Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick of Washington said yesterday that neither the Vatican nor the majority of U.S. bishops think the Roman Catholic Church should routinely deny Communion to politicians because of their stand on abortion.
McCarrick spoke to reporters at the end of a three-day meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which was less notable for what the approximately 300 bishops did than for what they didn't do: adopt a more confrontational approach toward Catholic elected officials who support abortion rights.
Most bishops, McCarrick said, believe they must strongly voice the church's opposition to abortion but also "are moved by the fact that the Roman position has always been you don't have a confrontation at the altar rail."
"The vast majority of bishops are in the center, and the center is holding," he said.
During the presidential election campaign, a few bishops, led by Archbishop Raymond L. Burke of St. Louis, announced that they would deny Holy Communion to the Democratic nominee, Sen. John F. Kerry, because he supports legalized abortion.
At their last meeting, in June, the bishops declared that politicians who support abortion rights are "cooperating in evil" and should not be given honors by Catholic schools or organizations. But they stopped short of saying that such politicians should be turned away from Communion and left each bishop free to set the policy in his diocese.
There were several signs at this week's meeting that the bishops, as a whole, have no desire to go further than the June statement. One was that Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of Denver, an outspoken critic of politicians who try to separate their personal faith from their public positions, received fewer than 10 votes in balloting for the conference's presidency and vice presidency.
Another was that the bishops' task force on Catholics in public life, chaired by McCarrick, issued a written report without debate and made no proposals that required a vote.
On the final day of their meeting, the bishops also voted for the first time to join a broad alliance of churches that includes mainline Protestant and evangelical denominations. The approval came after proponents assured the bishops that they could always opt out of any positions taken by the new group, Christian Churches Together in the U.S.A.
The bishops also adopted a new catechism, or compilation of church teachings, aimed at adults. They gave approval for a committee to develop a pastoral letter on marriage that could address such issues as contraception, annulments and same-sex unions. And the bishops endorsed two fact-finding initiatives on sex abuse in the church.
One will update a study completed last year by New York's John Jay College of Criminal Law that found that 4,392 priests had been credibly accused of abusing more than 10,000 minors since 1950. All U.S. dioceses will be asked to provide annual figures on the number of additional priests who have been accused and victims who have come forward.
The other is a simplified process for checking whether dioceses are complying with the bishops' policies to prevent abuse.