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The US Bishops' Political Activism Against Abortion
Highlights of US Catholic participation in the abortion debate.
Compiled by Lisa M. Hisel and Deborah Rouse Washington

In the thirty-one years since the United States Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade recognized a constitutional right to choose abortion, public debate, media attention, and efforts to limit or overturn that decision have been unrelenting. The most vehement as well as articulate opposition to Roe has come from the country’s Catholic bishops who, some would say, have squandered their moral capital on extensive expenditures and efforts to oppose legal abortion. Some bishops and Vatican officials have even traversed the sacred line between church and state in an effort to control Catholic politicians and voters. Catholics who support Roe or believe that the abortion decision is both serious and legitimately within the moral discretion of pregnant women have also made significant contributions to the debate. Described below are a sample of significant events related to Catholicism and abortion that have occurred over the last twenty-five years.

1966—In response to state initiatives to legalize abortion, then Reverend (now Bishop) James McHugh of the USCC’s Family Life Bureau created the National Right to Life Committee (NRLC). With a small number of antiabortion activists as advisors, McHugh and the NRLC, under the financial and ideological auspices of the Catholic hierarchy, began monitoring abortion laws in the states. After Roe, the NRLC legally incorporated and separated from the USCC and now is the largest antichoice organization in the United States.

January 1973—Two days after the Roe v. Wade decision, the bishops, meeting as the Committee for Pro-Life Affairs, issued a statement that concluded with the lines, “This[decision] is bad morality, bad medicine and bad public policy, and it cannot be harmonized with basic moral principles…. We have no choice but to urge that the Court’s judgment be opposed and rejected.”

April 1973—The NCCB issued “Pastoral Guidelines for the Catholic Hospital and Catholic Health Care Personnel Ad Hoc Committee on Prolife Activities,” which stated that the more than 600 Catholic hospitals then in the US could not “comply with laws requiring them to provide abortion services.” However, at no point before or since Roe v. Wade have Catholic hospitals ever been required to provide abortion services.

September 1973—The Administrative Committee of the NCCB issued a statement in support of an amendment to the Constitution “in defense of unborn human life” as “the only viable means to correct the disastrous legal situation created by the Supreme Court’s ruling on abortion.”

November 1973—The NCCB again called for Congress to pass “a prolife amendment” to the Constitution, saying “We wish to state once again, as emphatically as possible, our endorsement of and support for a constitutional amendment that will protect the life of the unborn. We urge Congress to conduct hearings and move with all deliberate speed to pass a prolife amendment.”

1974—Robert Lynch, then an employee of the NCCB/USCC (now Monsignor Lynch) organized the National Committee for a Human Life Amendment (NCHLA) to support grassroots opposition to Roe and to lobby for passage of an amendment. Unlike the National Right to Life Committee, the NCHLA never severed its ties with the bishops. So as not to jeopardize its tax-exempt status, the NCCB does not directly pay the NCHLA its one-cent per Catholic yearly assessment; rather the assessment is paid by individual bishops directly to the NCHLA.

January 1974—Catholics for a Free Choice held a mock investiture on the steps of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City, proclaiming CFFC founder Patricia Fogarty McQuillan, “Her Holiness Pope Patricia the First.” McQuillan then issued a mock encyclical condemning “1,900 years of blasphemous sexist oppression by the Catholic church.” She said that Jesus was a feminist and that nowhere in his teachings is abortion proscribed. She then proclaimed the day “Freedom of Choice Day for Catholic Women.”

March 1974—Cardinals John Krol of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Humberto Medeiros of Boston, Massachusetts, John Cody of Chicago, Illinois, and Timothy Manning of Los Angeles, California, testified in support of a Human Life Amendment before the Subcommittee on Constitutional Amendments of the Senate Committee on the Judiciary.

August 1974—Father Joseph O’Rourke, then a member of the board of directors of Catholics for a Free Choice, was dismissed from the Society of Jesus, the Jesuits, after he baptized the baby of a prochoice Catholic woman. Over 400 people attended the baptismal ceremony, which was held on the steps of Immaculate Conception Church in Marlborough, Massachusetts. O’Rourke continued to live with his order and appealed his dismissal to Rome, saying that he had a right to baptize the baby and that the mother was a “Catholic in good standing.”

1975 – In what may be the first case on record, Bishop Leo Mather of San Diego issues an order denying communion to Catholics who were “members of pro-abortion groups such as the National Organization for Women.” Subsequently, at least a dozen San Diego NOW members were denied communion at St. Brigid’s Church in Pacific Beach, CA, after they told the parish priest they did not support the hierarchy’s antichoice views. Then CFFC president Jan Gleason, in response to Maher’s action, announced “the first ecumenical service for free choice,” held at Mt. Soledad in San Diego. Father Joseph O’Rourke conducted the service, which was attended by sixty people.

November 1975—The NCCB/USCC announced the “Pastoral Plan for Pro-Life Activities,” reissued in 1985, to mobilize US Catholics against abortion. The plan’s goal – the passage of a constitutional amendment criminalizing abortion – was to be brought about by public information, pastoral care, as well as by legislative efforts aimed at members of Congress: “Passage of a constitutional amendment depends ultimately on persuading members of Congress to vote in favor of such a proposal…. Thus it is absolutely necessary to encourage the development in each congressional district of an identifiable, tightly-knit, and well-organized prolife unit. No matter what it is called, its task is essentially political, that is, to organize people to help persuade the elected representatives.” [italics in original] Abortion became the only issue on which the bishops organized the Catholic laity congressional district by congressional district.

