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POLITICS-VATICAN Jun-3-2004 (860 words) xxxi
Vatican wants to meet with U.S. task force on Catholic politicians

By John Thavis
Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- The Vatican's doctrinal congregation wants to meet soon with a U.S. bishops' task force to help clarify controversial questions over church teachings and Catholic politicians, sources in Rome said.

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, suggested the encounter after speaking at length with a group of U.S. bishops at the Vatican June 2, said Bishop Donald E. Pelotte of Gallup, N.M.

During their meeting, Cardinal Ratzinger said church leaders should be cautious about refusing Communion to Catholic politicians who oppose church teachings on abortion and other pro-life issues, Bishop Pelotte told Catholic News Service.

A Vatican source confirmed that Cardinal Ratzinger had emphasized caution when discussing the possibility of denying Communion.

The source said that in light of recent statements by various U.S. bishops the Vatican felt that "a concerted and nuanced approach is needed" on the question of Communion and dissenting politicians.

Bishop Pelotte, one of 15 Western U.S. bishops making their "ad limina" visits to the Vatican, said he had raised the question during the group's meeting with Cardinal Ratzinger because he felt the bishops needed clarification.

In response, Cardinal Ratzinger reviewed elements of church law, precedents in other countries and particular circumstances in the United States, Bishop Pelotte said. The cardinal cited difficulties a bishop would face in determining that an individual politician cannot receive the Eucharist, he said.

In the end, Cardinal Ratzinger did not give a yes or no answer, Bishop Pelotte said. But he said the cardinal left him with the impression that denying Communion was not usually the appropriate action.

The meeting illustrated a growing belief among some U.S. bishops that clarification of the church's position cannot wait until after this year's political elections in November.

A task force of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops headed by Washington Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick is preparing guidelines on how to handle relationships with Catholics whose actions in public life are not in accord with church teaching, but its report is not expected until after November.

Several of the bishops in Rome said the issue has been placed on the agenda for the U.S. bishops' June 14-19 meeting in Denver.

"It has to be (on the agenda). It has just generated so much confusion and anger," Bishop Pelotte said.

He said Cardinal Ratzinger seemed to appreciate the urgency of clarifying the issue.

"What he was suggesting was a meeting as soon as possible between the USCCB's task force and people at the doctrinal congregation, to work out some kind of understanding," Bishop Pelotte said. Vatican sources said it was uncertain whether such a U.S.-Vatican consultation would be possible before the bishops meet in Denver.

Bishop Pelotte said it was clear that the U.S. bishops are somewhat divided about the issue. Sources at the Vatican said the lack of unity on such a public issue was a matter for concern.

The question has assumed a higher profile this year because the presumptive Democratic Party nominee for president, Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, a Catholic, supports legal abortion.

In recent weeks, bishops across the country have taken widely diverse positions, with some saying that candidates who favor abortion should be denied Communion and others saying the Eucharist should not be used as a sanction.

Bishop Michael J. Sheridan of Colorado Springs, Colo., who was among the group who met with Cardinal Ratzinger, issued a pastoral letter in May saying that Catholic politicians who support abortion, fetal stem-cell research or euthanasia "place themselves outside full communion with the church and so jeopardize their salvation. Any Catholics who vote for candidates who stand for abortion, illicit stem-cell research or euthanasia suffer the same fateful consequences."

In an interview with CNS June 2, Bishop Sheridan said he had not received direct feedback from Vatican officials on his pastoral letter during the "ad limina" visit, which heads of dioceses are required to make every five years. But he said there was concern that the bishops deal with these questions at their June meeting to try to determine "how, as a body of bishops and as individuals, we deal with Catholic politicians who publicly oppose the church on these fundamental matters."

Bishop Sheridan said he thought it was important to discuss the issues well ahead of the November election, to avoid the appearance of making partisan statements.

Bishop Pelotte said some Catholics are already upset at some of the bishops' statements and see them as too partisan. What he tells Catholics, he said, is to "look at the candidate, at all his positions, and then vote your conscience."

"That's what we've always been told to do. I did my doctrinal dissertation on (Jesuit Father) John Courtney Murray and Catholicism in the United States, and it can't be any clearer," Bishop Pelotte said.

Father Murray, a distinguished Catholic scholar and theologian who died in 1968, emphasized the distinctions between public life and private morality, saying it is not the legislator's role to "forbid everything that the moral law forbids or to enjoin everything that the moral law enjoins."


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