Should America's Roman Catholic bishops deny themselves communion for engaging in forbidden political activities?
I'm certainly no scholar of church law, but I think you can make a pretty good case that they should.
As everyone knows, a large faction of the Catholic hierarchy has spent much of this year demanding that Catholic politicians conform American law to the church's doctrinal stance on abortion. These same bishops have demanded that Catholics vote only for political candidates who comply with church teachings as well.
In the context of this year's presidential election and many other races, that meant that the bishops were insisting that Catholics vote for John McCain and other Republican candidates.
And what if the Catholic politicians and parishioners in the pews refused to obey this order?
Some bishops held out the prospect of denial of communion in the short run and damnation in the long run.
Just today, the Associated Press reported that a Roman Catholic priest in South Carolina has told his parishioners that they should refrain from receiving Holy Communion if they voted for Barack Obama because the Democratic president-elect supports abortion, and supporting him "constitutes material cooperation with intrinsic evil."
According to the AP, the Rev. Jay Scott Newman said in a letter distributed Sunday to parishioners at St. Mary's Catholic Church in Greenville that they are putting their souls at risk if they take Holy Communion before doing penance for their vote.
So it is with some amusement that I now read that the bishops themselves may have violated their own decree.
According to the Religion News Service (RNS) this week, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops announced on Tuesday that it will cease funding the Association of Community Organizers for Reform Now (ACORN) after allegations of political partisanship, embezzlement and voter registration fraud emerged this year.
RNS reports that the Catholic Campaign for Human Development (CCHD), an anti-poverty branch of the bishops' conference, had been giving ACORN about $1 million each year through grants to 40 local affiliates.
Bishop Roger Morin said Tuesday the funding was stopped in June and the suspension will continue in the future because "we simply had too many questions about these serious matters to continue any funding of ACORN groups." Forensic accountants hired by the bishops are investigating.
Because ACORN's community organizers often canvass in poor neighborhoods, where many voters are expected to vote Democratic, RNS says the group has often been accused of partisanship. Such accusations grew louder this year, the news service notes, because of President-elect Obama's ties to ACORN as a young community organizer and attorney in Chicago.
Some church leaders seem to share the view that ACORN has a Democratic tilt. Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City, Kan., said "there's a history of problems with ACORN in St. Louis that goes back 10 years – not with malfeasance, but with partisanship."
Now I don't know if ACORN handled its money poorly or if they're actually partisan. But isn't it rich that the bishops, who have made such a huge commotion about voting the "right" way, may have been contributing major funding to a group that registered as many as a million new voters who voted the "wrong" way? Is that "material cooperation with intrinsic evil?"
All jesting aside, let's be clear: the bishops have a constitutional right to set the rules for who receives communion in the Catholic Church. But in a pluralistic democracy that separates church and state, they are pushing the political boundaries when they engage in these extraordinarily heavy-handed tactics.
Americans are right to be alarmed when the leaders of the nation's largest denomination tries to muscle its members into a single voting bloc subservient to the will of an all-male hierarchy and then seek to impose by law a doctrinal stance on reproductive choice that most Americans (indeed, most Catholics) do not share.
Fortunately, most Catholics don't agree with their bishops about politicizing the church, and it will be very interesting to see how people in the pews respond the hierarchy's decrees.