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Conservatives gear up again to use Communion as a political weapon, no matter the cost to American Catholicism

Governor Kathleen Sebelius has been widely applauded in Democratic circles as a leading vice-presidential candidate, in part because of her potential appeal to the Catholic voters that all three remaining presidential candidates have recognized as critical to their victory in November. As a state legislator and Insurance Commissioner, Gov Sebelius had worked closely for years with the bishops of Kansas on a wide array of issues of great concern to Catholics, including affordable housing, opposing the death penalty, and filling gaps in managed care. Her public service has been recognized by Governing Magazine in 2001, which named her one of its public officials of the year, and by Time Magazine in 2005, which labeled her one of America's five best governors.

So, with the Democratic governor's political star rising, the registered Republican Archbishop of Kansas City revived the use of Holy Communion as a political weapon to take her down. He publicly called on her to stop taking Communion with her Catholic community, because of her widely-known opposition to the use of criminal law in dealing with abortion. In a Catholic newspaper column, Archbishop Joseph Naumann indicated that he had made the request because he had been angered by her vetoes of several Republican bills restricting abortion in Kansas. In her most recent veto message, Gov Sebelius offered a detailed description of the lengths to which she had gone to address the abortion issue constructively, and lauded the success her administration had achieved in decreasing its incidence.

Coincidentally, a California law school professor and Constitutional scholar, Douglas Kmiec, who is one of the country's most outspoken opponents of abortion, found himself denied Communion because of his public support for Senator Obama. Prof Kmiec was attending a Mass prior to giving a speech to a group of Catholic businessmen, and reported on the website CatholicOnline that he was singled out because of his prominence as an Obama supporter. By this standard, anyone who expressed public support for President Bush could be excluded at Communion, given Mr Bush's support for torture and the Bishops' recent inclusion of torture (along with abortion) in their Faithful Citizenship document as "an intrinsically evil act."

The common thread in these two stories is that individual Catholic authorities took it upon themselves to judge that an association with a Democratic presidential candidate was sufficient cause for a subtle form of excommunication from the Catholic community.

Archbishop Naumann is no stranger to Republican political circles. He opened the National Right to Life Convention in June 2007, at which four of the Republican presidential candidates appeared (with speeches by Mitt Romney and Sam Brownback). He was a keynote speaker at a Denver conference in the fall of 2007, his remarks reprinted in the conservative journal First Things, where he belittled efforts on the part of progressive office holders to address abortion constructively rather than through criminal law, writing, "Why do so many of the pro-choice politicians even say that they want to make abortion rare? Why want to make something rare if it is truly a valid choice?" In 1996, as an official of the St Louis Archdiocese, then-Msgr Naumann tried to discourage attendance by Catholic school children at an event featuring President Bill Clinton because he disagreed with President Clinton's veto of a Republican abortion bill.

One Catholic theologian was outraged by the Archbishop's decision to use Communion for his political purposes: "Gov Sebelius made clear that she is opposed to abortion and that she is pursuing steps to reduce them. She vetoed the bill because of her judgement that it was unconstitutional. This makes the debate between her and the Bishop one of prudential judgement of policy. This is outside of the competence of the Magisterium, thus he has no episcopal basis to discourage her from receiving the Eucharist. His statement clearly portrays his going public with his 'request' as a response to her veto. The bishop has overstepped the bounds of doctrine and is now using a church sanction to punish a Catholic with whom he has a political disagreement."

The Archbishop is part of a small circle of conservatives that includes the bishop of the neighboring diocese of Kansas City MO, Robert Finn, who was the keynote speaker for an annual Republican political event last month in Washington DC called the "National Catholic Prayer Breakfast," organized largely by the leadership of Catholics for McCain. Archbishop Charles Chaput, another champion of using Communion for political purposes, wrote in the Denver Catholic Register in January, "So can a Catholic in good conscience support a 'pro-choice' candidate? The answer is: I can't and I won't." But are these pro-Republican bishops on firm ground theologically with their arguments that criminalization of abortion is the sine qua non of morality on this issue?

There is a good reason why so many nobly motivated public servants have opposed the criminalization of abortion, while fighting for the Church's stances on many other issues. The dirty little secret is that advocacy of criminalization for abortion has no basis in Catholic ethics, particularly since criminal measures have never been shown to be an effective means of decreasing abortions.

