Holy Orders?

In A Major Test Of Ecclesiastical Authority, The Nation's Roman Catholic Officeholders Follow Church Law

Bishop Raymond Burke of La Crosse, Wisc., is totally out of patience with Roman Catholic officeholders who break with the hierarchy's view on issues such as reproductive rights, euthanasia and stem-cell research.

Last year, Burke decided it was time for a crackdown. Several Wisconsin lawmakers in late August received letters from the prelate ordering them to toe the church line at the state capitol or risk being denied communion and other church sacraments.

"You have failed to restrict the evils of abortion when the opportunity presented itself," Burke charged in the letters. "I call upon you to consider the consequences for your own spiritual well-being, as well as the scandal you risk by leading others into serious sin."

Elsewhere the letter observed, "As a faithful member of the Catholic Church, you have an obligation to fulfill the duties of your office with regard not only to the laws of the state, but also with regard to the moral law." ("Moral law" is Burke's code language for Catholic teachings.)

Burke intended the letters to be an opening shot across the bow. In at least one case, the bishop demanded that an independent-minded member of the state legislature come meet with him to discuss the missive. But the lawmaker, Democratic Sen. Julie Lassa, had other ideas. She did not schedule a meeting and later told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that she considered Burke's letter inappropriate.

"I'm concerned that the bishop would pressure legislators to vote according to the dictates of the church instead of the wishes of their constituents because that is not consistent with our democratic ideals," Lassa said. "When I was elected, I swore an oath to uphold the Constitution, and that means I have to represent all the people of all faiths in my district."

Burke, who since mailing the letters has been promoted to archbishop and sent to St. Louis, was not fazed by the defiance. Days later he issued a five-paragraph directive ordering all priests in the diocese to withhold communion from dissenting politicians.

"I hereby call upon Catholic legislators, who are members of the faithful of the Diocese of La Crosse, to uphold the natural and divine law regarding the inviolable dignity of all human life," read the statement, titled merely "Notification."

It goes on to assert, "To fail to do so is a grave public sin and gives scandal to all the faithful. Therefore, in accord with the norm of can. 915, Catholic legislators, who are members of the faithful of the Diocese of La Crosse and who continue to support procured abortion or euthanasia may not present themselves to receive Holy Communion. They are not to be admitted to Holy Communion, should they present themselves, until such time as they publically [sic] renounce their support of these unjust practices."

Burke's actions put him on the cutting edge of a new crackdown by the nation's Roman Catholic bishops against church members who hold public office but disagree with the hierarchy on issues like abortion, sexuality and end-of-life matters.

If the reaction to Burke's command is any indication, the bishops are in for a rough ride. Several Catholic lawmakers contacted by the Wisconsin news media said they considered the Burke directive highly inappropriate. All indicated that they would not change the way they vote.

"It's not for people to decide whether I'm a bad Catholic because I'm going about my job in a consistent way. That's for God to decide," said Pedro Colon, a Milwaukee Democrat who serves in the Wisconsin House of Representatives. "I never thought my salvation would be a topic for public debate."

U.S. Rep. David Obey (D-Wisc.), a Catholic who has supported reproductive choice, backed Burke's right to communicate with legislators, but added, "Under the Constitution, the public has a right to know that, in the end, the votes I cast are driven by my own independent judgment and conscience, not by a set of marching orders given by any church hierarchy, prelate or associated lobby group."

Burke's missive wasn't the first time he has waded into controversy. Late last year he ordered a church-run AIDS ministry to stop participating in a fund-raising walk, alleging that some of the groups taking part promote homosexuality. Burke also ordered church groups not to take part in an anti-hunger march because some of the groups in it provide artificial birth control in the Third World. He has also told Catholic parents not to let their children read the popular "Harry Potter" books.

During his tenure in La Crosse, some parishioners also criticized Burke's decision to spend $25 million to erect a shrine to Our Lady of Guadalupe at a time when he was also consolidating financially struggling parishes and closing Catholic schools.