1976—The NCCB arranged separate formal meetings with presidential candidates Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford and the Executive Committee of the bishops’ conference, with the goal of promoting passage of a Human Life Amendment. Then NCCB president Archbishop Joseph Bernardin and Cardinal Terence Cooke of New York testified before the US House of Representatives subcommittee in support of a Human Life Amendment. The USCC’s Office of General Counsel filed an amicus curiae, or “friends of the court” brief in the Supreme Court case of Planned Parenthood v. Danforth, in which the Court struck down a Missouri law that imposed several restrictions on access to abortion.

1976—Lobbyists for the National Committee for a Human Life Amendment, which is funded by the Catholic bishops, pushed for passage of the Hyde Amendment to appropriations legislation for the Departments of Labor, and Health, Education, and Welfare (now the Department of Health and Human Resources). Congress subsequently passed the Hyde Amendment, named after Representative Henry Hyde of Illinois, denying federal reimbursement for abortions under Medicaid, except in cases of rape and incest, and when an abortion is necessary to save the life of the woman.

May 1978—Sister of Mercy Mary Theresa Glynn testified before the Florida State Senate Rules and Calendar Committee in opposition to a proposed constitutional convention on a human life amendment to the state constitution. She said, “I am here to say that the Catholic position [on abortion] is not so cohesive, not so monolithic as is often presented…. I find it hard to see that legislation that would so radically limit choice could be life affirming and growth producing…. I’m asking because people like me have to go around after such legislation and pick up the human pieces.”

October 1979—On the event of Pope John Paul II’s first visit to the United States, Catholics for a Free Choice ran an “Open Letter Concerning Human Rights to His Holiness, Pope John Paul II” in the Washington Post. The ad said “Catholics for a Free Choice believe that the church’s position [on abortion] does not represent the views of the majority of Catholics….”

October 1979—The USCC’s Office of General Counsel filed an amicus curiae, or “friends of the court,” brief in the Supreme Court case of Harris v. McRae, in which the Court in 1980 upheld the Hyde Amendment that denied federal reimbursement for abortions under Medicaid, except in cases of rape and incest, and when an abortion is necessary to save the life of the woman. The bishops supported the Hyde Amendment by saying in their brief that “funding is an expression of an affirmative social value. The ‘Hyde Amendment’ is a limitation on the expenditure of public funds and exists because the commitment of those funds is inextricably bound up with the expression of public morality.”

1980—The Abortion Rights Mobilization (ARM) sued to have the Catholic church stripped of its tax-exempt status because the church participated in electoral political campaigns. In 1990, the Supreme Court upheld a lower court ruling that ARM had not been able to prove that the church’s tax-exempt status had hurt ARM activities. As a result of the ARM lawsuit, the NCCB’s general counsel began issuing detailed instructions to church officials on what political activity was allowable during elections.

May 1980—Massachusetts Representative to the US Congress, Robert Drinan, who was also a Jesuit priest, was ordered to leave politics by Pope John Paul II. Earlier that Spring, the Vatican had issued a general order requiring all priests to withdraw from political office, but Drinan believed it was specifically his support for public funding of abortion while in political office that made him a special target of this order.

September 1980—Archbishop Humberto Medeiros of Boston, Massachusetts, said in pastoral letter that Catholics were not to vote for prochoice Congressional candidates in the state’s Democratic primary. Medeiros’ letter did not mention specific candidates, but it was understood the prohibition was aimed at Massachusetts State Representative Barney Frank, running for a seat in the US Congress, and US Representative James Shannon, running for reelection. Both candidates favored federal funding of abortions for poor women and were opposed by conservative antiabortion candidates.

November 1981—Cardinal Terence Cooke and Archbishop John Roach testified in hearings before the Subcommittee on the Constitution of the Committee on the Judiciary on a bill proposing a constitutional amendment banning abortion. Senators Orin Hatch and Patrick Leahy questioned the cardinal and the archbishop, who seemed unwilling to say on the record that the Catholic church considered that abortion was murder or that an embryo or fetus was a full human person from the moment of conception. After Senator Leahy repeatedly asked about the personhood of the fetus and if abortion was murder, Archbishop Roach said, “Senator, I was about to suggest that it would be helpful for us to give you at least the theological component of the complexity of the answer. We will work on that and submit that to you in writing.”

May 1983—Even as she stressed her personal opposition to abortion, Sister Agnes Mary Mansour resigned from the Sisters of Mercy, her order of thirty years, rather than follow a mandate from the Vatican to quit her position as director of social services for the state of Michigan, a position in which she administered Medicaid funds that could be used to assist poor women seeking abortions.

December 1983—Cardinal Joseph Bernardin put forth his “seamless garment” argument in a speech at Fordham University in New York City. He linked a range of life issues – from abortion and capital punishment and the threat of nuclear war, to the dehumanizing effects of poverty – under a principle called the “consistent ethic of life” or the “seamless garment.” Supporters of this principle call on opponents of war and capital punishment also to oppose abortion, and vice versa. Cardinal Bernardin was widely criticized by antichoice activists for attracting attention away from, and therefore potentially de-emphasizing, the single issue of abortion.

1984—Project Rachel, the Catholic church’s “post-abortion reconciliation,” began in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee and eventually spread to dioceses throughout the United States. The group, whose name was taken from Jeremiah 31: 15-17: “Rachel mourns her children; she refuses to be consoled because her children are no more,” wrote in one of its early pamphlets: “For Catholics, the pain of abortion is intensified by a sense of alienation from God and church. If you are in this position, we want you to know that your church understands and cares. We are a loving and forgiving church, reaching out to you in compassion and concern.”

