WASHINGTON — Forty-eight Catholic members of Congress sent a warning letter to Washington, D.C., Cardinal Theodore McCarrick on May 10.

They said the Church's efforts to deny holy Communion to politicians who support abortion could severely harm the Church, and they want to meet with him about it.

The three-page letter was signed entirely by House Democrats. Cardinal McCarrick is chairman of the task force of U.S. bishops considering whether it is a public scandal to offer Communion to Catholic politicians whose votes support abortion.

Cardinal McCarrick said he is open to meeting the group of Catholic Democrats favoring legalized abortion, said Susan Gibbs, the cardinal's spokes-woman.

The bishops' task force expects to complete its work after the presidential election this year, in which Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, a Catholic with a 100% pro-abortion voting record, is the Democrats' presumptive nominee.

“For many years Catholics were denied public office by voters who feared that they would take direction from the Pope,” the representatives wrote. “While that type of paranoid anti-Catholicism seems to be a thing of the past, attempts by Church leaders today to influence votes by the threat of withholding a sacrament will revive latent anti-Catholic prejudice, which so many of us have worked so hard to overcome.”

The Catholic Church, in the Second Vatican Council, teaches that abortion is a “heinous crime.” The Church teaches that abortion kills a living human being, and doing so is wrong not because of Church doctrine but because the killing of the innocent is always wrong.

“We firmly believe that it would be wrong for a bishop to deny the sacrament of holy Communion to an individual on the basis of a voting record,” the letter went on. “We believe that such an action would be counterproductive and would bring great harm to the Church.”

The Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith's 2002 “Doctrinal Note on Some Questions Regarding the Participation of Catholics in Political Life” stated that “those who are directly involved in lawmaking bodies have a grave and clear obligation to oppose any law that attacks human life. For them, as for every Catholic, it is impossible to promote such laws or to vote for them.”

The letter was circulated among 73 Catholic Democrats in the House by Reps. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., and Nick Lampson, D-Texas, who created a “Catholic Voting Scorecard” in April. The scorecard compared the votes of Catholic members of both parties on selected issues defined as legislative priorities by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. It treated welfare reform as equal in importance with abortion.

Both DeLauro and Lampson have a strong pro-abortion voting record. They both voted to keep partial-birth abortion legal. That's the abortion procedure in which a doctor kills a baby with scissors moments before the child is born.

DeLauro, a former executive director for the pro-abortion political action committee Emily's List, received a 100% rating from NARAL Pro-Choice America in 2003. Lampson voted with Planned Parenthood 80% of the time between 1995 and 2001.

Three of the letter's signers have mostly pro-life voting records.

Gibbs said that when and how a meeting with the task force will happen has not been determined. She said the task force has already met with a broad variety of different groups in the United States and Rome as well as with several Catholic conferences in other nations.

“The cardinal considers any correspondence that he receives to be private,” Gibbs said. “In this case, the congressmen wrote a letter to Cardinal McCarrick in his capacity as chairman of the task force and made it public. The task force is trying to operate free of any political overtones.”

At least 15 of the country's Catholic bishops, including bishops in California, Colorado, Florida, New Jersey, Louisiana, Missouri, North Dakota and Oregon, have publicly stated that Catholic politicians who support abortion should voluntarily abstain from the Eucharist. Four have announced they would deny the sacrament to such politicians.

In late April, Cardinal McCarrick met privately with Democratic presidential hopeful Kerry just days before Kerry spoke at a pro-abortion rally. In his May 13 column in the Catholic Standard, the Washington, D.C., diocesan newspaper, Cardinal McCarrick offered his approach to the question.

“As a priest and bishop, I do not favor a confrontation at the altar rail with the Sacred Body of the Lord Jesus in my hand,” he wrote. “There are apparently those who would welcome such a conflict, for good reasons, I am sure, or for political ones, but I would not.”

Bishop Michael Sheridan of Colorado Springs, Colo., went further.

In a May pastoral letter to the people of his diocese, Bishop Sheridan stated that any Catholic who votes for candidates who support abortion, illicit stem-cell research or euthanasia may not receive Communion “until they have recanted their positions and been reconciled with God and the Church in the sacrament of penance.”

Author and canon lawyer Pete Vere said the issue bishops are facing is illuminated by canon law.

“All baptized Catholics have a right to the Eucharist, but that right is not absolute,” he said. “That is outlined in Canon 915.”

Canon 915 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.”

“If these politicians are so concerned about their right to holy Communion being denied, it's about time they took a look at their responsibility for the common good and the right to life of children in the womb,” Vere said. “Not only are they doing nothing to stop this evil, but they're promoting it. A certain level of political compromise is possible, but one cannot compromise on those issues that involve intrinsic evil.”

Those bishops who have spoken publicly about Catholic politicians receiving the Eucharist say they have done so out of concern for the souls of the faithful.

“We need to be cognizant of the whole question of judgment and the eternal things,” Fargo, N.D., Bishop Samuel Aquila told the Register. “On the day of our personal death and judgment, we will have to stand before God to say how we lived our life in the world. God will probably care less if one was Republican, Democrat or Independent. What he will care about is whether we live the truth, proclaim the truth and live it in the world.”

In early May, New Jersey Gov. James McGreevey said he would no longer receive holy Communion after Archbishop John Myers of Newark, Bishop John Smith of Trenton and Bishop Joseph Galante of Camden spoke publicly on the issue.

In response to Bishop Sheridan's pastoral letter, businessman Ric Keth-cart told the bishop in an open letter that he would revoke his $100,000 pledge for a church-building campaign in Highlands Ranch, Colo., unless Bishop Sheridan recanted.

Peter Howard, the bishop's executive assistant, said Bishop Sheridan would not be intimidated by money.

“The Church doesn't exist because of money,” he told the Denver Post. “The Church started out poor, and if such teachings and teaching the truth results in people withholding their money, so be it. That's sometimes the price of the Gospel.”

“Bishops who call upon Catholic legislators to protect the rights of the unborn lest they jeopardize their Catholic standing are simply exercising their episcopal authority,” said William Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights.

“Both the bishops and the Catholic lawmakers have a free-speech right to say what they want,” he said. “But if the latter seeks to cry ‘separation of church and state’ against the former, then it must be equally wrong for Catholic agents of the state to tell the bishops what to do.”

Tim Drake writes from St. Cloud, Minnesota.