Report: Bishop Told Senator Not to Claim Catholicism

Features Correspondent

SIOUX FALLS, S.D.—Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., has reportedly been ordered by his bishop to stop identifying himself as Catholic.

Daschle, who was raised Catholic, has not only voted to keep abortion legal at all stages in an unborn child's life but also has participated in direct fund raising for the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League (now called NARAL Pro-Choice America).

An article in Weekly Standard by Jody Bottum and MSNBC's “Joe Scarborough Show” both reported April 17 that Bishop Robert Carlson of the Sioux Falls Diocese wrote a letter to Daschle instructing him to “remove from his congressional biography and campaign documents all references to his standing as a member of the Catholic Church.”

Neither Bishop Carlson's office nor Daschle's office was willing to comment. Instead, both sides released press statements.

Chris Bois, a staff member in Daschle's press office, e-mailed the Register the following statement by Daschle:

“I have been a Catholic all my life, and I will remain one. Every American's religious convictions are deeply personal, and I am not going to participate in a debate that is intended to politicize anyone's religious beliefs, especially during Holy Week.

“I have had the benefit of Bishop Carlson's guidance on many public and private issues, and that relationship will continue. However, I will not discuss our private conversations in the media.”

Donna Cannon, administrative assistant in the Diocese of Sioux Falls’ communications office, forwarded a statement from Bishop Carlson.

“It is true that Sen. Tom Daschle and I have had a number of discussions on the abortion question and many other issues,” the statement said.

“As a religious leader in South Dakota, I have spoken out on a whole variety of issues over the years at the local, state and national level,” it continued. “I have encouraged the senator to reconsider his position with regard to abortion and his support for NARAL. However, other than inviting people to pray for the senator's conversion, I do not believe it is appropriate for me to discuss my pastoral relationship with the senator or anyone else. I would never break off dialogue or a pastoral relationship with anyone.”

Neither Daschle's office nor Bishop Carlson's office would confirm whether the letter from the bishop to Daschle reported by the Weekly Standard had been sent.

“Bishop Carlson and Sen. Daschle have had correspondence,” said Jerry Klein, chancellor for the Sioux Falls Diocese, “but to characterize any of that does not allow the bishop to carry out a pastoral relationship.”

According to a follow-up article by Bottum, books and arts editor with the Weekly Standard, offices of both the bishop and the senator were making determined efforts to discover who leaked the information about the bishop's letter.

Whatever its status, the letter has people in South Dakota talking.

“I' thankful that Bishop Carlson had the courage to send such a letter to Daschle,” said Greg Balfrage, a radio talk show host at KELO-AM 1320 based in Sioux Falls. “Bishop Carlson has reminded all Catholic Christians that we must do more than simply give lip service to our religious beliefs. We must exemplify those values in our public lives.”

Not the First Run-In

This is not the first time Bishop Carlson and Daschle have sparred.

In 1997, the two publicly disagreed over partial-birth abortion prior to a Senate vote on the issue.

While Daschle said he supported a ban of the procedure, he offered a compromise that allowed exceptions for women who claimed mental or physical health reasons for having the procedure. Bishop Carlson described the compromise as a “smokescreen ... for pro-abortion senators and President Clinton.”

In response, Daschle criticized the bishop on the Senate floor for speaking in a way “more identified with the radical right than with thoughtful religious leadership.”

Then, just before the November elections, on Oct. 29, 2002, NARAL sent out via e-mail a national fund-raising appeal written on NARAL's behalf by Daschle.

In response Bishop Blase Cupich of Rapid City, S.D., ordered that a letter be read at all Catholic Masses the weekend prior to the election.

In that letter, Bishop Cupich said, “Since Sen. Daschle has ... decided to frame this year's election uniquely as a referendum on abortion, he should know that there are citizens of good will in both parties who reject this extreme position and who cannot let it go unchallenged,” and he urged all eligible voters to vote.

Bishop Carlson later told the Sioux Falls Argus Leader he was mystified by Daschle's position on abortion.

“NARAL claims him as one of its No. 1 supporters,” Bishop Carlson said. “I don' understand how he can be in touch with South Dakotans as much as he is and yet consistently have a pro-abortion record.”

Vatican Notification

Any action taken by Bishop Carlson appears justified in light of the Vatican's recent document examining the role of Catholics in public life.

In January, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued “Doctrinal Note on Some Questions Regarding the Participation of Catholics in Political Life.”

That document states, “A well-formed Christian conscience does not permit one to vote for a political program or an individual law which contradicts the fundamental contents of faith and morals.”

Bishop William Weigand of Sacramento, Calif., was the first U.S. bishop to refer to the note in public criticism of a politician when in late January he criticized Catholic California Gov. Gray Davis’ public support of abortion.

Bishop Weigand told the Register, “I have to say clearly that anyone—politician or otherwise—who thinks it acceptable for a Catholic to be pro-abortion is in very great error, puts his or her soul at risk and is not in good standing with the Church.”

Daschle is one of at least 12 pro-abortion Catholics in the U.S. Senate.

In January, the Stafford, Va.-based American Life League listed Daschle in its “Deadly Dozen” advertisements—ads that looked much like “wanted” posters suggesting such senators were “wanted” for fraudulently claiming the Catholic faith.

The organization also mailed a letter to the bishops responsible for the 12 senators, calling on bishops to “actively prevent openly pro-abortion politicians ... from receiving holy Communion.”

Only Bishop Carlson responded. “It is my understanding that [Daschle] neither attends church nor receives holy Communion on the rare occasions when he is in church,” he wrote. “I have documented this and again would be interested if you have information to the contrary.”

“We respect Bishop Carlson and his attempt to deal privately with the senator,” said Judie Brown, president of American Life League. “It would truly add insult to injury if anyone in Sen. Daschle's office had anything to do with releasing private information to the media. It is obvious that Bishop Carlson takes his responsibility as a shepherd of the Church very seriously.”

Her group was not alone in its efforts to shine a light on the behavior of pro-abortion senators. The Austerlitz, N.Y.-based Catholic Family Association of America believes the clamor over Daschle's Catholicism is a direct result of its prayer effort.

In January 2002, Catholic Family Association of America initiated a Divine Mercy Prayer Project soliciting prayer and fasting for the souls of prominent pro-abortion Catholic politicians and encouragement for their bishops. The organization handed out 30,000 prayer cards at the January 2002 March for Life in Washington, D.C., and distributed another 20,000 across the country.

To date, Catholic Family Association of America has received pledges for approximately 7,500 days of prayer and fasting specifically for Daschle and Bishop Carlson.

The apostolate also sees the power of prayer in the timing of the public spat.

“The Daschle situation became public on the very eve of the novena to the Divine Mercy, which began Good Friday evening and completes on Divine Mercy Sunday,” said Timothy Chichester, president of the Catholic Family Association of America.

“The senator needs to understand that, to paraphrase St. Thomas Aquinas, 'Sin makes you stupid,’ “Chichester said. “His self-destructive behavior is in direct proportion to his prideful rejection of Sioux Falls’ Bishop Carlson's solicitous efforts to help him regain a Catholic conscience.”

Tim Drake writes from St. Cloud, Minnesota.