Catholic Bishop denies communion to pro-choice legislators

by Harry on January 10, 2004

I can’t tell how far this story has got out of Wisconsin, but it is pretty amusing. Bishop Burke of La Crosse has issued a statement denying communion to legislators who vote pro-choice. You can imagine that quasi-Catholic legislators are annoyed, and so are their Democratic colleagues. There’s been lots of nonsense on the radio about the threat to separation of church and state, revealing that people really don’t understand the point of separation, which is to protect religious believers from discrimination by the state and other faiths, not to protect them from their own church (we have laws against murder, etc, to do that). The legislators are free to leave the church if they disagree with it, or if they want to take a job which requires them to act against its policies. Burke is simply illuminating the reality of the choice. Good luck to him.



Dedman 01.10.04 at 4:49 pm

Well said. Churches are not democracies. If the clergy are irked by politicians who purport to be members of a particular faith but who vote against the tenets of the faith, why not refuse them the benefits of the faith? Seems pretty straightforward to me . . .


Ophelia Benson 01.10.04 at 5:20 pm

Yup. It’s not just the separation of church and state that is misunderstood, it’s also religion and religions. The Catholic church is decidedly not a democratic or non-hierarchical or anti-elitist or responsive or bottom-up or consensual or anti-authoritarian or egalitarian institution. It never has been. That may be one bit of fall-out from the current Received Wisdom that religion is always and everywhere benign, helpful, loving, cuddly, warm & fuzzy, touchy-feely, happy-clappy, and that the Pope is just a swell old geezer: people lose the awareness of how very coercive religion can be.


Norbizness 01.10.04 at 5:41 pm

For some reason, I remember getting into a long discussion with someone on this about a year ago; something to do with Tom Daschle and his relationship with the Catholic Church.

When it comes to the death penalty, alleviating poverty, voting against an unjust war, and all the other reasons that a legislator could be at variance with the Church, it boils down to “selective enforcement”.


Ophelia Benson 01.10.04 at 6:15 pm

Exactly. That’s a point Richard Dawkins makes about religion and morality. People like to conflate the two, but the fact is, we pick and choose which bits of religious morality we agree with and which we don’t. We don’t fret much about Leviticus, on the whole. Therefore, the basis of our morality is something external to religion, not internal to it. And yet politicians insist on talking as if the two were inextricable. Extricable is exactly what they are.


john isbell 01.10.04 at 9:25 pm

“The legislators are free to leave the church if they disagree with it.”
Absolutely. That also goes for any Catholic US legislator who supports the death penalty,which I feel certain this godfearing Bishop will condemn equally in a matter of moments. Life is life, right? And the seamless fabric concept still applies in the Mother Church? Let’s hope not, or else this would be a vile political game that guarantees a downward trip, not an upward one, for that Bishop as far as I can tell, when the day comes. Perhaps he should rethink.


Terry 01.10.04 at 9:38 pm

I find this rather despicable, actually. There are numerous political policies on either side of the aisle which are in direct opposition to church stances (see the Church’s take on the death penalty, the war in Iraq, etc.). It’s not that the Bishop doesn’t have the right to deny communion, but that he’s really making a political statement here, not a religious one. There is no reason that you cannot see abortion as despicable, but still believe that making it illegal would, in the long run, cause more anguish than it would prevent.

One of the reasons that I’ve always admired the Catholic Church is that, despite it’s dictatorial appearance, it’s always been made up of people who disagree about all but the most fundamental aspects of faith and have spent 2000 years arguing about what the Bible really means.

Consider, for example, the different holy orders. If the church was truly monolithic, there wouldn’t be more than one order of priests or nuns. However, the numerous holy orders are basically made up of those who believe that they are following the correct path of service. If you don’t believe me, you should meet my former priest who loves nothing more than to trash on the ancient Aidan-inspired Irish Catholics and those “pinheaded” Jesuits.


Terry 01.10.04 at 9:54 pm


I should also point out that being “pro-life” is not, exactly, a tenet of the faith, but rather a policy stance. The tenets, the things I have to believe in order to be a Catholic (and I am), are included in the Nicene Creed. The Catechism, on the other hand, is a document which is changing and is about how the Church views the faith now.

Would it have been right, therefore, for the Pope to have denied communion to those who refused to blame Jews for the death of Christ before Vatican II softened the Church’s stance on the subject?


Dedman 01.10.04 at 10:19 pm

Terry, I wasn’t referring only to the Catholic church in my post above, but all faiths.


Ophelia Benson 01.10.04 at 11:51 pm

I was referring to all religions too, but I was also referring to Catholicism in particular. It may not be monolithic, but it does have a single, authoritative, in fact infallible head. That’s the nature of the Church. Encyclicals are not just papal editorials – they’re binding on Catholics. Aren’t they? So the Bishop’s move is that much less surprising. I think it’s despicable enough, but not at all astonishing.


Stefanie Murray 01.11.04 at 1:00 am

One of the main brickbats thrown at Kennedy’s presidential campaign was that, as a Ctaholic, he would be ‘taking orders from the Pope.’

Now it looks like this Bishop has it in mind to turn bigotry into fact.


Stefanie Murray 01.11.04 at 1:02 am

‘Catholic,’ not ‘Ctaholic,’ which is probably the word for a Lovecraft addict….


cafl 01.11.04 at 3:10 am

As one who was politically aware and a (then) practicing Catholic living in GWB’s part of the Bible Belt during the Kennedy presidential campaign of 1960, I notice a big difference in the stance taken by the Church then and now. Then, the Church spoke in support of Kennedy’s statements denying that he would “take orders from the Vatican”, as his anti-Catholic opponents alleged. Catholics and especially the hierarchy who might benefit in influence were not sure of their ability to achieve powerful national political offices. Now the Church flexes its muscles because it has far more political power.


