In the week since the Roman Catholic bishops of the United States declared that it is up to individual bishops to decide whether to deny Communion to politicians who support abortion rights, they have come under fire from both ends of the political spectrum.
Liberal Catholic groups say the bishops went too far toward politicizing the sacrament of Holy Communion. Conservatives say they did not go far enough toward protecting the sanctity of the Eucharist, which Catholics believe is the body and blood of Christ.
The 183 bishops who met outside Denver last week had not planned to issue a statement on Communion during their prayer retreat. They acted only after expressions of concern from the Vatican and from Catholics nationwide that individual prelates were fueling a partisan debate by taking widely divergent positions on who may receive the sacrament.
In their statement, the bishops declared that politicians who support legalized abortion are "cooperating in evil" and should not be given "awards, honors or platforms which would suggest support for their actions." But they stopped short of saying that such politicians should be turned away from Communion, leaving intact the status quo, which is that each bishop is free to set the policy in his diocese.
Though adopted nearly unanimously, the statement has neither quelled the debate nor produced unity among the bishops themselves. Some bishops, such as Archbishop Raymond L. Burke of St. Louis, continue to say that Democratic presidential candidate John F. Kerry, a senator from Massachusetts, and other Catholic politicians who support abortion rights should be denied Communion.
Others, such as Cardinal Roger M. Mahony of Los Angeles, say that whether to receive Communion should be left to each Catholic's conscience. Polls show that most Catholics, including a majority of those who attend Mass at least once a week, agree with Mahony's position.
The American Life League, a Virginia-based Catholic group that opposes abortion, declared its dissatisfaction with the Denver decision in full-page newspaper advertisements this week saying, "183 Catholic Bishops Lost in the Rockies."
Yet Catholics for a Free Choice, which supports abortion rights, was also displeased. Its president, Frances Kissling, said she was "shocked" by the bishops' willingness to "pursue a partisan political agenda by creating a new concept of sin, i.e., voting."
In a public debate in Washington yesterday, papal biographer George Weigel said the bishops had "moved the ball forward a little bit" with the declaration that politicians such as Kerry are cooperating in evil. But the Rev. Thomas J. Reese, editor of the Jesuit journal America, said that if the church insists that only people who are in full agreement with all of its teachings on abortion, contraception and other "life issues" are worthy of the Eucharist, "I'm afraid we're going to have nobody taking Communion."
"When we start barring people from Communion, we get on a slippery slope and we become a church of 'saints,' when we've never been that. We've always been a church of sinners," he said.
Steve Krueger, executive director of the lay Catholic group Voice of the Faithful, said yesterday that the bishops' statement was "perplexing."
"They specifically talked about 'worthiness' to receive Communion, yet every time I receive Communion, I say 'Lord, I am not worthy to receive you,' " he said. "I think a divisive debate is being created that does not serve the interests of the church, which is deeply in need of healing."
Advocates for sex abuse victims also charged that the debate is partly an attempt to deflect attention from the scandal shaking the church. In a protest outside the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' headquarters in Northeast Washington, members of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests called attention to a recent Dallas Morning News series that said more than 100 priests have been transferred from country to country to avoid prosecution.
"Surely the bishops' pronouncements on abortion, war and gay marriages would carry more weight if they also denounced fugitive child abusers and the men who shelter them," said Peter Isely, a victims' advocate.