National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  February 13, 2004

Rep. David Obey
-- KRT
Archbishop Raymond Burke
-- CNS photo courtesy Catholic Times
Rep. Obey unlikely target of church discipline

Burke 'notification' welcomed by some, feared by others


On Capitol Hill they are known as the “College of Cardinals” -- the 12 subcommittee chairmen by whom every dime of discretionary federal spending must first pass. Congressman David Obey, D-Wis., chairman of the House Appropriations Committee from March 1994 until Republicans took the House in January 1995, was, for that short time, their pope.

Today, the 65-year-old legislator -- accused by then-Bishop Raymond Burke of La Crosse, Wis., “manifest grave sin” for his abortion-related voting record -- can’t even receive holy Communion in his congressional district. If Obey presents himself for the Eucharist, he is to be turned away, according to instructions Burke issued before departing La Crosse to become archbishop of St. Louis.

The veteran liberal lawmaker, hero to neither pro-choice nor pro-life activists, unexpectedly finds himself a test case in the American bishops’ struggle to develop a policy for dealing with Catholic lawmakers who reject hierarchical guidance on abortion and other “fundamental life issues,” such as euthanasia and embryonic stem cell research.

Obey is one of two Wisconsin Catholic legislators (the other is State Sen. Julie Lassa) who in early December acknowledged receiving letters from Burke concerning their abortion-related voting records. Burke followed up his missives with a publicly released “notification” that called upon all Catholic legislators in the diocese “to uphold the natural and divine law regarding the inviolable dignity of all human life.”

Citing church law (see related story), Burke said that Catholic legislators “who are members of the faithful of the diocese … and who continue to support procured abortion or euthanasia may not present themselves to receive holy Communion.”

Further, “they are not to be admitted to holy Communion should they present themselves, until such time as they publicly renounce their support of these most unjust practices.” A Catholic legislator who supports abortion-rights and euthanasia, said Burke, “commits a manifestly grave sin, which is a cause of most serious scandal to others.”

Burke’s decision, said a diocesan spokesperson, remains in effect unless and until his yet-to-be named successor rescinds it.

Some welcomed the action.

“With utmost respect and gratitude, Pro-Life Wisconsin lauds these actions of this wise and caring shepherd,” said the group’s state director, Peggy Hamill. The group’s national affiliate -- the American Life League -- has launched a campaign urging bishops to deny Communion to pro-choice Catholic lawmakers.

Robert George, professor of politics at Princeton University, applauded Burke and urged other bishops to follow his lead. “You are not fully in communion with the church if you have placed yourself on the side of so grave an injustice in the public realm, thus denying to some members of the human family their basic human rights,” said George.

Others found the move counterproductive, even partisan.

“All of the people the letters were sent to were Democrats,” said Bill Broydrick, a former Wisconsin Democratic Assemblyman. “And on an equally important moral issue, the death penalty, which is normally supported preponderantly by Republicans, there is not a similar admonition.”

Broydrick, who had a pro-life voting record as a member of the state legislature, said Burke’s move reflects the agenda of the “radical pro-life movement [that] has a partisan tinge to it.”

Loyola Marymount University theologian Michael Horan said Burke’s actions will likely backfire. “From a pastoral theological perspective, this new policy, if made practice by the bishop toward individual Catholics, is more likely to cause scandal than the practice of the politicians themselves.”

The resulting fallout from Burke’s action is not the type of publicity Obey, an insider more accustomed to methodical legislating than headlines, has sought in his 35-year career as a federal lawmaker. In a legislative body full of showboats and headline grabbers, Obey is a media-shy workhorse; the last news release posted on his congressional Web site is nine months old.

The nonpartisan Almanac of American Politics terms him “one of the ablest and most strongly motivated legislators on the minority side of the aisle.” And the 2004 edition notes that Obey “has long opposed abortion.”

Both the Almanac and Burke seem to overstate Obey’s record on abortion. The veteran lawmaker, in fact, wins no plaudits from either abortion-rights supporters or antiabortion lobbyists. According to the interest group scorecards, he votes with the National Right to Life Committee about one-third of the time, even as the National Abortion Rights Action League gives him failing grades. Obey supported the ban on “partial birth abortion,” but opposed President Bush’s “Mexico City initiative” (which limits foreign aid funding of abortion-providers overseas); he opposed abortion funding for those in federal prisons, but voted to allow it in the military.

