For Immediate Release
May 27 , 2004
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Catholic Bishops Must Adhere to Federal Regulations Governing Participation in Election Politics
Catholics for a Free Choice Applauds Americans United for Church and State for Filing Complaint
Statement of Frances Kissling, President, Catholics for a Free Choice
Washington, DC—The Catholic community has been shocked by recent statements from some bishops claiming that Catholic politicians who are prochoice should be denied Communion. Bishop Michael Sheridan issued the most extreme statement to date when he said he would deny Communion to both prochoice Catholic politicians and Catholics who vote for candidates who are prochoice. The timing of this statement is troubling: Catholic prochoice Senator John Kerry is about to be nominated for the presidency by the Democratic Party and several local Colorado prochoice Catholics face competitive congressional campaigns.
Church opposition to legal abortion has been raised in every election campaign of the past thirty years without the claim that voting for prochoice candidates constitutes a grave sin. Given that fact, it is hard to see the Bishop’s action as other than a political act. There is no teaching of the church which could justify the denial of a sacrament on the basis of one’s political view on abortion. In a legal context, Bishop Sheridan’s act may well constitute a breach in the US tax laws which prohibit tax-exempt organizations from endorsing or opposing candidates for public office.
The Catholic church, along with other religious institutions, is exempt from taxes. In return for that exemption, religious institutions agree to neither explicitly nor implicitly endorse or oppose any specific candidate for elected office. By barring Catholic elected officials and voters from Communion during an election year, Bishop Sheridan’s action can only be read as a statement of opposition to the hundreds of Catholic prochoice candidates who will be running for political office this year.
Americans United for the Separation of Church and State make a cogent and compelling argument that Bishop Sheridan has potentially violated federal tax law and jeopardized the tax-exempt status of the Diocese of Colorado Springs. We join them in calling on the IRS to investigate Bishop Sheridan's direct instruction to Catholic voters and to consider revoking the tax-exempt status of any diocese that violates the law.
Tax exemption is a privilege, not a right. The church is free to warn, discipline, or even expel members of the church according to its internal laws. It even has the right to participate in the election process if it chooses to renounce its tax exemption. What it is not free to do is flout the IRS regulations that govern all tax-exempt institutions by inaugurating bans on voters and candidates during an election year.
Catholics do not support using the pulpit as a political tool. In a CFFC-commissioned poll in October 2000, seventy percent of Catholic voters overwhelmingly rejected the bishops using the political arena to advance their moral opinions.
If moral decency and integrity to the church’s own values of freedom of conscience will not lead the bishops away from political bullying, perhaps US law will.
Catholics for Free Choice ( CFFC) 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.