about Catholic politicians receiving Communion and defending abortion.
Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput cautioned pro-abortion politicians about taking Communion, as did St. Louis Archbishop Raymond Burke; Colorado Springs, Colo., Bishop Michael Sheridan; Fargo, N.D., Bishop Samuel Aquila; Portland, Ore., Archbishop John Vlazny; and New Orleans Archbishop Alfred Hughes.
Pro-abortion politicians and some pro-life activists reacted negatively to the document.
House Rep. Mary Lou Marzian, a Democratic legislator in Kentucky, told the Kansas City Star that it's “dangerous” for religious leaders to tell politicians how to vote, and it's wrong for them to withhold the sacraments. “I go to Communion when I want to go, and no bishop, no Pope, they're not going to keep me from my religion,” she said.
But the American Life League thought the bishops didn't go far enough, and issued a press release that said, “The American bishops have failed.”
The group argued that bishops should have and could have issued a statement saying pro-abortion Catholic politicians should be denied Communion until they repent publicly.
Susan Gibbs said that neither pro-abortion legislators nor pro-lifers should be afraid of the new document.
“Cardinal McCarrick's position on this issue has been very clear,” Gibbs said. “When you have Christ in your hand, do you have a confrontation then and there, or do you talk to the person in question beforehand? I can tell you that a number of pro-choice politicians in Washington crossed the aisle and voted to ban partial-birth abortion because of what took place through conversation, persuasion and dialogue.”
All of this naturally leads to a question about Democratic presumptive presidential candidate John Kerry, a Catholic.
He voted to legalize even partial-birth abortion, in which a doctor induces labor for a child before it can be born naturally, and kills the child with scissors as he or she emerges from the mother. Wouldn't a lawmaker who allows such a thing be barred from communion by Canon 915?
Canon 915 of the Catholic Church's Code of Canon Law states: “Those who have been excommunicated or interdicted after the imposition or the declaration of a penalty as well as others who obstinately persist in manifest grave sin are not to be admitted to communion” (emphasis added).
Kerry's own bishop, Boston Archbishop Sean O'Malley, told Lifesite news that, “These politicians should know that if they're not voting correctly on these life issues that they shouldn't dare come to Communion.”
St. Louis Archbishop Raymond Burke also says Kerry should not receive communion.
“I would have to admonish him not to present himself for Communion,” Archbishop Burke told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. If he did appear in the line, would he confront him? “I might give him a blessing or something,” he said.
Wayne Laugesen writes from Boulder, Colorado.