Given Burke's views, it's not surprising he would be among the first to join the new crackdown on Catholic politicians. If some members of the hierarchy have their way, however, he may not be the last. During a meeting of U.S. bishops in Washington last November, church leaders formed a task force to study the issue of how to turn up the heat on straying Catholic politicians. The group is headed by Cardinal Theodore W. McCarrick of Washington, D.C.

Although Catholic moral and social teaching addresses numerous issues, the bishops seem most incensed over Catholic officeholders who vote to uphold legal abortion. At the Washington meeting, this issue, along with other divisive social matters, such as gay marriage, occupied much of the bishops' time.

"I get tired of hearing Catholic politicians say, 'I am personally opposed to abortion,' or whatever, 'but I can't impose my moral standards on everybody else,'" said Bishop Joseph A. Galante of Dallas during the meeting. "That's a weaseling-out."

McCarrick added that Catholic lawmakers have an 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."

Church leaders have yet to decide what the penalties will be for politicians who refuse to heed their demands, but sanctions could include bans on speaking at Catholic institutions, denial of the sacraments and even the extreme move of excommunication. (Some members of the hierarchy have jumped the gun and are already moving to impose some of these penalties. Bishops in New Jersey and Texas have already announced that pro-choice Catholics in public life, which includes elective office, will not be permitted to speak at Catholic schools or other institutions.)

The bishops' attempt to crack down on U.S. politicos isn't occurring in a vacuum, and it's not entirely a homegrown movement, either. The effort is an outgrowth of a pronouncement issued by the Vatican in January of 2003 addressing Catholic lawmakers worldwide.

The Vatican decree, which received little attention in the American media, ordered all Catholic officeholders to adhere to church teachings on abortion, physician-assisted suicide, parochial school aid, divorce and same-sex marriage. It was widely ignored in Western Europe, where the church's influence on politics has been on the wane for decades, but it apparently struck a chord in the United States.

Vatican officials denied that the 18-page pronouncement, titled "Doctrinal Note on Some Questions Regarding the Participation of Catholics in Political Life," was designed to dictate how Catholic lawmakers should vote. But the document's hard-line language makes it difficult to interpret it any other way.

"Those who are directly involved in lawmaking bodies have a grave and clear obligation to oppose any law that attacks human life," reads the document. "[L]aws must defend the basic right to life from conception to natural death. In the same way, it is necessary to recall the duty to respect and protect the rights of the human embryo."

The Catholic Church is required to address matters of secular law, the document asserts; it goes on to insist that the church's view of these contentious issues must prevail even if that means the differing views of other religious groups must yield.

"If Christians must recognize the legitimacy of differing points of view about the organization of worldly affairs," the directive observes, "they are also called to reject, as injurious to democratic life, a conception of pluralism that reflects moral relativism. Democracy must be based on the true and solid foundation of non-negotiable ethical principles, which are the underpinning of life in society."

The statement, produced by the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, was signed by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger and approved by Pope John Paul II.

Observers say the American bishops' renewed push for fealty from U.S. politicians could be designed to affect the outcome of the 2004 elections, from the presidency on down. Three of the nine candidates seeking the Democratic presidential nomination are Catholics, and all three U.S. Sen. John F. Kerry, U.S. Rep. Dennis Kucinich and retired Gen. Wesley Clark are pro-choice on reproductive rights. (Clark often attends Presbyterian services but says he still considers himself Catholic.)

Other prominent pro-choice Catholics in office include House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.), Senate Minority Leader Tom Dashle (D-S.D.) and California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R).

It remains to be seen how aggressive individual bishops would be if a more wide-ranging crackdown is ordered but some are clearly ready to go.

Last April, Bishop Robert Carlson of Sioux Falls, S.D., sent a letter to Daschle, asking him to stop calling himself a Catholic, and several church leaders have already banned pro-choice Catholics from the pulpit.

In the Daschle case, Carlson is reported to have taken the extraordinary step of ordering the Senate minority leader to remove his religious affiliation from his biography in congressional directories and campaign documents as well as to stop publicly referring to himself as a Catholic.

