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RNA-POLITICAL Sep-13-2004 (740 words) xxxn

Panel on Communion sanctions raises questions on church and politics

By Patricia Zapor
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- The debate over whether Catholic politicians should be sanctioned by bishops if they do not vote in strict accord with church teaching has brought new focus to a long-simmering conflict, panelists at a Washington conference said.

Speaking during the Religion Newswriters Association's annual conference Sept. 10, a Catholic member of Congress and two political commentators discussed the political effects of some bishops' attention to Catholic politicians who vote in favor of abortion.

"It's remarkable to me after the past nine months, how much remains unclear" about the topic, said George Weigel, a fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center and a regular television and newspaper commentator.

The question of whether the church should demand that its members vote to support Catholic teaching about abortion is simple, as far as he is concerned, because the "the pro-life position of the Catholic Church is not sectarian."

Unlike a specifically Catholic instruction such as "don't eat meat on Fridays in Lent," Weigel said, the church's position on abortion is "not based on peculiarly Catholic evidence," but on broadly based moral teachings about the sanctity of life.

"The Supreme Court can and does get it wrong sometimes," Weigel said. "It's not a violation of law or the separation of church and state to say so."

But Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., said to impose the Catholic position as the only morally correct one for the whole nation puts at risk U.S. pluralism that the Catholic Church itself worked hard to establish.

DeLauro, a Catholic, said she does not challenge the church's teaching on life issues, even though she votes to limit restrictions on abortion and otherwise keep it available. She said she is "wholly comfortable with the clergy guiding parishioners and politicians in issues of morality."

But that is "very different than religious authorities dictating what elected officials and, indeed, voters should do under threat of religious sanctions," she said. "That conflicts with my fundamental beliefs about the role of democratic representatives in a pluralistic America -- it clashes with freedoms guaranteed in our Constitution."

She said she cannot support the idea of one church insisting that its moral teaching become the law of the land when other faiths reach a different conclusion on whether abortion is ever morally appropriate.

"There are other denominations who in fact say that a woman can legitimately and morally make this choice" to have an abortion, she said.

DeLauro was one of 48 members of Congress who wrote in May to Washington Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick, in his capacity as chairman of a bishops' task force on politicians and Communion, to request a meeting with him. She said at the conference that half a dozen members met with Cardinal McCarrick this summer in a private meeting that she said was "a healthy exchange of views."

A third panelist, Amy Sullivan, a commentator and an editor at Washington Monthly magazine, said Catholic politicians -- particularly Democrats -- in many ways make the issue hard on themselves.

Presidential nominee Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., has taken a minimalist approach to discussing the role of his Catholic faith in his life, with comments that make it sound like he is able to compartmentalize his faith and that it doesn't necessarily affect his actions in office, Sullivan said.

"This isn't 1960," she said. John F. Kennedy in 1960 needed to persuade skeptical voters that his Catholicism didn't mean the Vatican would be issuing orders to the White House, Sullivan said. But Kerry needs to focus on fellow Catholics and others who are not convinced there is enough religious influence in his life, she said.

"It doesn't ring true with most Americans," she said. "They don't compartmentalize like that. It's hard for them to understand how he could do that."

Weigel said abortion has become a volatile issue for Catholics because the Democratic Party has taken such a hard line in insisting that abortion not be restricted.

Just as DeLauro explained that her religious roots naturally led her to the Democrats because of the party's positions on social issues, Weigel said many Catholics have long felt the party to be their political home.

But the party "has simply become intransigently committed to Roe vs. Wade," Weigel said.

DeLauro, who headed the Democrats' platform committee this year, said the wording of the platform welcomes a diversity of views on abortion.


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