Politicizing the Communion Line

Almost 50 years ago, candidate John F. Kennedy assured a skeptical America that the Catholic Church would not influence his decisions as President. Kennedy believed "in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute." An increasingly aggressive Catholic hierarchy is undermining this historic principle by attempting to control the votes of Catholic politicians on important social issues. In New Jersey, a political firestorm erupted after Archbishop John Myers of Newark declared that the governor and other elected officials should be denied Holy Communion because of their support of abortion rights, embryonic stem-cell research and other positions that run contrary to church doctrine, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer.

In a state where most politicians and three-fourths of voters support abortion rights, politicians are forced to choose between their government oaths and their religion. Gov. James McGreevey said he would abide by the church's wishes and not attempt to receive Communion. "I'm a Catholic and I greatly value my faith and draw great strength from it, but I also have a constitutional obligation as governor," he said. State Senate Majority Leader -- and former altar boy -- Bernard Kenny has decided to leave the church after 57 years. He said his pastor told him that he would be offered communion once more and then would be told "not to come again." Kenny plans to join a different Christian church.

Catholic prelates in other parts of the country are also threatening to deny communion to abortion rights supporters. The most highly publicized cases involve Democrats, such as presidential candidate John Kerry and Gov. McGreevey. Less clear is what the church is doing to Catholic pro-choice Republicans whose ranks include Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger of California and U.S. Senator Susan Collins of Maine. In New Jersey, Democrats are especially worried because the church seems to be singling out members of their party on the abortion issue while ignoring politicians of both parties who vote against church positions on issues such as unjust wars and the death penalty. Catholic Republican U.S. Rep. Frank LoBiondo spoke out against the church's position saying that it should not obligate Catholic politicians to vote a certain way.

LoBiondo and U.S. Rep. William Pascrell, a Democrat, both noted that some issues are so complex that a lawmaker could be both in compliance and in violation of church doctrine on the same piece of legislation. "Will a bishop or priest understand someone's voting record completely, and how are they going to make that decision in the Communion line?" LoBiondo asked.