Critical Mass

Colorado Bishop's Partisan Pastoral Sparks IRS Complaint, As The Catholic Hierarchy's Presumptuous Politicking Polarizes A Restive Flock

Bishop Michael J. Sheridan has some advice for Roman Catholics in his Colorado Springs diocese: Vote in the 2004 general elections only for politicians who support the church's teachings or don't bother seeking communion.

"There must be no confusion in these matters," wrote Sheridan, in a May 1 pastoral letter. "Any Catholic politicians who advocate for abortion, for illicit stem cell research or for any form of euthanasia ipso facto 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.

"It is for this reason," he continued, "that those Catholics, whether candidates for office or those who would vote for them, may not receive Holy Communion until they have recanted their positions and been reconciled with God and the Church in the Sacrament of Penance."

With the issuance of his three-page directive and the national news media attention it received, Bishop Sheridan heightened the profile of a small, but growing group of Catholic leaders who hope to have as large an impact as possible on the outcome of the November elections.

A smattering of Catholic bishops across the nation, with the apparent approval of some Vatican officials, have joined this year's political fray by announcing they would deny communion to Catholic politicians, such as Democratic presidential candidate John F. Kerry, who claim to be in good standing with the church despite advancing policy that goes against the church's dogma on certain social issues.

Politicians are not in good standing with the church, these bishops say, if they support reproductive rights, expanded stem-cell research and government approval of same-sex marriage or civil unions.

Bishop Sheridan's letter to 125,000 Catholics in his charge regarding the "duties of Catholic politicians and voters," intensified the debate by suggesting that Catholic voters should also refrain from taking the sacrament if they support politicians like Kerry.

Sheridan's letter did not provide details on how he or other church leaders could readily discern the votes cast by congregants seeking communion. His letter, however, did make it clear that Catholics should take the upcoming elections very seriously.

"The November elections will be critical in the battle to restore the right to life to all citizens, especially the unborn and the elderly and infirm," reads the bishop's missive. "As a result of the pro-life efforts of countless Americans, the number of abortions performed in our country is now declining for the first time since the appalling Supreme Court decision of 1973 that made it 'legal' to kill our children. We cannot allow the progress that has been made to be reversed by a pro-abortion President, Senate or House of Representatives."

Sheridan also noted that voters must thwart further use of stem cell research and the movement to legalize euthanasia.

"Our votes have the power to stop these abominations," he said.

Sheridan, like his counterparts in the Religious Right, railed against government recognition of same-sex marriage, which he referred to as "deviancy." Marriage is an institution created by God to join man and woman "so that they could be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth," he explained.

"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 with the Sacrament of Penance," Sheridan wrote.

Sheridan's letter drew quick statewide and national attention during what has been a highly charged political year.

"By extending his directive to his flock, Bishop Sheridan pushed the issue farther than any other U.S. bishop," said the editorial page of The Denver Post. "It was disappointing, to say the least."

The New York Times reported on the Sheridan letter in a May 17 article under the headline, "At Mass, Politics Squeezes Into the Pew." On May 24, the Times editorial page disapproved of the Catholic bishops' crusade. "Any attempt to make elected leaders toe a doctrinal line when it comes to their public duties raises multiple risks," observed the newspaper. "Breaching the church-state line that is so necessary to protect religious freedom is one. Figuring out when to stop is another."

A report issued in early June by Catholics for a Free Choice (CFFC) showed that the bishops' calls to deny communion to certain politicians are not finding favor among most of the other members of the Catholic hierarchy.

According to the study, five out of 178 Latin-rite Catholic dioceses in America have indicated they would deny communion to pro-choice politicians. Besides Colorado Springs, dioceses in Camden, N.J., LaCrosse, Wis., Lincoln, Neb. and St. Louis, Mo., have issued calls to deny communion to politicians who publicly support reproductive rights. (The CFFC's report noted there are more than 70 Catholic members of Congress who join Kerry in supporting reproductive rights).

The CFFC study found that 18 dioceses have bishops who have suggested that pro-choice politicians abstain from communion. The majority of dioceses responding to CFFC's survey (138) said they would not deny the Eucharist to politicians, regardless of their stances on certain public policy issues.