August 1984—Cardinal John O’Connor of New York said of Catholic prochoice vice presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro that she “may be in trouble with the pope” because she said the church is not monolithic in opposing abortion. Ferraro had gone on record as personally opposed to abortion, but she believed that women should have the right to choose to have an abortion. The US bishops protested that it was not possible to separate moral convictions from public policy positions. The debate received extensive press and media coverage.

September 1984—At Notre Dame University in Indiana, New York Governor Mario Cuomo delivered a speech Religious Belief and Public Morality: A Catholic Governor’s Perspective, which has since become the touchstone for how Catholic politicians reconcile their private and public views and responsibilities on abortion. He said, “While we always owe our bishops’ words respectful attention and careful consideration, the question whether to engage the political system in a struggle to have it adopt certain articles of our belief as part of public morality is not a matter of doctrine: it is a matter of prudential political judgment.… With regard to abortion, the American bishops have had to weigh Catholic moral teaching against the fact of a pluralistic country where our view is in the minority, acknowledging that what is ideally desirable isn’t always feasible, that there can be different political approaches to abortion besides unyielding adherence to an absolute prohibition.”

June 1985—Mary Ann Sorrentino, executive director of Rhode Island’s Planned Parenthood affiliate, received a letter from the leadership of her diocese that told her she had excommunicated herself because her clinic provided abortion services. The diocese’s letter to Sorrentino said “It is not the Bishop of the Diocese who has excommunicated you, but rather you are excommunicated by reason of the universal law of the church. Canon 1398 of the church’s Code of Canon Law states: ‘A person who procures a successful abortion incurs an automatic excommunication….’ The remedy for this sad situation would be for you to renounce your association with abortion clinics and the procurement of abortions and then petition proper church authorities for permission to be admitted to the sacraments.”

September 1987—Simultaneous with Pope John Paul II’s visit to the United States, Catholics for a Free Choice ran a full-page ad in the San Francisco Chronicle that said “Where Motherhood Kills: The Women’s Message for the Papal Visit.” The ad documented the infant and maternal death rates in the poorest parts of the world where the pope had spoken against birth control and abortion.

1988—USCC’s Office of General Counsel filed an amicus curiae, or “friends of the court,” brief in support of Webster in the Supreme Court case of Webster v. Reproductive Health Services, in which the Court in 1989 upheld a Missouri law barring use of public facilities or public employees to perform abortions and requiring physicians to test for fetal viability if a woman is believed to be more than twenty weeks pregnant.

1988—Catholics for a Free Choice, together with Chicago Catholic Women, the National Coalition of American Nuns, and the Loretto Women’s Network, et al., filed a Catholic amicus curiae brief in support of Reproductive Health Services in the Supreme Court Case of Webster v. Reproductive Health Services. CFFC’s brief argued that there is no constant teaching in Catholic theology on the beginning of personhood, and that reproductive autonomy is fundamental to the moral independence of women who must make reproductive decisions free from government coercion. Lawyer and CFFC board member, Patricia Hennessey authored the brief.

May 1988—New York Auxiliary Bishop Austin Vaughan was arrested and jailed for his participation in a four-day Operation Rescue attempt to close-down dozens of abortion clinics in Manhattan and Queens. Over the next several years Vaughan would serve a number of jail sentences for blocking access to and protesting in front of abortion clinics in New York State.

March 1989—Archbishop of Milwaukee Rembert Weakland held six sessions to hear the opinions of Catholic women on abortion. These forums on abortion were the first (and last) of their kind conducted by a Catholic prelate. After the meetings, Weakland issued a statement in which he wrote, “The church’s official position has been clear for decades now: abortion is seen as the taking of a human life and, thus, morally wrong. It could also be said that the church would like its moral position to become the legal position in the nation as well…. But this unequivocal position does not have the full support of many Catholics, especially of many women, because it seems to be too simplistic an answer to a complicated and emotional question and does not resolve all the concomitant problems surrounding the issue raised in a pluralistic society….” Weakland was condemned by many conservative Catholics for misrepresenting church teaching on abortion. Petitions were circulated demanding that Weakland be disciplined and the Vatican barred the theology faculty of the University of Fribourg in Switzerland from granting Weakland an honorary degree because it asserted he had caused “a great deal of confusion among the faithful.”

June 1989—Archbishop Roger Mahoney of Los Angeles issued a policy statement to Catholic legislators in his diocese, as well as to the national press, in anticipation of the Supreme Court’s decision in Webster v. Reproductive Health Services. The statement, “The Truth That Makes Us All Free: Catholic Officials and the New Abortion Debate,” said “It seems clear to me that Catholic officeholders -- Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives -- have a positive moral obligation … to work for an America in which the abortion liberty is repealed, in our culture and in our laws.” [italics in original]

October 1989—Cardinal John O’Connor of New York said he wanted to become involved in Operation Rescue but his lawyers said it would be “inappropriate.”

November 1989—Bishop Leo Mather of San Diego informs State Assemblywoman Lucy Killea, a prochoice Catholic Democrat running for office in a heavily-Republican district, that she may no longer receive communion. Killea won by a whisker and her opponent, Carol Bentley blamed the bishop’s intervention for her defeat. Killea took communion elsewhere and honored the ban until after she retired from the state Senate in 1996.

1990—The USCC’s Office of General Counsel filed an amicus curiae, or “friends of the court,” brief in the Supreme Court case of Rust v. Sullivan, in which the Court in 1991 upheld federal regulations prohibiting family planning clinics that receive federal funds from informing pregnant patients that abortion is a legal option or from discussing abortion.

