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Issue Date:  March 10, 2006

House Democrats issue 'Statement of Catholic Principles'


Tired of playing political punching bag to bishops and others who question their religious commitment, 55 House Democrats issued a “Catholic Statement of Principles” Feb. 28 that acknowledges the “church’s guidance and assistance” but also “the primacy of conscience.”

The 500-word statement rejects what its sponsors see as a narrow focus on abortion by some church leaders at the expense of other “basic principles that are at the heart of Catholic social teaching,” such as reducing poverty, promoting universal health care coverage and “taking seriously the decision to go to war.” Among the prominent signatories were such pro-choice stalwarts as House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., Patrick Kennedy, D-R.I., and Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., but also such strongly pro-life Democrats as Bart Stupak, D-Mich., James Oberstar, D-Minn., and Dale Kildee, D-Minn.

The statement is part of the continuing fallout from the 2004 elections in which a small number of high-profile bishops said they would deny the Eucharist to Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry, a pro-choice Catholic, if he presented himself for Communion in their dioceses. Other bishops urged pro-choice Catholic legislators to refrain from taking Communion.

The “Statement of Catholic Principles” is not the first time many of the same Catholic lawmakers have challenged church leaders who question their voting records. Declaring that “it would be wrong for a bishop to deny the sacrament of holy Communion to an individual on the basis of a voting record,” two-thirds of the Catholic Democrats in the House of Representatives told Washington Cardinal Theodore McCarrick in a May 10, 2004, letter that such actions are “counterproductive and would bring great harm to the church.” McCarrick chairs a committee charged with advising bishops on their dealings with legislators.

“We … are increasingly concerned about statements made recently by some members of the Catholic hierarchy indicating that the sacrament of Communion should be withheld from certain Catholic legislators because of their votes on public issues,” the Democrats said. McCarrick later met with representatives of the House Democrats.

“For too long,” DeLauro, chief architect of the statement, told NCR, “we have been silent about who we are as Democratic Catholics and for too long people have defined many of us who are pro-choice as in fact celebrating abortion. It’s time for us to say who we are [and] how we look at a whole variety of programs.

“We are flatly stating who we are and what we are all about,” said DeLauro. Prior to her election to Congress in 1990, DeLauro served as executive director of EMILY’s List, a political action committee dedicated to electing pro-choice women to Congress.

“We envision a world in which every child belongs to a loving family and agree with the Catholic church about the value of human life and the undesirability of abortion,” said the statement. “Each of us is committed to reducing the number of unwanted pregnancies and creating an environment with policies that encourage pregnancies to be carried to term. We believe this includes promoting alternatives to abortion, such as adoption, and improving access to children’s health care and childcare, as well as policies that encourage paternal and maternal responsibility.”

Some see the statement, billed as “historic” by its issuers, as a defining moment in the debate over a Catholic legislator’s obligation to church teaching.

“This document is calling us all to look again at the scope of Catholic social teaching and the nature of a moral act,” said Benedictine Sr. Joan Chittister, an NCR columnist who has been critical of those she says try to limit the scope of Catholic social teaching to narrowly-defined “life issues.” Chittister, along with Jesuit Frs. Thomas Reese, former editor of America magazine, and John Langan, professor of philosophy at Georgetown University, spoke at a July 2005 breakfast meeting of Catholic legislators hosted by DeLauro at her Capitol Hill townhouse.

“I was very impressed with both the anguish and commitment of these legislators,” said Chittister. “In a pluralistic society they know they are there to be as moral as they can be, but they do not see that they are there to legislate Catholic morality, especially in a society where other people of good faith are not as absolute [about abortion] as Catholics are,” said Chittister.

Others termed the statement more of the same from politicians on the defensive. “It’s the same-old, same-old, there’s nothing new here,” said Austin Ruse, president of the Washington-based Culture of Life Foundation. “The most offensive thing [about the statement],” said Ruse, “is that it casts abortion as a religious freedom issue,” where those who favor restrictions on abortion are said to be guilty of imposing their religious convictions on those who don’t share them. Public policy decisions related to abortion, said Ruse, “are quite separate from anybody’s faith.” Further, said Ruse, “while they say, ‘We do not celebrate its practice,’ they could not even say that every abortion is a tragedy.”

DeLauro said the group of Catholic legislators who worked on the statement will continue to meet informally and that its members hope for continued “dialogue” with bishops and other church leaders.

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

Related Web site
Catholic Statement of Principles

Pro-choice Catholics were targets in 2004

During the run-up to the 2004 presidential election, Bishop Michael Sheridan of Colorado Springs, Colo., issued a pastoral letter in which he said that Catholics who voted for a pro-choice politician were committing a sin.

In December 2003, in a move that hit particularly close to home to the House Democratic lawmakers, Rep. David Obey, D-Wis., was accused by then-LaCrosse, Wis., Bishop Raymond Burke of “manifest grave sin” for his abortion-related voting record. If Obey, an 18-term lawmaker with a mixed record on abortion, presented himself for Communion in his home diocese, according to instructions Burke issued before departing La Crosse to become archbishop of St. Louis, he was to be turned away.

Burke, as archbishop of St. Louis, said just prior to the 2004 Missouri primary that the same sanction would apply to Kerry should he present himself for communion in that archdiocese.

Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput weighed in with an April 14, 2004, newspaper column. “Candidates who claim to be ‘Catholic’ but who publicly ignore Catholic teaching about the sanctity of human life are offering a dishonest public witness,” wrote Chaput. “They may try to look Catholic and sound Catholic, but unless they act Catholic in their public service and political choices, they’re really a very different kind of creature.” And, concluded Chaput, “real Catholics should vote accordingly.”

-- Joe Feuerherd

National Catholic Reporter, March 10, 2006

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