President George W. Bush, whose top political adviser is intensely focused on winning a large turn-out of religious conservative voters in November, would like to see more Catholic bishops in America making calls similar to Sheridan's. And apparently Bush thinks the Vatican can help with that project.

In mid-June, The New York Times reported that during his trip to Rome Bush sought help from Vatican officials in urging more American bishops to rally to his side in the political arena.

The newspaper cited a column by John L. Allen, a correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter, in which a Vatican official stated that Bush made the request in a June 4 meeting with Vatican Secretary of State Angelo Sodano. According to Allen, other officials who attended the meeting confirmed that Bush pledged he would wage a robust battle this election season on touchy cultural issues such as same-sex marriage, and he requested the Vatican's help in spurring more American bishops to join his cause.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which has long argued that religious leaders should not use their positions or the resources of their houses of worship to help elect politicians to public office, expressed dismay at Bush's request for Vatican intervention.

"It is just unprecedented for a president to ask for help from the Vatican to get re-elected, and that is exactly what this is," the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, Americans United executive director, told the Times.

Americans United also questioned whether Bishop Sheridan's May 1 pastoral letter violated the federal tax code's prohibition against church electioneering and asked the Internal Revenue Service to investigate the matter.

"Bishop Sheridan's letter is code language that says, 'Re-elect Bush and vote Republican,'" Lynn said in a press statement.

In a May 27 letter to the IRS, Lynn argued that Sheridan's message had little to do with church dogma, but was instead an effort to rouse support for Republican candidates.

"Looked at in context, I believe it is clear that this letter has a partisan political intent," wrote Lynn. "It is designed to endorse Republican candidates who oppose legal abortion, stem-cell research and other 'life' issues. At the same time, it threatens sanctions against church members who support Democratic candidates who disagree with the church on any of these issues."

In early June, Sheridan wrote in a column published in the diocesan newspaper that he "was distressed by those who misread and misrepresented what I wrote." The prelate argued that his May 1 letter had not suggested that he or other priests would deny communion to people "who voted in a particular way."

Lynn told the Rocky Mountain News, a Denver daily, that he wasn't buying Sheridan's revision.

"I don't think that clarification is good enough," Lynn told the newspaper. "He, in fact, said that you shouldn't vote for candidates who disagreed with the church on certain issues. He did not say, 'Study Catholic teaching, study moral theology and use your conscience in prayerful consideration.'"

William Donohue, president of the ultra-right Catholic League, lambasted Lynn in a press release and argued that AU's complaint to the IRS was an attempt "to intimidate the bishops into silence."

Lynn's view, however, is simply a recognition of federal law. Houses of worship, like all other non-profit groups holding the 501(c)(3) designation, may not endorse or oppose candidates for public office. The Internal Revenue Code provides non-profit groups exemption from income taxes as long as their missions do not include electing politicians. The regulation does not prohibit religious leaders from speaking on any number of social, political or moral issues. It is designed to keep churches from using their resources, financial and otherwise, to advance a politician's campaign.

In late April, the IRS issued an election-year advisory to non-profits.

"These organizations cannot endorse any candidates, make donations to their campaigns, engage in fund raising, distribute statements, or become involved in any other activities that may be beneficial or detrimental to any candidate," the IRS advisory reads. "Even activities that encourage people to vote for or against a particular candidate on the basis of nonpartisan criteria violate the political campaign prohibition of section 501(c)(3)."

In 1996, Americans United launched Project Fair Play, a nationwide effort to educate religious leaders about tax law requirements. (See "Project Fair Play," February 2004 Church & State.) Americans United has also filed more than 40 complaints with the IRS over church-based politicking.

Even before Bush's plea for help from the Vatican, the church hierarchy had provided pronouncements on how Catholic bishops worldwide should deal with communion and politicians, which influenced some of the ultra-conservative Catholic prelates in the States.

In January, the Vatican issued a "Doctrinal Note on Some Questions Regarding the Participation of Catholics in Political Life" that stated lawmakers "have a grave and clear obligation to oppose any law that attacks human life." Archbishop Raymond Burke of St. Louis, the first American bishop to announce he would deny communion to wayward politicians, recently told the St. Louis-Dispatch that it was the Vatican's January directive that he would continue to follow.

In April, Cardinal Francis Arinze, who heads a Vatican office dealing with worship and sacraments, stated at a news conference that Catholics who support reproductive rights should not take communion.