April 1990—Concerned over the increase in the numbers of prochoice Catholics, the Committee for Pro-Life Activities of the NCCB/USCC retained the public relations giant Hill & Knowlton to handle their antichoice agenda. The $5 million consulting arrangement, paid for by the Knights of Columbus, was at once greeted with public outcry and embarrassment over the expense and over the fact that the NCCB felt it needed PR services. In 1992, the NCCB canceled what was to have been a five-year contract with the firm, giving as the reason for this decision that NCCB staff had learned all they needed to know to do the public relations work themselves.

April 1990—Cardinal John O’Connor of New York declared at Earth Day celebrations that “one of the most dangerous environments in the world today is the mother’s womb” because “millions of babies are killed there each year.”

May 1990—Bishop James McHugh of Camden, New Jersey, declared that “Catholic public officials who fail to oppose abortion cannot speak at church-sponsored events, receive honors from Catholic agencies, or serve in church offices or ministries. There is no exception to this universal prohibition, nor has any dissent or difference of opinion been accepted.”

June 1990—Cardinal John O’Connor of New York wrote in his regular column in Catholic New York that Catholic politicians “are at risk of excommunication” if they vote prochoice. Auxiliary Bishop Austin Vaughan of Orange County in New York State said in an interview from jail after an antiabortion protest that Governor Mario Cuomo was at “serious risk of going to hell” because he supported abortion rights.

June 1990—Bishop Rene Gracida of Corpus Christi, Texas, issued a formal decree of excommunication from the Catholic church against Rachel Vargas, director of Reproductive Services, a health clinic in Corpus Christi that provided a wide range of reproductive health services, including contraception, abortion, and adoption. The official decree informed all clergy that they could not confer sacraments on Vargas. In November, Gracida issued another official declaration of excommunication against Elva Bustamante, a clinic worker at New Women’s Clinic, also in Corpus Christi.

1991—The USCC’s Office of General Counsel filed an amicus curiae, or “friends of the court,” brief in the Supreme Court case of Planned Parenthood v. Casey, in which the Court in 1992 gave states the power to restrict abortions by upholding most provisions of a Pennsylvania law that made it more difficult to obtain an abortion. The Court voted 5-4 that states may not ban abortions, only one vote short of overturning Roe v. Wade.

March 1992—Helen Alvaré, Director of Planning and Public Information for the Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities of the NCCB/USCC, testified against the Freedom of Choice Act, which would have put explicitly into law what the Court ruled in Roe v. Wade. The Freedom of Choice Act would have barred states from restricting women’s right to abortion prior to fetal viability or at any time if necessary to protect the woman’s life or health. Cardinal John O’Connor of New York, then chair of the NCCB’s Pro-Life Committee, sent a letter to each member of Congress stating the church hierarchy’s opposition to the Freedom of Choice Act.

July 1992—Catholics for a Free Choice ran the ad “Nobody Wants to Have an Abortion” in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the National Catholic Reporter, and the Congressional Quarterly’s Democratic Convention issue. The ad read, “Picture a world where mothers have easy access to childcare they can afford. Where children can count on a good education no matter what school district they live in. Where people have healthcare whether or not they have a job. Where safe birth control is available to everyone who needs it. In this world, abortion isn’t illegal. It’s unheard of. Isn’t that the best choice of all?”

January 1993—In a campaign conducted by the National Committee for a Human Life Amendment, 5 million postcards were distributed in church to mail to members of Congress urging them to vote against the Freedom of Choice Act.

April 1993—Church leaders led by Cardinal James Hickey met with Hillary Rodham Clinton to push for universal health care coverage that did not include coverage for abortion services.

January 1994—The bishops of the Pro-Life Secretariat and the National Committee for a Human Life Amendment distributed almost 19 million postcards to parishes to urge members of Congress to vote against including contraception and abortion services in a national health care plan.

May 1994—In a virtually unprecedented move, all the US Cardinals wrote a letter to President Clinton criticizing his policy for the United Nations Conference on Population and Development in Cairo. The letter falsely claimed that the Cairo document would “mandate abortion as a condition for receiving aid from other countries” and took a “casual view of human sexuality, an approach so destructive of family life and the moral fiber of society.”

January 1995—Boston Cardinal Bernard Law called for a moratorium on anti-abortion protests outside the Brookline clinics after a gunman murdered two women inside two reproductive health facilities. However, New York City Cardinal John O’Connor disagreed with Cardinal Law on the moratorium and instructed activists in his diocese to continue their protests. Five months after the Brookline murders, most protesters had returned to the clinics. On June 2nd, Cardinal Bernard Law acknowledged the unfortunate futility of his efforts and announced he was lifting his moratorium.

January-April 1996—The NCCB sponsored ads in the Washington Post and the New York Times in support of a ban on a late-term abortion procedure. The bishops’ad in the March 25 edition of Washington Post said protections to protect the health of the woman “can be defined as just about anything, including “won’t fit into her prom dress;” “can’t afford a baby and a new car;” and “just lost a job” or “never had a job.” [ italics in original]

June 1996—The National Committee for a Human Life Amendment and the NCCB’s Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities launched the Project Life Postcard Campaign in which parishioners were urged to send postcards to their Representatives and Senators in Congress, calling on them to overturn President Clinton’s veto of a bill that would have banned certain types of abortion procedures used in the second and third trimesters. President Clinton said he would have signed the bill into law if it had included provisions for protecting the health and fertility of the woman.

August 1996—Catholics for a Free Choice, together with progressive Catholic colleagues, ran an “Open Letter to the Bishops of the United States” in The National Journal, the newspaper of the Democratic convention in Chicago. Catholics for the Spirit of Vatican II, Catholics Speak Out, Chicago Catholic Women, the National Coalition of American Nuns, Women’s Alliance for Theology, Ethics and Ritual, and Women-Church Convergence, joined with CFFC in calling on the USCC and each bishop “to refrain from the single-issue partisan campaign against abortion that has characterized your activity in this election season, and to begin a genuine education campaign on the full range of critical issues….”

