DENVER — The Communion-for-politicians issue is so momentous even non-Catholics see its importance.

And they're pressuring the bishops, too.

Much of the noise during the bishops' mid-June meeting in a Denver suburb was from non-Church members such as world-famous pro-life crusader Randall Terry — an evangelical Christian who claims allegiance to the Church.

Terry submitted a letter to bishops during their retreat week of prayer and meditation June 14-19, urging them to “please end the [Sen. John] Kerry scandal.” It was signed by hundreds of Protestant evangelicals, including Phil Sheldon of ConservativePetitions.com, whose father, the Rev. Lou Sheldon, is chairman of the Traditional Values Coalition.

Not only did Phil Sheldon sign Terry's petition, but he himself also has lobbied bishops to crack down on pro-abortion politicians and has raised money regarding the issue.

Outside the perimeter of the hotel where the bishops were meeting, Terry and dozens of followers staged protests, vigils and press conferences, leading passers-by and media types to ask: Is Terry Catholic?

“I was of the impression that this was a Catholic organization trying to pressure its own leaders,” said John Robbins, a Methodist who drove past the protesters on his way to work for five days of the bishops' six-day retreat. “They're not Catholic? They're not part of that system?”

When one asks Terry that question, it gets confusing. Terry admits he's not Roman Catholic — at least not yet — but insists he's Catholic in an expansive sense, that he respects the Pope and loves the Church. He says there's no question that at Roman Catholic Mass the Eucharist is the true presence of Jesus Christ.

“I'm probably more Catholic in my beliefs, when it gets down to it, than the vast majority of Roman Catholics,” said Terry, noting that an alarming number of Catholics believe the Eucharist is only symbolic.

Those words come as no surprise to Austin Ruse, a Catholic and president of the Culture of Life Foundation, a pro-life organization. Ruse said non-Catholic Christians often argue they're really just Catholics who have a few issues with the papacy or the bishops or what they believe is a tendency of Catholics to worship Mary.

What the bishops do regarding pro-abortion Catholics, Ruse said, is an “in-house” issue. Non-Catholic activism toward bishops, he said, merely confuses the public about an issue that's already steeped in confusion and misinformation.

“Randall Terry expects John Kerry to be denied Communion because he doesn't agree with life issues, and that's certainly a commendable stand. But Terry himself doesn't believe in purgatory, which is doctrinal to the Catholic faith,” Ruse said. “It puzzles me where he thinks he has any standing for this type of campaign aimed at an institution he's not part of. I'm flummoxed.”

Outside activism aimed at the bishops began to annoy Ruse when Terry conducted an e-mail fund-raising campaign for his Denver vigil.

Terry has plans to raise more funds for more activism aimed at bishops in cities throughout the United States.

But Terry demurred, saying he has raised only between $3,000 and $4,000 regarding the Communion-for-pro-abortion-politicians issue.

“And that didn't even pay the cost of staging the event,” he said, arguing that the cost of travel, supplies and lodging exceeded what was donated.

Converting?

“I spent a lot of time in jail hanging out with Catholics” who were also arrested at abortion businesses, Terry said. “I often go to Catholic priests for confession. I'm a Catholic; I'm just not a Roman Catholic. But it is out of respect and understanding and in the spirit of Vatican II collegiality and ecumenism that I'm rising to the occasion to call on bishops to be heroic and courageous defenders of truth.”

Terry belongs to the International Communion of the Charismatic Episcopal Church, which claims to receive its apostolic succession through the Catholic Apostolic Church of Brazil.

It's nice that he cares, Ruse said. But unless and until he becomes Roman Catholic, he should stop taking center stage regarding in-house issues such as policies of Roman Catholic bishops.

“We welcome him with open arms if he decides to join the Church, but it's a bad start to picket the bishops as someone who stands outside the organization,” Ruse said.

Terry won't rule out becoming Roman Catholic. He's just waiting for God to lead him there. He claims to be a voracious reader of Catholic literature, enjoying the works of George Weigel and Catholic convert Scott Hahn.

The Other Child Abuse

The biggest issue Terry has with U.S. bishops is what he sees as the lackadaisical approach many of them take regarding defense of the unborn. The interim statement issued during the retreat, he argues, says it all.

“They say in this statement that they do not endorse nor oppose candidates but seek to form the consciences of people so they can examine the positions of candidates,” Terry said. “What they could say is that a Catholic cannot in good conscience vote for a candidate who supports the slaughter of innocent human beings.”

Professor G. Daniel Harden, a religious scholar at Washburn University in Topeka, Kan., said Terry and Ruse both have legitimate points.

Harden calls Terry a “freelance Catholic” who should use caution and sensitivity in his efforts to sway Catholic bishops. Likewise for Sheldon and any other Protestant leaders who lobby bishops and their followers.

“Terry and Ruse both have good points,” said Harden, a member of the board of directors of the Society of Catholic Social Scientists, an organization of Catholic scholars based at Franciscan University of Steubenville in Ohio.

“Obviously, who bishops decide to give Communion to is up to the bishops within the context of Catholic traditions and beliefs,” he said. “Yet while that's an in-house issue, virtually anything that happens in the Catholic Church has culturally universal effects. Therefore, Christians outside of the Church have legitimate concerns when bishops are not vigorously defending the teachings of the Church, because everyone else is affected. What the Catholic Church does often sets the standard for all conservative Christians.”

Wayne Laugesen writes from Boulder, Colorado.