But the Vatican statements and the few American bishops who have sought to use communion as a campaign tool, have raised opposition from other Catholic bishops, as well as politicians, congregants and voters.

Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick of Washington, D.C., who is heading a bishops' task force charged with studying the issue, wrote in his mid-May column in the Catholic Standard that he disagreed with those bishops who advocate "denial of the Eucharist as a public sanction." Later in May, McCarrick told a gathering of Catholic journalists that denying politicians communion because of their public policy stances is a "slippery slope" that would not be welcome in his archdiocese.

"I'm not going to do it," McCarrick said, as reported by the Religion News Service. "I'm not going to ask my priests to do it."

Baltimore's Catholic Cardinal William H. Keeler told the city's daily newspaper that he could not join with the few bishops calling for denial of communion to politicians.

"Our position is ... Catholics have a responsibility to examine their own conscience and see if they are in a state that is appropriate for the reception of the sacrament," Keeler said in an interview with The Baltimore Sun. "We don't need bishops to get into the act."

Cardinal Roger M. Mahony of Los Angeles told the National Catholic Reporter in May that Kerry would be welcome to receive communion in the Los Angeles diocese.

Catholic members of Congress have also voiced displeasure with the conservative Catholic bishops. In late May, 48 members signed a letter to McCarrick charging that bishops who deny communion on political grounds are "miring the Church in partisan politics."

"As Catholics, we do not believe it is our role to legislate the teachings of the Catholic church," the letter stated. "Because we represent all of our constituents, we must, at times, separate our public actions from our personal beliefs."

Recent polling of Americans reveals their discomfort with religious leaders who become overtly involved in elections.

An ABC News/Washington Post poll issued in early June found that 68 percent of Americans oppose denying communion to politicians who go against church dogma. Seventy-two percent of Catholics take the same view. Sixty-four percent of all respondents said religious leaders should not attempt to influence politicians' positions on issues.

A Quinnipiac University poll released around the same time found that 71 percent of American voters believe Catholic bishops should not publicly pressure politicians to alter their positions on abortion. Sixty-six percent of Catholic voters, the poll found, agreed that bishops should not use communion as tool to persuade Catholic lawmakers. Moreover, 87 percent said the bishops' comments would not sway their vote in November.

Two-thirds of those polled said politicians' religious beliefs should "be a private matter."

It does not appear that America's disdain for heavy-handed influence from religious leaders on politics is likely to deter the bishops from ongoing intervention at various levels. In mid-June after receiving an interim report from McCarrick's task force, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) issued a statement condemning politicians who support reproductive rights. However, the two-page statement, "Catholics in Political Life," concludes that decisions to deny communion "rest with the individual bishop."

The USCCB's June 18 statement takes an absolute position on abortion, saying it "is always intrinsically evil and can never be justified," and notes that the evil can be perpetuated by lawmakers who do not work to curb or abolish legal abortion.

"Those who formulate law therefore have an obligation in conscience to work toward correcting morally defective laws, lest they be guilty of cooperating in evil and in sinning against the common good," the statement warns.

Denying communion to pro-choice politicians may be only part of a more extensive approach to persuading politicians to fall in line with church teachings. The USCCB's statement highlighted suggestions for action, including urging the "Catholic community and Catholic institutions" to forgo honoring "those who act in defiance of our fundamental principles." Pro-choice politicians, the letter states, "should not be given awards, honors or platforms which would suggest support for their actions."

With less than five months before Election Day, the political year has already seen fervent and intensified efforts by religious leaders and groups, including those conservative Catholic bishops, to encourage their followers to vote for candidates who advance political causes. As noted by The New York Times in a late May article, coalitions of "Catholics and evangelicals form the backbone in the fights against gay marriage, stem-cell research and euthanasia, and for religious school vouchers."

Americans United's Lynn recently told Time magazine that the 2004 campaign is "rapidly becoming the most religiously infused political campaign in modern history." He warns that the calls from the conservative bishops for church-led involvement in the approaching elections are likely to do more to turn Catholics away from the pews than prompt them to vote a certain way in November.

"Poll after poll shows that Catholics – and Americans in general – do not want their religious leaders telling them how to vote," Lynn said. "The bishops should stop their shameless efforts to turn a sacrament of the church into an election-year campaign tool."