September 1996—All eight cardinals and eighty bishops, including Cardinals James Hickey and William Keeler, and Bishop John Keating, demonstrated on the steps of the Capitol in support of Congress’s proposed ban on certain abortion procedures. The House of Representatives was preparing to vote in an attempt to override President Clinton’s veto of the bill.

November 1996—Less than a week before the presidential elections, retired New Orleans Bishop Philip Hannan told Louisiana Catholics that “no Catholic should vote for President Clinton or [Louisiana’s Democratic senate candidate] Mary Landrieu” because they believe abortion should be legal. “If a person actually believes in Catholic doctrine, I don’t see how they can avoid it being a sin” to vote for either candidate, he said. Both Clinton and Landrieu won their races

March 1997—Cardinal John O’Connor and other cardinals wrote a joint letter to President Clinton asking him to sign a bill that would make certain types of abortion illegal. Cardinal O’Connor read the letter to people attending Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Manhattan, saying “I plead with you to pray that this horror of infanticide will be once and for all banned from our land.” President Clinton had said he would sign the ban if it included allowances for protecting the woman’s health or fertility. Cardinal O’Connor responded, “The word health can include virtually anything.”

September 1997—CFFC President Frances Kissling, in a letter to President Clinton on the twentieth anniversary of the Hyde Amendment, said, “I want to share with you my concern regarding the way in which poor women’s access to government funding for abortion was addressed in the Budget Reconciliation bill which you signed into law in July, 1997. Most regrettably, this bill enshrined into law what had become an annual exercise in mean-spiritedness, the Hyde Amendment, by denying poor women the right to use federal funds for medical care if they choose to have an abortion.” Among the organizations that signed onto the letter were Chicago Catholic Women, the National Coalition of American Nuns, and the Federation of Christian Ministries.

November 1997—At the annual meeting of the NCCB in Washington, DC, the bishops considered a move back to meatless Fridays, a practice that was largely abandoned after Vatican II in the 1960s, as a way for Catholics to express their opposition to “attacks on human life and dignity,” including abortion. Jerry Pokorsky, a priest in the diocese of Arlington, Virginia, said that “We have an obligation as Catholics to do penance on Fridays. And I think it’s a beautiful expression of our solidarity with the unborn.” However, Monsignor Lorenzo Albacete of New York did not want meatless Fridays to be presented as a requirement: “My concern is that it would be presented as ‘If you eat meat on Friday you’ll burn in hell.’ I think that would be an abysmal mistake.”

Month/1998— Catholics for Contraception, a project of Catholics for a Free Choice, ran a series of ads entitled “Contraception in Good Faith” in the National Catholic Reporter. The ads, written by leaders within the reproductive rights field, criticized the US Catholic bishops’ assault on life-saving family planning programs. An ad written by Frances Kissling read, “The concerted assault on family planning by Catholic bishops is producing exactly the opposite result from their stated intentions, and it is time the rest of us held them accountable.”


October 1998—The Roman Catholic bishops of the United States published a statement called Living the Gospel of Life: A Challenge to American Catholics: “We urge those Catholic officials who choose to depart from Church teaching on the inviolability of human life in their public life to consider the consequences for their own spiritual well being, as well as the scandal they risk by leading others into serious sin. We call on them to reflect on the grave contradiction of assuming public roles and presenting themselves as credible Catholics when their actions on fundamental issues of human life are not in agreement with Church teaching.... No appeal to policy, procedure, majority will, or pluralism ever excuses a public official from defending life to the greatest extent possible.” The document also urges Catholics to vote for prolife politicians.

July 2000—Father Frank Pavone, director of Priests for Life, gave a warning to prochoice Catholic politicians: “To supporters of abortion who profess Christianity, of any denomination, we say stop being a scandal to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”

August 2000—Archbishop Elden Francis Curtiss of Omaha, Nebraska wrote in his diocesan newspaper column, “Catholic Democrats have an obligation to do everything they can to reverse the pro-abortion policy of their party and to support those candidates who will protect life in the womb … You can be assured that I will challenge any Catholic in Northwestern Nebraska who claims to be a member of the church and at the same time supports abortion. It is not a liberal cause that is being supported but an elitist, anti-Catholic one. There is no place for discrimination against pre-born or partially born babies in the Catholic church. Catholics who are against the church on this… are in serious dissent….They and everyone else need to be clear about this breach with the Church. It is not a liberal cause to support abortion.”


August 2000—Catholics for a Free Choice ran the ad “Catholics are prochoice” in the National Journal. The ad read, “Catholics believe in legal abortion, contraception, sexuality education, international family planning assistance and the separation of church and state.” Included in the ad were statistics from various national polls that showed most Catholics in the United States had a more liberal view on reproductive rights than the Vatican.

October 2000—Cardinal Alfonso López Trujillo, the head of the Pontifical Council for the Family told a press conference in attendance for the upcoming Jubilee of Families, “Politicians must have the defense of the right of life in their own heart and mind to offer it to the community. Without this defense, instead of contributing to the construction of society, the politician destroys it.”

October 2000—Archbishop John Myers of Peoria, in light of upcoming the upcoming election in a homily wrote, “Many Catholic leaders both clerical and lay have urged that citizens not vote for anyone who does not have a strong prolife position. I do not see how a disciple of the Lord could ignore the fundamental importance of public policy protecting human life. To support candidates who would continue or even expand the possibilities for more people to die by human choice is seriously wrong.”

