Unprecedented sanctions spark row over Church-state separation, writes Simon Caldwell AN AMERICAN archbishop has taken the unprecedented step of threatening to bar Catholic politicians from Holy Communion if they continued to support abortion and euthanasia.
Archbishop Raymond Burke of La Crosse, Wisconsin, wrote to three unnamed politicians in his diocese to say their positions were a “public sin” which “gave scandal” and put the spiritual well-being of the faithful at risk by suggesting that it was acceptable to dissent from Catholic teaching.
The archbishop, a canon lawyer, then published a canonical notification in last week’s edition of The Catholic Times, the La Crosse diocesan newspaper.
“Catholic legislators who are members of the faithful of the Diocese of La Crosse and who continue to support procured abortion or euthanasia may not present themselves to receive Holy Communion,” the notification said. “They are not to be admitted to Holy Communion, should they present themselves, until such time as they publicly renounce their support of these most unjust practices.” Archbishop Burke, who will be installed as the Archbishop of St Louis on January 26, fulfilled his canonical obligations by warning the politicians to change their behaviour before threatening more serious action.
Archbishop Burke argued that the notification was necessary because the three politicians ignored his invitations for private meetings to discuss their voting records, but indicated to him they were not open to changing their positions.
“After several exchanges of letters, it became clear in all three cases that there was no willingness to conform to the teaching of the church,” he said. “So the notification became a necessity in order that the faithful in the diocese should not be scandalised, thinking that it is acceptable for a devout Catholic to also be pro-abortion.” Fr Richard Gilles, a Wisconsin canon lawyer, said the notification represented a direct instruction to priests of the diocese.
Two of the politicians, Senator Julie Lassa and Representative David Obey, both Democrats, have identified themselves to the press.
In a statement, Miss Lassa said: “My constituents have the right to expect that I will represent people of all faiths ... I believe any effort to pressure legislators by threatening to deny them the sacraments is contrary to the principles of democracy.” Mr Obey said: “Bishop Burke has a right to instruct me on matters of faith and morals in my private life and, like any other citizen, to try by persuasion, not dictation, to affect my vote on any public matter. But, when he attempts to use his ecclesiastical position to dictate to American public officials how the power of law should be brought to bear against Americans who do not necessarily share our religious beliefs, on abortion or any other public issue, he crosses the line into unacceptable territory.
“The US Constitution, which I have taken a sacred oath to defend, is designed to protect American citizens from just such authoritarian demands.” Archbishop Burke was also criticised by the Rev Barry Lynn, an evangelical minister and executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, who described the notification as both “unprecedented” and “disturbing”.
“Truth is, the Dark Ages ended 500 years ago and it is not a good idea for the American electorate to begin to be divided along religious lines,” he told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “That is the inevitable consequence of clergy punishing Church members for not following Church doctrine in their voting pattern.”
The Church in America is severely polarised between its conservative and liberal factions, and since the Kennedy era there have been repeated clashes between its members over sexual morality and the sanctity of life.
In the 1970s Jesuit priest Robert Drinan, a Massachu setts Democrat, continually voted in favour of abortion until he stepped down after the revised Code of Canon Law of 1983 made explicit the Pope’s intention that those consecrated to religious life should not hold public office.
More recently, the bishops of California have clashed with the pro-abortion state Governor Gray Davis, a Catholic who was replaced last year by Arnold Schwarzenegger, another Catholic who has also publicly stated his support for legal abortion.
According to Fr Thomas Reece, editor of the Jesuit magazine America, no bishop has gone so far as Archbishop Burke in enforcing the teaching of the Church. Fr Reece said the archbishop “pushed the envelope” at a time when the US bishops were developing their policy on how to deal with Catholic politicians.
He said: “I don’t know of any Italian bishops who are denying Communion to Catholic politicians in Italy who are voting wrong on abortion. The real question is, is this the beginning of a trend or is this going to be simply an isolated story?”