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COMMUNION-POLITICS Sep-17-2004 (1,050 words) With photos. xxxn

Seminar examines merits of denying Communion to dissident politicians

By Jerry Filteau
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- Father Richard John Neuhaus said Catholic politicians who persist in supporting legalized abortion should be denied Communion.

Monika K. Hellwig said that tactic would contribute to the misperception that abortion is a "Catholic issue" when it should be an issue with all candidates.

The two theologians were among speakers at a daylong conference, "Public Witness/Public Scandal," on "the controversy over Catholic politicians who consistently advocate and vote against pro-life positions."

Co-sponsors of the conference, held Sept. 16 at the National Press Club in Washington, were Ave Maria Law School and the Our Sunday Visitor Foundation.

Father Neuhaus, a New York priest and editor in chief of First Things magazine, and Hellwig, who taught theology at Georgetown University for more than 30 years before leaving that post to become president and executive director of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities, shared the podium in a discussion of the cultural implications of the controversy.

Father Neuhaus described the current debate over how bishops should deal with Catholic politicians who dissent from church teachings in public policy stands on fundamental life issues "a turning point of considerable consequence in American history."

How the bishops handle the issue will have significant implications for "the future of Christian witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ" in the United States, he said.

Father Neuhaus praised Archbishop Raymond L. Burke of St. Louis, who last winter, when he was still bishop of La Crosse, Wis., determined after correspondence with three local Catholic politicians that they should not be admitted to Communion until they publicly changed their stands on legalized abortion.

He noted that some people have accused those bishops who have followed Archbishop Burke's lead of "speaking recklessly" by addressing the issue in the midst of a presidential campaign.

But with Democratic candidate Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, who supports keeping abortion legal, as the first major-party Catholic presidential nominee in 44 years, the priest said, "it is precisely because of this moment that this issue needed to be addressed now."

"Rome has made it clear. ... It's intrinsically evil to take innocent human life," he said, adding that the abortion issue "is singular and it does have priority" over issues like the minimum wage, capital punishment or the war in Iraq.

Among the U.S. bishops "the center has moved dramatically," he said.

"The issue now is not whether this will be publicly addressed," he explained, but how to address it and to make policy decisions "in the case of persistent, unrepentant, public and scandalous defiance of the church's teaching that will range from urging the person not to present himself or herself for Communion to publicly refusing Communion (to that person). That is a great move on the part of the bishops. That is the range of discussion. That was not true a year ago."

He said he has "great sympathy for the politicians and other public figures who are asking the question, 'Why, all of a sudden, is it a big deal?'"

"The answer, of course, is that it was always a big deal. But the bishops were negligent, and in some cases timorous and in some cases, perhaps it is not unkind to say, cowardly," he said.

Hellwig said the focus on whether Catholic politicians such as Kerry should be allowed to receive Communion is a "monumental red herring" drawing attention away from the main issue.

"The central issue should be what is wrong with a culture that sponsors abortion and what can we do about it. What can we do about it at the political level, in the culture, in the pattern of society?" she said.

A related issue, she said, is "the complexity of negotiating with those convictions (held by Catholics on abortion and the sacredness of life) in the public arena and in the culture of today."

She said it is a mistake to isolate abortion "from other issues of the election and from other issues of the sacredness of life."

One problem, she said, is that abortion "has come to be seen as a Catholic issue."

"The issue of abortion is not a Catholic issue, it's a human issue," she said. "It's an issue which in our traditional understanding is supposed to be discussed at the level of natural law, at the level of the public square, at the level of enlisting the reflection of all people of good will and enlisting their reflection in a sustained, coherent argument about the case, and I don't think we have done that."

"What is the Catholic issue," she said, "is that we should be educating our people better to understand what is a matter of church legislation, what is a matter of Catholic fidelity, and what is a very basic human issue to be discussed in the public forum and really battled over to come to an understanding among right-minded persons."

She said the beginning of a solution to abortion "is to listen, to ask how do people see this, why are they doing this, and particularly why do people -- who are not pregnant women in a tight fix looking for an escape, but all the other people -- why are they enthusiastic about giving the women that choice?"

"When I listen," she said, "one of the things I hear is that thinking people, sympathetic people who tend to be on the pro-choice side don't see our culture as a culture of death, they see it as a culture of rape ... that powerless women are forced into unwanted pregnancies, inside marriage and outside marriage, in the family in incestuous relationships, which are much more common than most of us hear, and outside the family in a world where there is a great deal of violence."

If that is what people are seeing, she said, "why don't we attend to the culture of rape, in the broader sense of the powerful forcing on the powerless intolerable situations?"

To address society's acceptance of abortion, the second step is "to build an alternative culture" that will restore the consensus needed to sustain legislation restricting abortion, she said.

The basic question behind building such a culture, she said, is: "What is each of us willing to give of the quality and the comfort of our own lives so that others may live?"


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