By David O'Brien and Lisa Sowle Cahill
June 9, 2008
What do a former legal counsel for Ronald Reagan and a Democratic governor have in common? As you might expect, it's not the same politics. Douglas W. Kmiec, an esteemed constitutional law professor at Pepperdine University, is a pro-life Republican. Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius is a moderate known for consensus-building. But these prominent Catholics are both the most recent targets of clergy who use Communion as a political weapon and effectively blacklist respected Catholic leaders. It's time for Catholics and all Americans to speak out against this spiritual McCarthyism.
When Mr. Kmiec endorsed Sen. Barack Obama for president, conservative Catholic blogs buzzed with outrage. How could a conservative known for his public opposition to abortion rights support a pro-choice liberal? In a recent Catholic Online column, Mr. Kmiec describes how he was declared "self-ex-communicated" by many fellow Catholics. He writes that at a recent Mass, an angry college chaplain denounced his "Obama heresy" from the pulpit and denied him Communion.
In Kansas City, Kan., Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann has ordered Ms. Sebelius, also an Obama supporter, not to receive Communion after she vetoed abortion legislation riddled with constitutional red flags. The bill in question made it easier for prosecutors to search private medical records, allowed family members to seek court orders to stop abortions and failed to include exceptions to save the life of the mother. Along with many public officials, Ms. Sebelius recognizes the profound moral gravity of abortion. She has supported prudent public policies that have reduced abortions in Kansas by investing in adoption services, prenatal health care and social safety nets for families. But in his diocesan newspaper, the archbishop blasted the governor over her "spiritually lethal" message and her obligation to recognize the "legitimate authority within the Church."
The archbishop has a right and indeed an obligation to speak out against abortion. But he is on dangerous ground telling a democratically elected official - accountable to federal laws and a diverse citizenry - how to govern when it comes to the particulars of specific legislation. The proper application of moral principles in a pluralistic society rarely allows for absolutes.
Using a holy sacrament to punish Catholics has troubling political implications during an election year. St. Louis Archbishop Raymond L. Burke warned Sen. John Kerry - a Catholic whose record reflects his faith's commitment to economic justice, universal health care and concern for the poor - not to receive Communion during the 2004 presidential race because of his support for abortion rights. In a New York Times interview just a month before the election, Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of Denver gave signals that Catholics who voted for a pro-choice candidate were cooperating in evil. Mr. Kerry narrowly lost the Catholic vote to President Bush.
Catholics make up a quarter of the American electorate and are swing voters in key battleground states that will play a decisive role in electing our next president. It's essential that these voters recognize Catholicism defies easy partisan labels and is not a single-issue faith.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops warns in an election-year guide that particular issues must not be misused as a way of ignoring "other serious threats to human life and dignity." These threats identified by the bishops include racism, the death penalty, war, torture, lack of health care and an unjust immigration policy. These broad Catholic values challenge Democrats and Republicans alike to put the common good before narrow partisan agendas.
If we remain silent when respected Catholic leaders are publicly attacked and denied Communion, the proper role of faith in our public square is grossly distorted. This election year, let's have a better debate about faith and political responsibility that reclaims the vital role religion has often played in renewing our most cherished democratic values.
David O'Brien, the Loyola professor of Catholic studies at the College of the Holy Cross, has written books about the history of American Catholicism. Lisa Sowle Cahill is a professor of theology at Boston College and a former president of the Catholic Theological Society of America. This article is distributed by Religion News Service.