The letter was reported in the conservative Weekly Standard magazine, but its text was never made public. After the controversy hit the media, Carlson softened his tone, issuing a statement saying, "I would never break off dialogue or a pastoral relationship with anyone." Carlson did concede that he has urged Daschle in the past to reverse his support for legal abortion and that he will continue "inviting people to pray for the senator's conversion."

Some progressive Catholics defended Daschle, and there's evidence that the crackdown will encounter significant resistance from some U.S. church members. Progressive Catholics and other critics charge that the bishops are being hypocritical in their choice of issues, noting that church leaders complain when pro-choice Catholics vote to uphold abortion rights but rarely say anything when anti-abortion Catholic officeholders vote in favor of the death penalty, even though the church opposes capital punishment in most instances.

The Vatican document, for example, never once mentions the death penalty. There are many conservative, anti-abortion Catholics in Congress and state legislatures who also favor capital punishment, yet none has been threatened with denial of the sacraments or excommunication.

Critics say the same argument could be applied to church teachings on social justice. Historically, the Catholic Church has shown great concern for the poor and disadvantaged, arguing that national economies should not be structured to favor the rich. Yet no U.S. Catholic lawmaker has been punished for backing policies that give the bulk of tax cuts to the wealthy or for opposing health-care plans that would cover poor, uninsured Americans.

Last August, Michael L. Shield, a Washington, D.C., lawyer, raised these issues in a column in the National Catholic Reporter.

"God gives every person the wonderful gift of free will, and for conservative Catholics to claim that liberal Catholics are not Catholic based on the single issue of abortion is both shortsighted and hypocritical," Shields charged. "Conservative Catholics likewise hold views inconsistent with the church on issues dealing with the death penalty, poverty and war. Jesus warns us of those who 'preach but do not practice.' Conservative Catholics should heed this advice and stop condemning liberal Catholics and work to create a better dialogue with their fellow Catholic brethren."

Some observers believe the hierarchical crackdown may be the first overture in a wider struggle to reassert church authority over a stubborn American flock that, increasingly, ignores some church teachings.

Despite 30 years of relentless church criticism of legal abortion, for example, most American Catholics remain pro-choice. In addition, very few Americans of any faith agree with the Vatican that abortion should be illegal in all instances even in cases of rape, incest and threat to the life of the mother.

Polls show that even the most observant Catholics reject such hard-line views. One Gallup survey found that among Catholics who attend church every week, as Catholic beliefs dictate, only 22 percent agreed with the bishops that abortion should be illegal in all instances. Catholic women obtain abortions at roughly the same rate as their non-Catholic counterparts and some surveys say slightly higher. A 2002 report by Catholics for a Free Choice found that 66 percent of American Catholics identified themselves as pro-choice, and 56 percent supported physician-assisted suicide.

On issues like use of artificial forms of birth control, sex before marriage and divorce, the bishops' influence on U.S. Catholics is weak. The Los Angeles Times reported recently that 88 percent of American Catholics believe using birth control is morally acceptable, and 67 percent believe premarital sex is permissible. The divorce rate for U.S. Catholics is about the same as for other religious groups.

Pro-choice Catholics say the crackdown is unfortunate but are not convinced it will work. After the Vatican released its "Doctrinal Note," Frances Kissling, head of the Washington, D.C.-based group Catholics for a Free Choice, remarked, "Catholic policy-makers and lay people are better educated in their moral and public responsibility than this document presupposes. They have rejected in the past church demands that they slavishly apply church positions to public policy. This document will not change that respect for essential freedom of inquiry and individual conscience that policy-makers have and cherish."

The bishops are clearly worried that the actions of high-profile Catholics in political life are affecting rank-and-file church members. Church documents warning politicians against voting for legal abortion often say such votes create "scandal." In this usage, the term "scandal" has a very specific meaning. It does not mean merely an embarrassing public imbroglio but rather, according to the Catholic Almanac, refers to "conduct which is the occasion of sin to another person."

In other words, the bishops are arguing that allowing high-profile Catholic politicians to vote in favor of legal abortion could lead to other Catholics backing the procedure as well.