October 2000—Bishop James T. McHugh of Rockville Centre, Long Island, NY, sent a letter to all the priests in his diocese laying out a policy regarding prochoice politicians. In his letter, Bishop McHugh wrote, “The policy… means that no pro-abortion public official or candidate is to be invited to address Catholic agencies or organizations, school or parish groups, even if he/she does not intend to express their pro-abortion views….The reason for this is that it would be foolish and counterproductive to provide a platform to those who favor or support a public policy of abortion on demand or of euthanasia or assisted suicide. It would also be extremely misleading to provide such persons a platform to promote their views, even on other issues, lest they claim that the Church somehow implicitly tolerates their rejection of Church teaching on prolife issues.”

October 2000—Cardinal James A. Hickey, Archbishop of Washington, DC, told the Catholic Standard newspaper: “When you vote on November 7, I hope and pray that you will not forget the most disenfranchised citizens in this land—the unborn. Truly they have no voice but ours.”

October 2000—The bishops of the four Roman Catholic dioceses in Massachusetts issued an election statement calling on Catholics to exercise their “moral obligation” to vote and to recognize the “absolute centrality” of the protection of human life when choosing candidates on election day. According to the bishops’ statement Faithful Citizenship in Massachusetts: “It is our responsibility to vote for candidates who will promote life and the culture of life over the culture of death.” The statement points out support of abortion and euthanasia by any political candidate “is always wrong and can never be justified.”

January 2001—Bishop Thomas J. Welsh, founding bishop of the Arlington, Virginia diocese, stated in an interview with the Arlington Catholic Herald: “What disturbs me, then, is the politician, man or woman, who wants to have it both ways. They say, ‘I’m a Catholic,’ then espouse all sorts of things that the Catholic church says are wrong…. If you say the church is wrong about one serious issue like the prolife stance, then you're undermining the whole nature of the church. The Lord didn’t say, ‘I’m with you all the time, except on some major issues.’… We are saying this (abortion) is intrinsically evil. There’s no time for anybody at any place to have an abortion and say, ‘this is right.’ It’s always, always wrong.”

January 2001—Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver, Colorado, addressing participants of the Colorado Right to Life March and Rally, stated, “We can’t simultaneously commit ourselves to human rights, while voting for people and policies that attack the weakest among us. Nor can we practice a commitment to the sanctity of human life only as a private piety. People of religious faith must live their prolife witness courageously, as a matter of public record and civic responsibility—or we'll lose it even as a matter of private principle.”

July 2001—In the Diocese of Trenton policy statement on “pro-abortion politicians,” Bishop John M. Smith wrote, “It would be misleading to assist prochoice politicians with a platform to promote their views for fear that others would falsely conclude that the Church at least tolerates their position.”

December 2002—Monsignor Edward Kavanagh, a Catholic priest who ran an orphanage in Sacramento, California, declared that former California governor Gray Davis was not welcome at the orphanage to distribute Christmas toys to the children because Davis is prochoice.

January 2003—The Vatican issued the Doctrinal Note on Some Questions Regarding Participation of Catholics in Political Life, instructing Catholic lawmakers that they are not allowed to put aside church doctrine when it comes to making decisions in their role as elected officials.

January 2003—In his homily at the Annual Prolife Mass, Bishop William W. Weigand of Sacramento, California stated, “As your bishop, I have to say clearly that anyone — politician or otherwise — who thinks it is 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. Such a person should have the integrity to acknowledge this and choose of his own volition to abstain from receiving Holy Communion until he has a change of heart.” This same month, he challenged former California governor Gray Davis to either renounce his support of abortion rights or stop taking Holy Communion.

July 2003—In response to a Boston Globe article discussing a 1992 controversy involving a Catholic politician who backed legal abortion when Archbishop Sean Patrick O’Malley headed the Diocese of Fall River, Bishop O’Malley, now of Boston, issued a statement which read in part: “A Catholic politician who holds a public, prochoice position should not be receiving Communion.... The Church presumes that each person is receiving in good faith. It is not our policy to deny Communion. It is up to the individual.”

November 2003—“In the Catholic tradition, responsible citizenship is a virtue; participation in the political process is a moral obligation,” the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops stated in its Faithful Citizenship: A Catholic Call to Political Responsibility. The document was “designed to help [Catholics] learn, share, and act on Catholic teaching about how our faith can and should shape our choices and opportunities as citizens, so that we can build a world more respectful of human life and dignity and more committed to justice and peace.”

November 2003—In his pastoral letter to the Arlington, Virginia diocese, Bishop Paul S. Loverde wrote, “We encourage all citizens, particularly Catholics, to embrace their citizenship not merely as a duty and privilege, but as an opportunity meaningfully to participate [more fully] in building the culture of life. Every voice matters in the public forum. Every vote counts. Every act of responsible citizenship is an exercise of significant individual power.’ Even those who are not citizens are called to participate in the debates which shape our common life.”

November 2003—Archbishop Raymond L. Burke, the former bishop of the LaCrosse, Wisconsin diocese, issued a public declaration: “…In accord with the norm of can. 915, Catholic legislators, who are members of the faithful of the Diocese of LaCrosse 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 nor should they present themselves, until such time as they publicly renounce their support of these most unjust practices.”

November 2003—At the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops fall meeting, the bishops set up a task force to develop guidelines regarding prochoice Catholic politicians and appropriate steps bishops should take in dealing with the issue of communion and related issues. Bishop Fabian W. Bruskewitz of Lincoln, Nebraska, said, “It’s a constant source of scandal that the most prominent pro-abortion people are Catholics . . . who seem to go un-reproved.”

January 2004—Archbishop Raymond L. Burke, formerly of the Diocese of LaCrosse, Wisconsin, published a pastoral letter to Catholics in his diocese on their political responsibility in upholding the value of human life. The bishop also issued a canonical notification that Catholic lawmakers who continue to support procured abortion or euthanasia may not receive Holy Communion.

