National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  November 21, 2003

Bishops to address politicians who reject church teaching

It is among the thorniest of church-state thickets. What’s a bishop to do when a prominent member of his flock -- say California governor-elect Arnold Schwarzenegger, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi or New York Gov. George Pataki -- professes allegiance to the faith but supports measures on such issues as abortion, capital punishment, economic justice or gay rights that run counter to church teaching?

Bishop John Ricard
-- CNS/Paul Haring

A seven-member bishops’ task force headed by Pensacola-Tallahassee, Fla., Bishop John Ricard hopes to answer that question, or at least provide guidance to bishops dealing with high-profile members of their flock whose public stances do not always conform with church wishes. The question takes on added significance in light of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s “Doctrinal Note on the Participation of Catholics in Public Life” and a subsequent congregation statement condemning efforts to equate gay unions with traditional marriage.

Though pro-choice Catholics are the most frequent target of complaint, the task force will not limit its guidance to that area. The American Life League, for instance, is calling on bishops to deny the Eucharist to pro-choice politicians, and some bishops won’t allow Catholic abortion-rights advocates to speak on church property.

“Some Catholic politicians defy church teaching in their policy advocacy and legislative votes, first and most fundamentally on the defense of unborn life, but also on the use of the death penalty, questions of war and peace, the role of marriage and family, the rights of parents to choose the best education for their children, the priority for the poor, and welcome for immigrants,” Ricard told the semi-annual meeting of the nation’s bishops Nov. 10.

“Some Catholic legislators choose their party over their faith, their ideology over Catholic teaching, the demands of their contributors over the search for the common good,” said Ricard.

The difficulties inherent in addressing the topic were evident. “We need to persuade, not just proclaim, to engage not condemn. But we also must tell the truth,” said Ricard. Ten bishops addressed the issue before the conference president, Bishop Wilton Gregory, citing time constraints, closed the discussion.

Brooklyn, N.Y., Auxiliary Bishop Joseph Sullivan said the question is “one of the most complicated, delicate, difficult and politically loaded” faced by the bishops. Said Sullivan: “We have to be very careful not to look like we’re targeting somebody.” He urged the task force to solicit views from academics, politicians and other experts.

Washington Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the impetus behind the task force, noted that a harsh approach to politicians could backfire. “We cannot cut ourselves off from mutually respectful dialogue with these officials,” noting that there are “issues on which we do agree.”

Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz of Lincoln, Neb., took a hard-line approach. “Our job as bishops is to say the truth clearly without undue obfuscations,” said Bruskewitz. He termed pro-choice Catholic politicians a “constant source of scandal” and termed the appointment of former White House Chief of Staff Leon Panetta, a pro-choice Catholic, to the bishops review board investigating the sexual abuse scandal “a source of shock and scandal.”

Chicago Cardinal Francis George said a bishop who has not directly challenged Catholic politicians in his diocese does not necessarily suffer from “a lack of courage.” Rather, said George, a desire to maintain “unity” and an “understanding [of] our role” as bishops might account for a bishop’s silence. George asked the task force to clarify, under canon law, what ability a bishop has to sanction a political figure out of step with the church.

In addition to Ricard and McCarrick, members of the task force include Dallas Coadjutor Bishop Joseph Galante; Orlando, Fla., Coadjutor Bishop Thomas Wenski; Erie, Pa., Bishop Donald Trautman; and Winona, Minn., Bishop Bernard Harrington.

Galante said it was unlikely that the principles would be developed prior to the November 2004 elections.

-- Joe Feuerherd

National Catholic Reporter, November 21, 2003

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