Catholics who vote for politicians who support abortion rights or gay marriage will be banned from Communion until they have "recanted their positions" and confessed their sin, a Colorado bishop warned.
Bishop Michael Sheridan of Colorado Springs said any Catholic who does not reflect church teaching in the voting booth "makes a mockery of that faith and belies his identity as a Catholic."
Sheridan's May 1 directive is believed to be the first in the nation that would apply to voters the same controversial sanctions proposed by some bishops against abortion-rights Catholic politicians.
It is also one of the most drastic—equating a particular vote with sinful activity. Sheridan's order applies only to his diocese of 125,000 Catholics.
"As in the matter of abortion, any Catholic politician who would promote so-called `same-sex marriage' and any Catholic who would vote for that political candidate place themselves outside the full communion of the church and may not receive Holy Communion until they have recanted their positions and been reconciled by the Sacrament of Penance," Sheridan said.
While Sheridan's letter appears to condemn any vote for likely Democratic nominee John Kerry, Sheridan insisted "the church never directs citizens to vote for any specific candidate."
Kerry, the first Catholic with a shot at the White House in 44 years, has said he personally opposes abortion but supports a woman's right to choose the procedure.
Sheridan's letter comes as Catholic bishops continue to debate the best ways to treat Catholic politicians who dissent from church teaching, a matter that is especially touchy during an election year.
St. Louis Archbishop Raymond Burke was the first to say he would deny Kerry the Eucharist, while others—including Archbishops Sean O'Malley of Boston, Alfred Hughes of New Orleans and John Vlazny of Portland, Ore.—have urged dissenting politicians to not approach the Communion rail.
Sheridan's instructions echo those of Archbishop Charles Chaput of nearby Denver, who said last month that "real Catholics" should vote only for Catholic politicians who "act Catholic in their public service and political choices."
Singling out either Catholic voters or Catholic politicians is unacceptable, said Frances Kissling, president of the independent Catholics for a Free Choice.
"To a secular mind-set, it's more offensive to tell someone how to vote than it is to complain about a policy-maker," she said. "But from a religious perspective, both are equally offensive."
Catholic leaders rarely equate votes with sin. In 1996, retired Archbishop Philip Hannan of New Orleans outraged Democrats when he said it was a "sin" to vote for either President Bill Clinton or Sen. Mary Landrieu.
Other prelates, meanwhile, are urging caution. In an interview with the National Catholic Reporter newspaper, Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk of Cincinnati said he would not want to "deny the sacraments to anybody unjustly."
"We need to be very cautious about denying people the sacraments on the basis of what they say they believe, especially when those are political beliefs," said Pilarczyk, an influential moderate voice and former president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington, who is heading a task force that is examining the issue, reasserted that he does not want to use the Eucharist as "a sanction."
"I do not favor a confrontation at the altar rail with the Sacred Body of the Lord Jesus in my hand," McCarrick wrote yesterday in his weekly column for his archdiocesan newspaper.
"There are apparently those who would welcome such a conflict, for good reasons, I am sure, or for political ones, but I would not."
Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles seemed perplexed by the controversy.
"I'm slightly mystified why all this is all coming up now," he told Catholic News Service. "We've had pro-choice Catholic politicians going to Communion since Roe v. Wade," the 1973 Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion.
Copyright © 2004 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
More Christianity Today coverage of the issue includes:
Weblog: Communion Watch Continues | Why John Kerry probably won't be denied any time soon. (April 12, 2004)
Weblog: Catholic Life Group to Spend $500,000 Denouncing Kerry-friendly Bishops (May 07, 2004)
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