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COMMUNION-EUROPE Apr-22-2004 (1,330 words) xxxi
European bishops say they'd hesitate to deny politicians Communion

By Cindy Wooden
Catholic News Service

ROME (CNS) -- Several European bishops said they would be very hesitant to announce publicly that a Catholic politician could not receive the Eucharist because of a political stand, even in favor of legalized abortion.

In telephone interviews they cited a number of reasons, including a reluctance to "stigmatize" individual Catholics and a reluctance to use the Eucharist as a sanction for a political position.

The issue was heating up in the United States with regard to Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kerry, the probable Democratic candidate for president, who supports legal abortion.

European bishops and a pro-life activist contacted by Catholic News Service said that while some Catholic politicians on the continent have supported legislation opposed by the church they could not recall a politician being denied Communion.

Most of the bishops and observers said a complex web of practical and pastoral considerations would lead them to shy away from such a ban.

Bishops in Great Britain would "absolutely not" take the route of announcing a ban on Communion to politicians voting contrary to church teaching, said Archbishop Peter Smith of Cardiff, Wales, chairman of the bishops' Department of Christian Responsibility and Citizenship.

"Bishops have to be very careful about making public statements about an individual," Archbishop Smith said.

He said the church tries to work with Catholic members of Parliament when moral issues arise.

"We do not believe it is our task to tell MPs how to vote, although we hope and expect that they would bring their faith to bear on the political decisions they are asked to make," he said.

Even when a politician supports something as clearly immoral as abortion, the archbishop said, "I am not sure denying the Eucharist is the right way to go. You do not know why they voted the way they voted."

"Our task as bishops is to state very clearly the teaching of the Catholic Church, but it would be very wrong to dictate to a Catholic politician how to vote," he said.

"It may come to a point when following his conscience means leaving politics," Archbishop Smith said, but that decision must be made by the individual.

Italian Bishop Vincenzo Paglia of Terni, Narni and Amelia said, "The situations in the United States and in Italy are so different; people here would not understand a bishop doing such a thing."

Bishop Paglia said the most effective way for a bishop or priest to help a politician enact policies in accordance with church teaching is through a personal relationship in which issues can be explained and even debated.

But when the politician enters Parliament, he said, matters get more complicated.

"Faith is one thing. Legislation is another," he said.

In drafting and passing laws, he said, success usually means compromise and often means accepting a "lesser evil," trying to restrict practices the church considers immoral rather than refusing to participate and losing all influence.

Announcing that a politician cannot receive Communion "is a pastoral choice which I would not make," he said. "It does not make sense to me to use a sacrament to make a statement or judgment."

"Maybe if a Catholic politician actually promoted abortion or divorce, I would tell him not to come to Communion, but I would tell him only in private and only after speaking with him personally," the bishop said.

Carlo Casini, president of Italy's Pro-Life Movement, said that when abortion was legalized by the Italian Parliament in 1978 "unfortunately, there were Catholics, known as Catholics, who said they were against abortion, but that a law regulating abortion was necessary."

He said Pope Paul VI and the Italian bishops expressed their disappointment with the politicians and the vote, but made no move against individuals.

"The bishops must enlighten the faithful clearly and strongly, but making a drastic pastoral decision (like denying Communion), I do not know that I would do that," Casini said.

"The great problem with politics is that it is complicated," said Casini, who has served in the Italian and the European parliaments.

"The good and the bad are never all on one side," he said.

"Should abortion be the decisive and exclusive value?" Casini asked.

Stopping abortion should be a priority for Catholics, he said, but the death penalty, war and other attacks on human life also are important issues, and Catholic voters must make their own decisions.

Dutch Cardinal Adrianus Simonis of Utrecht said, "If a politician says he supports the right to abortions, he isn't a good Catholic.

"There are Catholic politicians here in the Netherlands who have had problems with this. But I'm lucky enough never to have faced a concrete situation in which I was embarrassed in having to refuse Communion," he said.

Bishop Tadeusz Pieronek, rector of the Krakow Theological Academy, said, "If politicians say they are personally against abortion, but don't wish to impose their convictions on others, they are right.

"However, if they declare themselves Catholic but disregard church rules by saying they favor abortion, the bishops are entitled to criticize and impose sanctions on them," he said.

"In such cases, the withdrawal of the right to holy Communion can be used to show a person is not fully within the community of the church," said the bishop, who had served as secretary-general of the Polish bishops' conference.

In the late 1990s, the archbishop of Lodz, Poland, caused national controversy by refusing a Catholic funeral to Ignacy Dec, a doctor well-known for performing abortions; graveside prayers were read later by a priest from Poland's military diocese.

Bishop Pieronek told CNS he could not recall any similar case in Poland, where the Catholic Church has generally given up what he defined as the practice of "stigmatization."

However, he said, canonical sanctions remain an option when judged "pastorally necessary."

Father Dominique Thierry, spokesman for the Diocese of Metz, France, said the French bishops expect Catholic politicians to uphold their faith in public.

However, he said, political leaders often lack the "holy courage and determination" to criticize pro-abortion legislation.

"Politicians should normally do everything to ensure their political vision and actions conform with their faith," he said.

In May 2003 Bishop Pierre Raffin of Metz refused a church marriage to a Catholic couple who said they did not intend to have children.

But Father Thierry said the refusal of Communion raised "difficult and delicate questions."

"If a politician says he is for abortion in conscience, but also wishes to take Communion, we would show there's an objective contradiction between the two positions and encourage him to see the variety of choices open to him," he said.

Anthony Cole, chairman of the Parliamentary Committee of the Catholic Union of Great Britain, said there are about 100 British parliamentarians who say they are Catholic, but not all of them are "reliable voters" on Catholic issues.

Those who vote contrary to the church, he said, "usually excuse themselves on the grounds that they are 'representing their constituents' or 'that Parliament has already decided this.'"

"We would not think it our duty to report individuals, as our modus operandi is respect and courtesy to all," although attempts would be made to discuss the issues with the individual politician, Cole said.

"It is hard to think of any of our bishops who would confront someone at the altar rails or in the media, nor am I aware of this happening," he said.

Archbishop Smith said the bishops of England and Wales were committed to promoting dialogue with Catholic politicians.

In late March, the bishops' conference published the first issue of Catholic Public Policy Digest, a journal written specifically for Catholic members of the House of Commons and the House of Lords.

The digest, sent to the Catholic legislators, included ethical reflections on current legislation and government projects, including those dealing with same-sex unions, immigration, euthanasia and the situation in the Middle East.

- - -

Contributing to this story was Jonathan Luxmoore in Oxford, England.


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