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Overstepping the Mark
The Bishops’ Right Flank may be in the Media Spotlight, but the Exposure Merely Reveals its Isolation.
By Michelle A. Ringuette

There is nothing that the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) likes less than the appearance of discord among its members. However, as a recent survey by Catholics for a Free Choice shows, a severe split appears to have occurred over the use of communion as a political sanction against prochoice Catholic legislators. While the current furor began late in 2003, with Bishop Raymond L. Burke of La Crosse, Wis., there has been a concerted campaign by some right-wing Catholic fringe groups calling on US bishops to deny communion to Senator John Kerry and other prochoice Catholic legislators, of whom there are more than 70 in the US Congress alone. While a small number of bishops have decided to extend their bully pulpit into the communion line, the survey shows that this is far from a widespread phenomenon.

CFFC initiated the survey of all US Catholic dioceses to examine how the USCCB and individual bishops treated Catholic politicians who openly expressed prochoice positions. Simultaneously, CFFC monitored, coded and analyzed all public diocesan statements that the bishops made on the issue.

The USCCB reports that there are 146 Latin-rite Roman Catholic dioceses and 32 Latin-rite Roman Catholic archdioceses. Using its website as a starting point, CFFC contacted all of the Roman Catholic dioceses. (The Byzantine and Eastern-rite Eparchies were not pursued as the initial responses indicated that they did not see the relevance of the question as they follow their own code of canon law.) CFFC contacted 178 Latin-rite Roman Catholic dioceses in the US by telephone between April 12 and April 21, 2004, and follow-up calls were made between April 28 and May 3, 2004. Each non-responding diocese has been contacted between two and four times. (See for a full listing.) By June 2004, 137 dioceses had been interviewed by CFFC and a total of 145 dioceses had weighed in on the issue either through that interview, statements or the media.

Each diocesan representative was asked, “Do you have a policy on Catholic politicians who call themselves prochoice?” Follow-up probes included, “Can they receive honors?” “Can they speak on church grounds?” and “Can they receive communion?”

As of June 2004, it remains clear that when it comes to dealing with Catholic politicians who do not vote as the church hierarchy wishes, bishops are forging their own path rather than pandering to the wishes of conservative Catholic organizations. While the majority of US bishops have remained silent on the issue, those who have spoken out or who responded to the survey appear to support Catholics’ right in canon law to receive the sacraments. Indeed, the published USCCB guidelines do not restrict prochoice Catholic politicians from receiving communion, receiving honors or speaking at church-sponsored events.

While 138 dioceses have indicated through their bishops that they would welcome prochoice Catholic policy makers to communion, 19 dioceses have bishops who have encouraged Catholic policy makers to abstain from communion because of their prochoice position.

Only five dioceses have indicated that they will deny prochoice Catholic politicians the Eucharist (Camden, NJ; Colorado Springs, Colo.; La Crosse, Wis.; Lincoln, Neb.; and St. Louis, Mo.). These dioceses are following the directives of four bishops: Bishops Bruskewitz, Burke (who moved from La Crosse to St. Louis), Galante and Sheridan. Bishop Sheridan went a step further. He released a pastoral letter stating, “Catholics, whether candidates for office or those who would vote for [abortion, stem-cell research or for any form of euthanasia] may not receive Holy Communion until they have recanted their positions and been reconciled with God and the Church in the Sacrament of Penance.” Sheridan later issued a partial denial, claiming that his letter had been the subject of “serious misrepresentation” and that he did not state that he would refuse communion to people who voted in a particular way.

As of April 2004, only one diocese—Bishop Burke’s former Diocese of La Crosse—had an established policy on prochoice Catholic politicians. Eighty-five dioceses interviewed by CFFC had standardized but unwritten policies or positions on prochoice Catholic politicians, that is, where the diocese denied having an official policy but could delineate actions and positions it enforced. Six would not bestow honors on a prochoice Catholic politician, 19 would deny speaking opportunities (although many said that they would not permit any politician to speak), and five would deny that policy maker participation in the ministries of the church.

Many dioceses continue to voice no position on the issue. Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, who has refused to take a position, quipped, “I’ve been asked that question so often lately that I have considered a policy of denying communion to reporters.”

Michelle Ringuette is the Director of Communications at Catholics for a Free Choice.
Deborah Washington, a writer/researcher at CFFC, carried out the survey.

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