Obey’s decidedly mixed record -- and the high-profile pro-choice posture of more prominent Catholic officials (among them Senate and House Minority Leaders Tom Dachle, S.D., and Nancy Pelosi, Calif., and Republican Govs. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Calif., and George Pataki, N.Y.) -- made him an unlikely target of church leaders frustrated by politicians who ignore their advice.

Obey said Burke’s actions bordered on the unconstitutional.

“Bishop Burke has a right to instruct me on matters of faith and morals in my private life and -- like any other citizen -- to try by persuasion, not dictation, to affect my vote on any public matter,” said Obey. “But when he attempts to use his ecclesiastical position to dictate to American public officials how the power of law should be brought to bear against Americans who do not necessarily share our religious beliefs, on abortion or any other public issue, he crosses the line into unacceptable territory.

“The U.S. Constitution, which I have taken a sacred oath to defend, is designed to protect Americans citizens from just such authoritarian demands.”

Even church-state strict constructions say Obey is on weak ground when it comes to the constitutional argument.

“It is not possible for a private party … to violate the separation of church and state because that is a protection that the Bill of Rights accords individuals against government action,” said Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. Still, said Lynn, while Burke “has the right to say what he has said and to do … what he says he will do,” that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea.

“When a church … starts to instruct its members to vote in particular ways to adhere to church doctrine it tends to lead to a separation of the electorate along religious lines, which I think is just a fundamentally bad idea in the American democracy,” said Lynn, an ordained United Church of Christ minister.

It’s not simply a theoretical concern, said Broydrick, now a prominent Wisconsin lobbyist.

“Why should a non-Catholic vote for a Catholic if they are going to be dictated to by a bishop? If we [Catholics] are going to be full participants in the public life of our country, non-Catholics cannot think we are dictated to by a hierarchical authoritarian body in another country,” said Broydrick.

“Bishop Burke’s notification presumes the judgment of bishops on practices that are ‘public,’ ” said Marymount’s Horan, “but one wonders where one draws the line on ‘public’ acts.”

Asked Horan: “What about citizens who publicly campaign for or endorse politicians who are pro-choice? Should they not take Communion? Should they be denied it if they try? What if those same politicians who vote against abortion also vote for capital punishment? Will one stance cancel out another?”

It’s really not that difficult, says Princeton’s George. “There might well be a backlash; the bishops understand that this could well hurt the pro-life cause in specific legislative battles. It could hurt pro-life politicians with a backlash against the church’s involvement in politics or with people with a misguided understanding of separation of church and state.” But, said George, “the objective is to make clear to the Catholic faithful the content and the gravity of the church’s teaching on the inherent inalienable dignity of each life without respect to age or size or stage of development.”

Though Burke’s action is the most comprehensive taken by a bishop against pro-choice politicians, he’s not the first church leader to challenge elected officials. In a January 2003 statement directed at then-California Gov. Gray Davis, Bishop William Weigand of Sacramento said that politicians who support abortion rights “should have the integrity to acknowledge” that they are at odds with the church and “abstain from receiving holy Communion.” New Orleans Archbishop Alfred Hughes issued a similar statement last month, adding that citizens who back politicians who support abortion, euthanasia or embryonic stem cell research should refrain from receiving Communion.

Early last year, Sioux Falls, S.D., Bishop Robert Carlson reportedly urged Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle to stop proclaiming himself a Catholic in his campaign brochures and biography. Meanwhile, Boston Archbishop Sean O’Malley urged pro-choice Catholic elected officials to refrain from Communion. He did not, however, order Boston priests to deny them the sacrament. Sens. Edward Kennedy and John Kerry, both pro-choice Catholics, received Communion at O’Malley’s installation as archbishop last summer.

Burke spoke to the issue again Feb. 1. He told reporters that if Kerry, a candidate in the Missouri presidential primary, approached him for Communion “I would have to admonish him not to present himself for Communion.” Said Burke, “I might give him a blessing or something.”

Meanwhile, the U.S. bishops’ ad hoc committee charged with developing guidelines for dealing with Catholics in Public Life has met several times by teleconference, said a Washington archdiocese spokesperson. Washington Cardinal Theodore McCarrick chairs the committee. The spokesperson did not know if the guidance would be issued prior to the November 2004 elections.

Joe Feuerherd is NCR Washington correspondent. His e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, February 13, 2004

This Week's Stories | Home Page | Top of Page
Copyright  © The National Catholic Reporter Publishing  Company, 115 E. Armour Blvd., Kansas City, MO   64111
All rights reserved.
TEL:  816-531-0538     FAX:  1-816-968-2280   Send comments about this Web site to: