Catholic Bishops: Vote With Us or Else (December 2003)

“The Roman Catholic Church remains enemy number one of civil liberties in our country,” contends Foundation president Anne Gaylor, in the wake of a stepped-up church assault against social reforms and the Catholic politicians who support them. Gaylor said the church’s political activity calls into question its tax-exempt status.

At their annual conference in Dallas in November, the American Catholic bishops issued aggressive statements against contraception, same-sex unions and abortion. The US Conference of Catholic Bishops is still formulating how it intends to punish Catholic politicians who vote against Catholic doctrine. An example of the Church’s increasingly overt power play occurred in Wisconsin, where the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel ran an exposŽ in early December revealing an attempt at “spiritual extortion.”

Bishop Raymond L. Burke of La Crosse, who was just promoted by the pope to become the Archbishop of St. Louis, sent warning letters earlier this year to selected public officials. At least two Catholic state legislators and one member of Congress were warned that they are endangering their “spiritual well-being” by not voting the church line on issues such as abortion. Burke said if they continue to contradict church teachings, “I would simply have to ask them not to present themselves to receive the sacraments because they would not be Catholics in good standing.”

Burke told them that as Catholics they may not support “anti-life” legislation (such as support of abortion and assisted suicide). Wis. State Sen. Julie Lassa, D-Stevens Point, received one of the lengthy epistles, which documented how several of her recent votes violate church policy. For instance, Lassa voted against an onerous bill that would have permitted healthcare professionals to refuse medical and pharmaceutical treatment based on religious dogma.

“As a faithful member of the Catholic Church, you have an obligation to fulfill the duties of your office . . . with regard to the moral law. You have failed to restrict the evil of abortion when the opportunity presented itself,” Burke chastised Lassa. Burke cited a document, “Living the Gospel of Life: A Challenge to American Catholics,” adopted by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops.

This document charged bishops with a duty to “enlighten the consciences of political leaders to the protection of life, especially political leaders who are Catholics.” The document maintains that “those who are directly involved in lawmaking bodies have a grave and clear obligation to oppose any law that attacks human life.” Burke ordered Lassa to study the 26-page document, and then to schedule a meeting with him to discuss it. “I call upon you to consider the consequences for your own spiritual well-being, as well as the scandal you risk by leading others into serious sin,” Burke wrote.

Undaunted, Lassa told the Journal-Sentinel:

“I’m concerned that the bishop would pressure legislators to vote according to the dictates of the church instead of the wishes of their constituents because that is not consistent with our Democratic ideals. When I was elected, I swore an oath to uphold the Constitution, and that means I have to represent all the people of all faiths in my district.” Also receiving a letter of religious threat was conservative Wis. Rep. DuWayne Johnsrud, R-Eastman, who is strongly antiabortion but is considered religiously-incorrect on birth control. Johnsrud responded: “I didn’t think I was down here representing the Catholic Church. Sorry, they can lump it or like it, I don’t care.”

The overt church attempt to dictate voting by Catholic politicians recalls the concerns raised in 1960 when John F. Kennedy became the first Roman Catholic US president. As a candidate, Kennedy took pains to allay fears that he would act as a Vatican puppet. In a historic speech to Houston ministers on Sept. 12, 1960, Kennedy delivered his famous lines of assurance: “I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant nor Jewish–where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the pope, the National Council of Churches or any other ecclesiastical source. . .”

Upping the ante is the revelation that a conservative Roman Catholic organization based in Virginia is targeting Wisconsin’s pro-choice Catholic governor, Jim Doyle, and dozens of other Catholic politicians around the country. The American Life League’s

“Crusade for the Defense of Our Catholic Church” targets 71 members of Congress and 340 Catholic state politicians. Previous attempts to sanction Catholic politicians include the January action by Sacramento Bishop William K. Weigand, who stirred controversy for telling former Gov. Gray Davis of California and other pro-choice Catholic politicians to abstain from receiving communion. In a 1989 case involving then-Bishop Leo T. Maher of San Diego, Calif. state Sen. Lucy Killea, D-San Diego, was banned from receiving communion because she is pro-choice. Bishop Francis Quinn of San Francisco overruled the action. In 1996, a Nebraska bishop declared that any Catholic in his diocese who joined groups such as Planned Parenthood would be automatically excommunicated.

That year Bishop Rene Facida of Corpus Christi also excommunicated two abortion clinic workers and a doctor who performs abortions. Roman Catholicism dominates the 108th U.S. Congress, with 150 of the members claiming to belong to that denomination.

Three Catholics are running for president: Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich, Ohio; Sen. John Kerry, Mass.; and Wesley Clark. The U.S. bishops, following their annual meeting in November, announced a new task force will produce guidelines on dealing with “recalcitrant politicians.” Washington Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick will head the taskforce, itself a response to a 17-page “doctrinal note” issued by the Vatican in January telling Catholics in politics how to behave.

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The November decision by the Massachusetts State Supreme Court ordering the legislature to rewrite marriage laws to provide benefits for gay couples by mid-May was denounced by Massachusetts’ bishops.

The bishops openly urged parishioners “to contact the governor and their state legislators to urge them to find a way to give our citizens more time to deal with this issue.” Although career celibates themselves, several prominent Massachusetts bishops lamented that the ruling promotes “divisions in society by villainizing as bigotry the legitimate defense of thousands of years of tradition.”

Religious right groups are vowing to turn “gay marriage” into the number one election issue next year. The Vatican issued a July 31 document declaring a global campaign against gay marriages and ordering Catholic politicians to vote in lockstep against such legislation. Catholic politicians were instructed that they are “obliged” to oppose “the legal recognition of homosexual unions,” and that a Catholic politician has “a moral duty to express his opposition clearly and publicly and to vote against it. To vote in favor of a law so harmful to the common good is gravely immoral.”

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The Roman Catholic bishops are also vigorously fighting access to contraception. They announced in November they will link campaigns against it with abortion.

The Bishops’ “Committee for Pro-Life Activities” will issue a booklet on why “natural family planning” is the only acceptable alternative. The church is condemning contraceptive use not only by Catholics, who largely ignore the ban, but is fighting to limit everyone’s access, and their own obligation as employers to offer insurance coverage of contraception. In a decision announced on Dec. 2, a New York court rejected a claim by Roman Catholic groups seeking to be exempted from a new state law requiring employers to offer insurance coverage for contraception.

The court maintained the law’s clear “secular purpose” of promoting women’s health and halting sex discrimination.

The New York State Catholic Conference vowed to appeal. The California State Supreme Court will be ruling soon on a lawsuit by the Catholic Charities of Sacramento, also seeking to be exempted from a similar California law enacted in 2000. More than 100,000 employees at 77 church-affiliated hospitals in California and New York have rights at stake. Churches themselves are exempt from providing contraceptive coverage for employees who work inside parishes and houses of worship in New York and California. Catholic Charities had a $76 million budget in California alone, and receives public funding. “Mother Teresa would be forced to offer contraceptives,” argued California Catholic Conference spokeswoman Carol Hogan.

Catholic Charities of Sacramento attorney called “artificial” contraception “sinful.” “To ignore the health benefits of contraception is to say that the alternative of 12 to 15 pregnancies during a woman’s lifetime is medically acceptable,” said Catherine Hanson, an attorney for the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecologists, which favors the coverage.

According to the New York Times, the 20 states requiring private-sector insurance coverage for prescription contraceptives include: Arizona, California, Connecticut, Delaware, Iowa, Georgia, Hawaii, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Missouri, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Rhode Island, Texas, Vermont and Washington.

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