Forty-eight Roman Catholic members of Congress have warned in a letter to Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick of Washington that U.S. bishops will revive anti-Catholic bigotry and severely harm the church if they deny Communion to politicians who support abortion rights.

The letter's signers, all Democrats, include at least three House members with strong antiabortion voting records.

"For many years Catholics were denied public office by voters who feared that they would take direction from the Pope," they wrote. ". . . While that type of paranoid anti-Catholicism seems to be a thing of the past, attempts by Church leaders today to influence votes by the threat of withholding a sacrament will revive latent anti-Catholic prejudice, which so many of us have worked so hard to overcome."

The three-page letter, dated May 10, was sent to McCarrick because he heads a task force of U.S. bishops that is considering whether, and how, the church should take action against Catholic politicians whose public positions are at odds with Catholic doctrine.

McCarrick's spokesman, Susan Gibbs, said he would not comment on the letter. She said the seven-member task force is "listening to many different voices" and will grant the 48 House members' request for a meeting. "They will be heard. It just hasn't been arranged yet," she said.

A handful of the nation's 300 Catholic bishops have caused a political furor this year by threatening to withhold the Eucharist, which Catholics believe is the body and blood of Christ, from presidential candidate Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) and other Catholic officials who vote for abortion rights.

On May 5, the bishop of Colorado Springs, Michael J. Sheridan, went further by issuing a pastoral letter saying ordinary parishioners should not receive Communion if they vote for politicians who support abortion, euthanasia, stem-cell research or same-sex marriage.

McCarrick made clear in his column last week in the Catholic Standard, the Washington Archdiocese's newspaper, that he does not agree. "As a priest and bishop, I do not favor a confrontation at the altar rail with the Sacred Body of the Lord Jesus in my hand. There are apparently those who would welcome such a conflict, for good reasons, I am sure, or for political ones, but I would not," he wrote.

Rep. Rosa L. DeLauro (Conn.) and Rep. Nick Lampson (Tex.) circulated the letter among the 73 Catholic Democrats in the House. It was not circulated among Republicans or in the Senate, because it arose from meetings that began last year among a small number of Catholic Democrats in the House who wanted to talk privately about faith and public service, DeLauro said. "This was not about politics. It was about us and our church and our own faith," she said.

In their letter, the Democratic House members said they "firmly believe that it would be wrong for a bishop to deny the sacrament of Holy Communion to an individual on the basis of a voting record. We believe that such an action would be counter-productive and would bring great harm to the church."

Noting that the Supreme Court has ruled that women have a constitutional right to choose an abortion, they said that members of Congress "who vote for legislation consistent with that mandate are not acting contrary to our positions as faithful members of the Catholic Church. We also do not believe that it is the obligation of legislators to prohibit all conduct which we may, as a matter of personal morality, believe is wrong."

The letter questioned how the bishops could limit the denial of Communion to abortion, noting that Pope John Paul II and many U.S. bishops have condemned the death penalty and the war in Iraq. "All of us firmly believe that we can be good Congresspersons and Catholics and we respectfully submit that, while sometimes difficult, each of us has the responsibility and the right to balance public morality with private morality without pressure from certain bishops," the letter said.

One of the signers with a solidly antiabortion voting record, Rep. Bart Stupak (Mich.), said in an interview that bishops "are making these statements thinking they're undermining the candidacy of John Kerry, when what they're really undermining is the Catholic church."

Stupak added that he has been surprised by the partisanship of some bishops.

"I've had some threaten not to give Communion to me, even though they don't know my position, just because I'm a Democrat," he said. "I've had cardinals refuse to shake my hand because I'm a Democrat, and then somebody whispers to them that, 'No, no, he's a good guy.' "

Another antiabortion legislator, Rep. James R. Langevin (R.I.), said that "while I agree with [the bishops] on the pro-life issue, I don't agree with them on denying Communion to those who in good conscience have come to a different position. . . . These are complicated, emotional issues that each of us has wrestled with, and it's not helpful for the church to be punitive or to approach these issues in this heavy-handed way."

The third antiabortion legislator to sign the letter was Rep. Mike Doyle (Pa.). Other signers included House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, presidential candidate Dennis J. Kucinich (Ohio) and Rep. James P. Moran Jr. of Virginia.

Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick leads a panel of bishops considering whether the church should take action against Catholic politicians at odds with Catholic doctrine.