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Politicizing the Sacraments for Electoral Gain

Frances Kissling, President, Catholics for a Free Choice

There is something disturbing about the current media watch on whether or not Senator John Kerry will receive communion each Sunday at mass. The specter of paparazzi seeking a photo op of what most Catholics see as a private and sacred moment is unsettling. Yet even more disturbing than this media circus is the attempt by some Roman Catholic leaders, from the Vatican to lay Catholic Bush supporters, to use the sacraments as a political sledgehammer.

For the past 20 years, anti-abortion Catholics have pleaded with the Vatican to deny communion or even excommunicate Catholic policy makers who support legal abortion. Supreme Court Justices William J. Brennan and Anthony Kennedy; Governors Mario Cuomo, George Pataki, and Gray Davis; Senators Patrick Leahy, Daniel Moynihan, Barbara Mikulski, Ted Kennedy, and John Kerry have all been impugned by name. Repeatedly and wisely, however, the Vatican has until recently ignored or rebuffed such pleas.

It is important to note that there is no basis in modern church law or theology for such actions. It has been widely recognized since the Second Vatican Council ( 1962‑1965) that Catholic policy makers have the freedom to follow their conscience – even when it disagrees with church teaching – when voting on specific legislative measures. It is perfectly reasonable for a Catholic legislator to both personally accept Catholic teaching against abortion and to believe it wrong in a pluralistic democracy to advocate for laws on abortion that would limit the freedom of Jews, Methodists, Episcopalians, and others who recognize abortion as morally justifiable. It is equally reasonable to believe that laws against abortion do not prevent abortions from taking place – rather such laws make abortion dangerous to women’s health and lives.

It is interesting to consider the fact that the US bishops have for the most part understood that extreme sanctions against prochoice Catholic policy makers don’t work. The few policy makers that have been punished or attacked have not changed their views and have usually become more sympathetic candidates, winning elections even when they were the underdogs.

While the vast majority of US bishops still seem to understand this reality, they have invested – some would say squandered – their moral authority by claiming over the years that Catholics cannot hold prochoice views or have abortions. Catholic women have abortions as frequently as other women. Catholic policy makers, including more than 70 members of the US Congress, vote prochoice. And more than two-thirds of the American Catholic people disagree with the bishops and believe that abortion should be legal.

If all were denied the sacraments, we could stop worrying about the priest shortage. The churches would be empty.

As embarrassed as the bishops are by their inability to convince Catholics that abortion is always morally wrong and should be illegal, they tolerate massive dissent. But something has changed in the Vatican and among conservative Catholics. No longer are they simply anti-abortion; they are now Bush Republicans. Like their earlier counterparts in the Moral Majority and the Christian Coalition, winning elections have become more important than practicing good theology. They know that the Catholic vote will play a critical swing role in the 2004 election, and they hope to deliver that vote to George Bush. A Catholic Democrat is a serious obstacle to that goal.

By attacking Sen. Kerry’s practice of faith, conservative Bush Catholics hope to deny him the support of mainstream Catholics. What remains to be seen is the extent to which the Vatican and the US bishops will participate in this strategy. If politicizing the sacraments for electoral gain serves as an indication of the campaign ahead, we are witnesses to bad faith and bad theology.

Frances Kissling is the president of Catholics for a Free Choice, a nonpartisan not-for-profit organization based in Washington, DC that shapes and advances sexual and reproductive ethics that are based on justice, reflect a commitment to women’s well being, and respect and affirm the moral capacity of women and men to make sound decisions about their lives. Through discourse, education, and advocacy, CFFC works in the US and internationally to infuse these values into public policy, community life, feminist analysis, and Catholic social thinking and teaching.

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