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Issue Date:  September 17, 2004

Lawyer’s stone campaign takes bishops to task


He straightened up and said to them, “If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.” -- John 8:7

This spring Ashley Merryman, a writer and lawyer in Culver City, Calif., was upset by a rash of news stories she had seen about Catholic bishops denying Communion to Catholic politicians who support pro-abortion legislation and admonishing Catholics who might consider voting for such candidates.

She decided to do something about it. To bishops who had made such statements, she started mailing stones and letters explaining her objections. Then she started encouraging other people to send more stones and letters. To spread her message, she started a Web site,, that lists the bishops and their addresses.

“I fully admit that I am a loyal Democrat,” Merryman told NCR. Indeed, she worked for Bill Clinton’s campaign and his administration in the early ’90s. “But I don’t see this as a political issue. I also don’t think this is an abortion issue,” she said.

It is more fundamental, she said. At issue is how bishops engage the laity.

She didn’t like bishops telling people how to vote; she didn’t like the bishops’ narrow focus on just one or two issues, and she didn’t like being told what to do. “This approach doesn’t help anyone make an informed decision,” she said. “I wanted education on the issues.

“I look to the bishops and church teachings to inform my conscience and how I am to live my life,” she said.

“I want to think about things seriously, and then vote my conscience, just as I go to church with my conscience. I don’t want people to override that.

“If my individual conscience isn’t good enough then … well that’s the fundamental disconnect,” she said.

Merryman, 36, said she was raised Catholic. “But I was never devout as a youth and teenager. I was not a participating Catholic for 10 or 15 years.” One day in Washington while she was with the Clinton administration, she visited the memorial for John F. Kennedy. She saw a quote that made a deep impression on her: “Here on earth, God’s will must be our own.”

The quote stayed with her. “About six months later, I just starting going back to church,” Merryman said.

For the last six years, she said, she has been a regular Massgoer and active in parish life. “I have really been searching for what is my faith about.” Which is why, she said, “I don’t want to be told just the bottom line.”

The bishops on Merryman’s list are Michael Sheridan of Colorado Springs, Colo.; Fabian Bruskewitz of Lincoln, Neb.; Raymond L. Burke of St. Louis; John J. Myers of Newark, N.J.; and Joseph A. Galante in Camden, N.J.

Merryman said Sept. 3 that she would be adding John F. Donoghue of Atlanta; Peter J. Jugis of Charlotte, N.C.; and Robert J. Baker of Charleston, S.C. to her list and was preparing to mail stones.

Nearly 1,500 people have visited her Web site since May, and Merryman said she has heard from a few hundred people. She believes (“But I don’t know for sure.”) that at least 100 people have sent stones to the bishops on the list. Checking with the bishops’ offices last month, however, NCR could confirm that only three rocks had been received.

Merryman tries to be fair.

For Web site visitors who want information on church teaching, she provides links to various sources, including Web sites for the U.S. bishops’ conference and for Women for Faith & Family, a St. Louis-based group whose aim is “to assist orthodox Catholic women in their effort to provide witness to their faith, both to their families and to the world.”

She sent a stone to Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of Denver, but when the Chaput wrote her back clarifying his position (he did not say he supports turning pro-choice politicians away from Communion, but he does suggest they “should choose not to receive Communion on their own”), she apologized for “inadvertantly misrepresenting his position” and moved Chaput’s name to a “Watch List/You Decide.”

On that list with Chaput is Archbishop John G. Vlazny of Portland, Ore., who has said public dissenters and Catholics who vote solely because a candidate is pro-choice should refrain from Communion. Merryman has not sent Vlazny a stone because he also said that if someone votes for a pro-choice candidate because “other candidates fail significantly in some matters of great importance, for example, war and peace, human rights and economic justice, then there is no evident stance of opposition to church teaching and reception of holy Communion seems both appropriate and beneficial.”

Merryman wrote on her Web site: “To me, he is obviously struggling with the issue, and at least acknowledged that Catholics have the right to consider candidates’ entire agenda. Also, he believes the communicant himself can decide: He isn’t going to instruct his priests to turn anyone away.”

The U.S. bishops’ meeting this summer decided that each bishop could decide for himself on the question of denying Communion to politicians. “It is interesting that the bishops get to decide on their own, but we don’t,” Merryman told NCR. “I want to see how this plays out.”

Most people who have contacted her have been supportive, and the criticisms she has received have not been as negative or as strong as she expected.

She also has received a little media attention. Talking with one reporter who asked her what lay Catholics think, she said, “I was like, wow! I guess I am the voice of the laity -- omigosh!”

Dennis Coday is an NCR staff writer. His e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, September 17, 2004

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