January 2004—In an article entitled, “New Orleans Archbishop Alfred Hughes on Anti-Life Politicians and Holy Communion,” Archbishop Alfred Hughes wrote: “When Catholic politicians openly support the taking of human life in abortion, euthanasia or the destruction of human embryos, they are no longer faithful members in the Church and should not partake of Holy Communion.”

January 2004—In his Catholic Herald newspaper column, Bishop Robert Morlino of Madison, Wisconsin, defended the actions of Archbishop Burke in denying communion to prochoice Catholic politicians: “Archbishop Burke is on target as he spells out the principles of the church’s teaching, and his brother bishops stand behind him in episcopal communion and collegiality…. The fact that a bishop has not acted identically to Archbishop Burke as of this date should never be taken to indicate any less of a commitment to the principles.”

March 2004—Bishop Nicholas A. DiMarzio of Brooklyn, New York stated, “I am always troubled when a church institution or group grants a place of prominence, or accords an honor, to an individual in public life whose record shows opposition to the church's clear and consistent teaching on human life and other moral issues. In order to avoid confusion...as to the church's commitment to these issues, an obligation which I as Bishop view profoundly, I ask parishes, schools, agencies, and organizations in our Diocese to respect this concern and review carefully the records of public officials, especially Catholics, before extending invitations to them to church events.”

April 2004—In his weekly column for the Denver Catholic Register, Archbishop Charles Chaput warns Catholic voters that not all politicians claiming to be Catholic act like Catholics in office, particularly in legislating against human life.

April 2004—During a press conference, Cardinal Francis Arinze, prefect of the Vatican Congregation of Divine Worship and the Sacraments, was asked whether presidential candidate Senator John F. Kerry should be denied communion because of his prochoice position on abortion. Cardinal Arinze replied that “the norm of the Church is clear,” and that American bishops should determine its application. When asked if a priest should refuse communion to a Catholic politician who supports abortion, Cardinal Arinze said, “Yes. If he shouldn’t receive it, then it shouldn’t be given.”

April 2004—In Rome, on the day of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops meeting, Bishop Wilton D. Gregory of Belleville, IL, responded to a question about the denial of communion to prochoice senator and presumptive democratic nominee for president John F. Kerry: “In the nature of the church, the imposition of sanctions is always the final response, not the first response, nor the second nor maybe even the tenth.”

April 2004—In response Cardinal Francis Arinze’s comment that Catholic politicians who support abortion rights should be denied Holy Communion, Bishop Robert Mulvee of Providence, Rhode Island, stated that the issue is one for Roman Catholic bishops in the United States. He also referred to a section in Redemptionis Sacramentum: “Sacred Ministers may not deny the Sacraments to those who seek them in a reasonable manner, are rightly disposed and are not prohibited by law from receiving them.”

April 2004—Catholics for a Free Choice released a survey of the 178 Latin-Rite Roman Cathoilic dioceses in the US on their policies on and restrictions of prochoice Catholic politicians. As of April 2004, only the diocese of LaCrosse, Wisconsin, had an official policy. By the time of the bishops’ summer retreat in Denver, Colorado, 145 dioceses had responded to this issue either publicly or privately, and only 4 bishops would deny communion to prochoice Catholic politicians.

April 2004—One day before Bishop Joseph Galante was installed as the bishop of Camden, New Jersey, he told reporters that prochoice New Jersey Governor Jim McGreevey would not be permitted to receive communion. Citing McGreevey’s divorce and remarriage, in addition to his prochoice stance, he stated, “If he comes to communion, I’d give him a blessing, in his case, he can’t go to communion.”

April 2004—In his column “Faithful Citizenship,” Trenton, New Jersey Bishop John M. Smith wrote: “One’s faith cannot be separated between public and private. Our faith is lived in every moment. People are chosen to represent their constituencies because of what they profess as their values, their vision, and their ability to bring positive solutions to difficult problems. As people of faith, we too have a responsibility to our elected representatives to stand up for our beliefs and make sure that they are represented in public life. Always remember, it is our votes that place them in public office.”

April 2004—When asked if he would deny Holy Communion to prochoice Catholic politicians, Archbishop Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, Illinois said that at present time, “…I’m loath to say we should take too many public positions on that.”

April 2004—Bishop Fabian W. Bruskewitz of Lincoln, Nebraska, voiced his complete agreement with the stance of Archbishop Burke: “We agree completely with Archbishop Raymond Burke in the action he has taken and we would take the same action in the diocese of Lincoln with regard to manifest, persistent, obstinate sinners, including politicians, regardless of which diocese they are from.”

April 2004—The media reported that Bishop Robert Carlson of Sioux Falls, South Dakota, sent a letter to Senate minority leader Tom Daschle ordering him to stop calling himself a Catholic. Neither the bishop not the senator would confirm the rumors.

April 2004—In a statement on the new instruction from the Vatican on the liturgy, Bishop David A. Zubik of Green Bay, Wisconsin, wrote, “It is imperative that we as a Church be faithful to the celebration of the Eucharist in spirit and practice. It is my responsibility as Bishop to ensure such—and I take this responsibility seriously.”

April 2004—Archbishop Theodore McCarrick of Washington, DC, granted an interview to FoxNews in which he stated, “I have not gotten to the stage where I’m comfortable in denying the Eucharist.”