Bryan 01.11.04 at 3:16 am

The Catholic Church has done this for years. My Assemblywomen in California was punished in this manner back in the 1980s, and Father Drinan had to leave the House of Representatives on Vatican orders.

It is the nature of the Catholic Church. Other religious leaders have to resort to: no real Christian/Jew/Muslim would support your position.


Jim Flannery 01.11.04 at 6:09 am

I don’t buy this argument at all. It’s traditional to deny the sacraments to people living — if I remember the phrase correctly — “in an unregenerate state of sin”; that is, to people who are openly cohabitating out of wedlock, etc. This action is not punishing people who are sinning (there’s no implication that the lawmakers in question have themselves had abortions), but people who are defending the freedom of non-believers to follow their own moral codes (which might I suppose have been a sin back in Canaanite-smiting days, or even during the Reformation, but it’s sort of passe, isn’t it?). It’s not about separation of church and state because commentators don’t understand the concept; it’s about separation because these lawmakers are being punished for defending it.


Steve Carr 01.11.04 at 2:34 pm

Abortion is not like the death penalty, the war on Iraq, or alleviating poverty because on none of those other issues has the Pope spoken from a position of infallibility (as Catholics see it). On abortion and birth control he has — in the 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae. Therefore, challenging the Church’s position on abortion is fundamentally different for a Catholic than challenging these other positions.

And as far as whether the lawmakers are actually sinning, the Vatican’s 1974 Declaration on Abortion is explicit about the fact that they are: “A Christian can never conform to a law which is in itself immoral, and such is the case of a law which would admit in principle the licitness of abortion. Nor can a Christian take part in a propaganda campaign in favor of such a law, or vote for it. Moreover, he may not
collaborate in its application.” These legislators are doing exactly what the Declaration forbade them from doing.

The bishop’s decision is certainly capricious and arbitrary, in the sense that a large number of his congregants undoubtedly support abortion and an even larger number have undoubtedly used birth control, yet they are still being allowed to receive communion. On the other hand, they have not been public in their support for abortion. It seems to me this is rougly analogous to prosecuting high-profile criminals in the expectation that it will send a message to everyone else.


John Isbell 01.11.04 at 6:43 pm

Steve Carr, in that case I just maligned the bishop, for which I apologize, and he has authority for his distinction, whatever I think of it.
Since I’ve just come from Mass, I feel compelled to post that. Thanks.


raj 01.12.04 at 11:20 am

Denies communion? Oh, wow. Crunch on a cracker and drink some whine. Big deal. One can certainly get getter whine at the liquor store.

On the other hand…given the symbolically cannabalistic nature of the “communion” ceremony, it’s amazing that anyone would want to take part. That “transubstantiation” stuff should turn people off. It’s amazing that it doesn’t.


raj 01.12.04 at 11:22 am

“getter” should be “better”


Jane Galt 01.12.04 at 1:02 pm

Pardon me, but while there is a very sharp distinction in Catholic teaching between the death penalty and abortion, with the former open for debate in a way that the latter is not, I don’t believe that that position comes from the doctrine of infallibility. As far as I know, teh pope is only infallible when he speaks ex-cathedra, which he has only done twice: on the immaculate conception, and the assumption of Mary into heaven. I think the distinction comes from the theological argument that abortion is worse than the death penalty (because the fetus is innocent, and never has the chance to partake of the sacraments), and because it’s the subject of papal encyclical. The authority of the pope as the Vicar of Christ on Earth accrues to teh doctrine on abortion, but I don’t believe his infallibility does.


John Isbell 01.12.04 at 7:27 pm

Raj: theophagy, actually. But the Romans shared your perception, a main reason for the persecution.
Catholics (and maybe the Orthodox Churches) perform theophagy alone that I know of among world religions.


KON 01.13.04 at 5:22 am

Hmmmm. I can see the where people are coming from when they say that this sort of enforcement is arbitrary, but I believe they are missing an important point. A bishop is speaking out and taking action against a great evil of our time. Some argue that is is a matter of personal choice. Hooey. Was slavery? They argue that abortion is legal- and thats how it should stay. What about slavery? The Church spoke out against slavery despite the fact that it was legal and many choose to own slaves. Should they have kept their mouths shut then and said, “Well, this is not a religious issue, but secular. Its legal, so we will have our opinion but not act on it”? Granted some Catholics owned slaves and supported it (as some promote abortion); this doesn’t mean the Church should not try to correct error when it can. Critics ought to get off this bishop’s back and worry about their own consistancy, or start making the case for slavery.


Tor 01.13.04 at 9:29 pm

As a pro-choice voter, this Bishop’s decision has forced every Catholic politician to pass a litmus test – “If you receive a clear mandate from the voters in your district/state/country, while at the same time the Church would deny you communion for voting in favor of that mandate, do you follow your mandate, or save your soul?” How could I support Kerry if his Bishop has the power and authority to compel that he vote anti-choice or act in any other matter where the Church and the State’s goals differ?

Denying communion to catholic politicians feeds the ‘anti-catholic bias’ that some say exist. Whether it exists or not, catholic politicians now have to deal with this issue, as opposed to all the other good they could do in the world. While it is legal under Catholic religious law, it is another example of the Catholic church shooting itself in the foot. With all the abuse scandals in the news, the last thing they need is more bad press.

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