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Democratic bumper stickers raise ire of priest in Arlington

Special to the National Catholic Reporter
Arlington, Va.

Billie Ingrassia is a proud Catholic and a proud Democrat. Five days before Election Day, Ingrassia got the word that her faith and politics were morally incongruent.

After attending morning Mass at St. Agnes Catholic Church, her parish of 35 years, Ingrassia found a typed letter under her windshield wiper admonishing her for the two pro-Democrat bumper stickers on her car. The letter was signed by Fr. Thomas Vander Woude, a priest on the St. Agnes staff.

The bumper stickers: “Democrat and Proud” and “Democrats: Take Back the House” send the “wrong message of a Catholic,” Vander Woude wrote. The priest pointed out that the Democratic Party platform supports “the killing of the most innocent of our land -- the unborn.”

“I, as a priest, must admonish you in your stance,” the letter stated. The Democratic Party has adopted and supports a pro-choice position, “which is contrary to Christ, the author of life. I urge you to reconsider your sticker on your car ... “

Vander Woude went on to say: “If you support the Democratic position on abortion then you have no business receiving Holy Communion since you placed yourself directly in opposition to this essential teaching of the faith.”

A mother of eight and grandmother of 22, the 75-year-old Ingrassia, who calls herself “a feisty old lady,” said she is not pro-choice and that she was offended by the letter. “I was irate,” she said. “Nobody else got [a letter]. I didn’t tell anybody who to vote for. I didn’t have a Gore/Lieberman sticker on there.

“I am pro-life if ever I’ve met anybody that was pro-life. Obviously, I have eight kids. I’m pro-life. I’m not for abortion.”

Ingrassia, who claims “a lot of good Republican friends,” said it’s important to “consider many factors” in choosing a candidate.

“This is what I did,” she said. “I voted my conscience. I think you have to make up your own mind. You have to form a proper conscience. I really think that young priest did me a disservice to stick that kind of stuff on my windshield.”

Word of Vander Woude’s letter was passed on to a Washington Post reporter by a friend of Ingrassia’s. On Nov. 11, the Post ran a story on the front page of the Metro section, and the plot thickened. Vander Woude, 34, refused to talk to the Post reporter, but Arlington diocese communications director Linda Shovlain went on the record calling Vander Woude’s letter “misguided.”

“While priests must speak to their parishes about moral issues, and while the Catholic church teaches that ‘serious and faithful Catholics’ cannot support abortion rights, the letter went too far,” Shovlain was quoted as saying. “You cannot refuse the sacraments to somebody for having a sticker on their car. The only time you can refuse sacraments is if they’re being excommunicated.”

Shovlain, who said she has received about 20 letters and phone calls about her comments in the Post, has since backed away from her original criticism of Vander Woude.

“The article came across as if I was trying to criticize this priest,” Shovlain told NCR. “I would stand by the fact that this parish priest has the right and the duty to instruct the members of his parish and that the Catholic church has consistently been a pro-life church; and consistently upholds the natural right to life from conception to natural death.

“The part about being misguided, that was something that on my part I shouldn’t really have said.

“The priest was not suggesting that this woman should not receive the sacraments. My comments were wrong, and I would really not like to build on them at all. I’m new at the job so at that point I was trying to answer all of this reporter’s questions, and I made this comment that was imprudent on my part and it came out of inexperience -- to say that he was misguided.”

Vander Woude, who said Shovlain called him to apologize, is unapologetic about his missive to Ingrassia.

“To be a serious practicing Catholic you can’t be pro-choice,” Vander Woude said. “That’s absolutely the truth.”

The priest said he is delighted his letter has generated so much discussion. The priest, who has been at St. Agnes for about two years, said the “priesthood of Christ” requires him to speak out and challenge people “out of love” when the situation calls for it. “I really feel that at the time it was what was called for,” Vander Woude said of his letter.

“The Post did us a service,” he said. “We got a lot of publicity about the issue.”

Ingrassia said she has received “many calls and letters and e-mails” of support, and five, “go to hells.”

“I appreciate all the support that I have received,” Ingrassia said. “I don’t know why it happened. I mean this isn’t Catholicism. The guy made a mistake, and he could have called me. He could have e-mailed me. He could have said, ‘Hey, let’s get this off our chests.’ I would have talked to him, but he didn’t say anything. I just think that he is misguided.”

National Catholic Reporter, November 24, 2000