While laws are necessary and often effective in accomplishing certain laudable civil aims, the ultimate authority of law rests on the threat of bodily harm or other punishment if a citizen fails to obey the law. Nowhere in the New Testament does Jesus ever advocate the use of the coercive power of the state in attaining the moral life, or otherwise rely on the prudential judgement of Rome to help individuals attain salvation. At best, the use of criminal law is always the lesser of two evils, and never preferable to the free consent of the governed to engage in a particular kind of moral behavior, from a Christian point of view.

Is Gov Sebelius in compliance with the directives of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops with regard to abortion? To their great credit, the Bishops' recent Faithful Citizenship document states emphatically that constructive measures such as those she has advocated (eg. encouraging adoption, supporting mothers) are not only important, but on an equal footing with efforts to criminalize abortion. The document goes as far as to cite the writings of Pope John Paul II in his encyclical Veritatis Splendor, stating, "Both opposing evil and doing good are essential obligations." With regard to criminalization, the Bishops specifically advocate passage of an amendment to the US Constitution outlawing all abortion, a measure which has not drawn the support of either the remaining Republican or Democratic presidential candidates.

More than just a philosophical issue, one can make the case that efforts to criminalize abortion are counterproductive. The Guttmacher Institute has estimated that nearly three times as many illegal abortions take place in the world every year (~18 million, mostly in the developing world) as in all the developed countries (6.6 million). The illegality of abortion in most countries across Africa and Latin America is generally recognized as a major cause of the continued astronomical maternal death rate worldwide (about 13% of the half million maternal deaths every year, according to Guttmacher). The 2007 international abortion survey found that abortion rates were no different overall in countries where abortion is illegal compared to where it is legal.

Here in the US, the contrast between the current Bush Administration and the preceding Clinton Administration is important. During the first term for Mr Bush, abortion rates fell by 1.6%. This compares to 7.9% during Mr Clinton's first term (CDC data), or about 21,600 fewer abortions per year if the rates had continued to decline after 2000 as rapidly as they did during the early Clinton Administration. The difference is even more pronounced using data from the Guttmacher Institute. Several factors appear to be responsible over the past 8 years, including decreased disposable income, increased teenage pregnancy rates, rising poverty rates, and decreasing rates of medical insurance and under-insurance.

Tellingly, the Bush Administration appears to have appreciated early that it was unlikely to match the Clintons' success in dealing with abortion. On entering office, the Bush Department of Health and Human Services moved the CDC's annual abortion reporting date to the Friday after Thanksgiving, the slowest news day of the year. In other words, though an Administration may talk a good game about abortion, its actions may count for significantly more.

Why do certain bishops and other religious conservatives cling to the notion that the only acceptable moral approach to abortion is criminalizing it, when the evidence suggests this is both alienating to a large section of the population (including Catholics) and ineffective? It appears to be purely an ideological issue, with a host of policy sins (such as Iraq, villanization of immigrants, environmental despoilment, and inaction on the escalating medical uninsurance crisis) hidden behind a veneer of morality on this one issue.

Conservatives love to point a finger of blame at the Democrats for the 42 million abortions since 1973, but they never talk about the 42 million abortions that came before Roe-v-Wade. Curiously, Archbishop Naumann concluded his address in Denver with the words, "I prefer to be a disciple of Jesus rather than of Pontius Pilate." But the irony is that the Republican approach to abortion is strictly in Pontius Pilate's domain of law and punishment, rather than the Christic domain of creativity and nurturing invitation to the moral life.

The actions of Archbishop Naumann, and other pro-Republican religious conservatives, will bring them considerable praise in right-wing political circles. But the reopening of an ugly chapter from the 2004 presidential campaign, in which Holy Communion was used as a political weapon against a Catholic candidate, is another sad defilement of American Catholicism. More than just their acquiescence to the manipulation of the Church in support of one party, the willingness of these men to use the Sacrament of Peace to help prolong all the Bush policies on war and poverty will serve to further separate all American Christians from Jesus' message of reconciliation while doing nothing to address the crying moral concerns related to abortion.

Monday, September 1, 2014

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"Today I say to you that the challenges we face are real. They are serious and they are many. They will not be met easily or in a short span of time. But know this, America: They will be met.

"On this day, we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord.

"On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas, that for far too long have strangled our politics."

Inaugural Address, President Obama



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