April 2004—In his homily presented at his church, Bishop Samuel J. Aquila of Fargo, North Dakota, stated, “No one may share the Eucharist with us unless he believes that what we teach is true, unless he is washed in the regenerating waters of baptism for the remission of his sins, and unless he lives in accordance with the principles given us by Christ. I would remind Catholic politicians, clergy and all of the faithful of the words of St. Paul when he reminds the people who are not living their lives according to the Gospel of Jesus Christ and yet still receive the Eucharist that they bring judgment on themselves…. “They bring judgment on themselves. Let those words sink in.”

May 2004—In a pastoral letter to his diocese, Bishop Michael J. Sheridan of Colorado Springs, Colorado, took the most extreme position to date: not only do Catholic politicians who advocate abortion, illicit stem cell research, euthanasia, and/or homosexual marriage, but also those who vote for those politicians, “jeopardize their salvation” and may not receive Holy Communion until they have repented of their sin and confessed it in the sacrament of penance.

May 2004—In an interview with the Lansing State Journal, Bishop Carl F. Mengeling of Lansing, Michigan, stated that denying communion to Catholic politicians who support abortion rights would force the church to pass judgment on every Catholic. “We assume that (people) are in good standing with the law in terms of their own conscience…. The Lord knows that. I don’t.”

May 2004—Bishop Thomas Wenski, the coadjutor bishop of Orlando, Florida, published a pastoral statement in which he compared the position of some Catholic politicians (personally opposed to abortion, but don’t want to impose their views on others) to the stance of Pontius Pilate, who was personally opposed to Christ’s crucifixion.

May 2004—The American Life League places an ad in the Washington Times addressed to Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington, DC, reading “Are You Comfortable Now?” depicting an image of Jesus suffering on the cross. Making the claim that Cardinal McCarrick was violating the directives of Pope John Paul II by granting Communion to prochoice Catholic politicians, the ad also read: “You can’t be both Catholic and Pro-abortion!” The advertisement also singled out Senator John Kerry, Ted Kennedy, and Nancy Pelosi as pro-abortion “Catholic” [sic] politicians in Congress.

May 2004—In a Pastoral Statement printed in The Catholic Advocate, Archbishop John Myers of Newark, New Jersey, wrote, “That some Catholics, who claim to believe what the Church believes, are willing to allow others to continue directly to kill the innocent is a grave scandal.”

May 2004—Catholics Speak Out/Quixote placed an ad in Roll Call listing 15 social justice issues that Catholics think are important concerns during this year’s election campaign. The organization disagreed with single-issue interest groups who argue that abortion trumps all other issues in the 2004 political campaign. Said Quixote Center co-director Rea Howarth, “Catholic bishops and single issue groups who say that Catholics can support only politicians who are prolife on abortion, despite their positions on other issues, violate our right to freedom of thought and the primacy of conscience…. They are politicizing Holy Communion. Now that is a scandal.”

June 2004—Catholics for a Free Choice commissioned a poll of more than 2,000 US Catholic voters demonstrating a significant rejection of US Catholic bishops’ efforts to control Catholic voters and candidates. Results also revealed that a large majority of Catholics disapprove of Catholic bishops denying communion to Catholics who support legal abortion. In addition, the poll revealed most US Catholics believe that politicians who are Catholic and who support legal abortion should not be denied Communion. When asked how important the views of the Catholic bishops in the US are in deciding whom to vote for, the majority of Catholics state that the bishops’ views were not very important or not important at all in deciding whom they would vote for.

June 2004—The USCCB discussed matters pertaining to the church's massive clergy sex-abuse crisis and eligibility for communion during its annual summer retreat in Denver, Colorado. The bishops sent letters and their 2003 document, Faithful Citizenship: A Catholic Call to Political Responsibility to Bill Harris, convention chairman and CEO for the Republican National Committee, and Connecticut Representative Rosa DeLauro, who chairs the platform drafting committee for the Democratic National Committee, offering guidance in drafting election-year platforms for the Democratic and Republican parties.

June 2004—Call to Action, a national organization that advocates for reform in the Catholic church, issued a press release condemning Catholic bishops for denying Holy Communion to Catholic politicians who vote in support of a woman’s right to choose. “Call to Action Appalled by the Use of Communion as a Weapon” stated: “The denial of communion by some bishops to Catholic politicians on various single issue grounds goes against Catholic teaching and seems more like partisan politics than inclusive church.”

June 2004—Archbishop Sean O’Malley of Boston pledged his support to an effort to mobilize Catholic voters in time for the Democratic National Convention and the fall election. The effort, was launched by Raymond L. Flynn, a former US ambassador to the Vatican and mayor of Boston, in an attempt to have voices of antichoice Democrats “heard.” Flynn was named by the Massachusetts Catholic Conference, the political arm representing the archbishop of Boston, to help lead a voter education drive built around Catholic teachings. Archbishop O’Malley pledged “the church’s complete cooperation.”

June 2004-Pax Christi, a national Catholic peace movement, released a statement on Catholic bishops denying Communion to prochoice Catholic politicians entitled “All are Welcome,” which read, “Over the past few months we members of Pax Christi Illinois have become deeply concerned over the actions taken by a few Catholic bishops and others to exclude Catholic politicians from receiving Communion because of their voting record related to Catholic dogma and teaching. We see these actions as part of a troubling trend by some within the Catholic community to increasingly define their Catholic identity in terms of those they want excluded from the Body of Christ. We are pained by those who would use the Eucharist—the heart and soul of our catholic communion—as a weapon of political coercion.”

July 2004—The National Catholic Reporter published an editorial entitled “Bishops Spare Us Eucharist Politics,” which read “…it is reassuring that the vast majority of US bishops clearly did not want to make the Eucharist a political football….Perhaps some bishops realized how hypocritical it would appear were they to apply far more severe sanctions on politicians for their votes than the bishops have applied themselves for their role in the clergy abuse sex scandals.”


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