It's also possible that the bishops are feeling pressure over the issue from outside groups. Last year, the American Life League (ALL), an extreme Virginia-based anti-abortion group composed primarily of ultra-conservative Catholics, released a list of pro-choice Catholic lawmakers in Congress and in state legislatures, an act clearly designed to up the pressure on the bishops to act.

"We ask the bishops to engage these people, make clear why this is not acceptable and give them a chance to repent," ALL's Erik Whittington told The Washington Times. "Because they are so public, they could lead large numbers of Catholics to believe this is acceptable."

After the bishops announced they would crack down on wayward Catholic politicians, ALL President Judie Brown called the action "a miracle."

A resurgent movement of traditionalist Catholics is also turning up the heat. Burke's order denying communion to pro-choice officeholders was cause for celebration in this camp, which is closely aligned with the GOP.

"I couldn't be more grateful to the bishop for taking this stand," wrote Deal Hudson, editor of Crisis magazine and a key ally of the White House. "It sends a powerful message to Catholics everywhere that these are serious issues that require serious consideration...and carry serious consequences if they're ignored. (It also sends a message to his fellow bishops to stand up for the Faith.)"

But the bishops' increasingly hard-line attitude, critics point out, can have an unintended negative effect: It can make it difficult for Catholic officeholders to advance politically. Although Catholics account for some 25 percent of the U.S. population and are the largest denomination in the nation, only one member of that faith John F. Kennedy has been elected president.

During the 1960 race, Kennedy took pains to make it clear that as president he would represent all Americans and not blindly follow the dictates of the hierarchy. Legal abortion was not an issue at the time, but some Kennedy foes were worried that, once elected, he would steer tax funds to Catholic schools, establish diplomatic relations with the Vatican or try to write other church tenets into law.

Kennedy dispelled those fears in a noted speech delivered Sept. 12, 1960, before the Greater Houston Ministerial Association.

Asserted Kennedy, "I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant or Jewish where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the pope, the National Council of Churches or any other ecclesiastical source, where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials and where religious liberty is so indivisible that an act against one church is treated as an act against all."

Kennedy went on to say he would act solely in the national interest when considering controversial issues.

Kennedy's ringing words are still recalled fondly today by many American Catholics. Last month, a Massachusetts-based group called Catholic Alliance for Social Justice issued a statement rebuking the bishops for the crackdown, accompanied by a pamphlet reprinting the entire Kennedy speech.

"Unfortunately, the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church has embraced religious fundamentalism as extreme and intolerant as that of Islamic fundamentalists," charged the group. "By doing so they have betrayed the Christian values of charity and social justice with which we were raised and encouraged to embrace as Catholics."

Members of the Catholic Alliance called the bishops' threat to excommunicate pro-choice office-holders "particularly insidious."

But not all American Catholics are enamored of JFK. Some conservative church members charge that Kennedy betrayed the church. In 2002, U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), an ultra-conservative Catholic known for his strident opposition to legal abortion and gay rights, asserted that Kennedy's position did "much harm in America."

Santorum went on to say, "All of us have heard people say, 'I privately am against abortion, homosexual marriage, stem-cell research, cloning. But who am I to decide that it's not right for someone else?' It sounds good. But it is the corruption of freedom of conscience."

Foes of the Santorum view and critics of the church's ongoing crackdown note, with no little irony, that under the new policy, Kennedy would be deemed unfit for the presidency.

A religiously diverse society that values personal freedoms, these critics assert, has a right to be concerned over attempts by religious hierarchies to impose their will on the political system. These efforts, they fear, carry more than a whiff of theocracy about them.

"In a democracy, politicians are elected to enact the will of the people, not to enact sectarian requirements that religious leaders have failed to persuade even their own members to adopt voluntarily," said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United.

"What's troubling about the bishops' new crusade is that it implies that one church's view of contentious social and moral questions should somehow hold sway, even if it conflicts with constitutional principles and the values of a free and open republic," Lynn continued. "Such efforts, if taken far enough, pose a threat to the democratic principles we hold dear."