Should politicians toe their church line?

Catholic bishops may punish those who vote contrarily

Published: Saturday, Nov. 29 2003 12:00 a.m. MST

"Weaseling out" is what one Catholic bishop calls it, referring to the way some politicians will try to have it both ways on abortion — personally taking a stand against it but voting for abortion rights anyway.

Earlier this month, at their national conference in Washington, D.C., the nation's bishops agreed to ask a task force to study whether the church should punish those Catholic politicians who vote contrary to church teachings on such issues as abortion, same-sex marriage and the death penalty.

The proposal raises questions about the relationship between religious belief and political stance, questions that always resonate in Utah, where the vast majority of politicians belong to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Should a church expect its members to vote a certain way on moral issues? Should a politician who votes against the moral teachings of his religion be allowed to call himself a Catholic or Mormon or Muslim? How often do religions already chastise their members who are politicians?

The bishops' task force on sanctions is a response to a Vatican document last winter outlining the responsibilities of Catholics who are actively engaged in politics. That document, in turn, was apparently the result of longtime frustrations over the abortion-rights stances of high-profile politicians such as Sen. Edward Kennedy and presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry.

The Vatican message, says Bishop George Niederauer of the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City, was meant to encourage Catholics to see their conscience not just as a "private compartment" but something that influences the conduct of every aspect of their lives, including the way they vote.

Politicians and voters need to "come to grips with that compartmentalizing," says Niederauer. "I don't think personal convictions are like raisins in a cake and you can just pick them out." So a politician shouldn't say, for example, "I'm personally opposed to abortion but I can't impose my moral judgment on others." All of the teachings of the Catholic Church, he says, spring from a common foundation of believing in "the precious value of every individual human life."

On the question of punishment for politicians who vote contrary to church teachings, however, Niederauer is more equivocal. "I think we are a church that is concerned with salvation of souls and the welfare of human kind. So we're not eager to drum people out." The church needs to be patient and caring, he says, in the same way that a parent would be, seeking a dialogue with those politicians. Actual punishment would have to be decided on an individual basis, he says.

Punishments discussed at the national bishops conference included refusing to allow errant politicians to speak at Catholic institutions, not allowing them to receive the Holy Eucharist, and excommunication. Niederauer notes that his predecessor in Salt Lake City, who later became bishop of Sacramento, Calif., encouraged then- Gov. Gray Davis to abstain from receiving communion because of his abortion-rights stance, and that the bishop of Sioux Falls, S.D., told Sen. Tom Daschle to remove from official paperwork any mention of his being Catholic.

But politics is always the art of compromise, says Niederauer, quoting Pope John Paul II. In order to get legislation passed against capital punishment, for example, Catholic politicians may have to compromise on specific provisions. That, too, has to be taken into account.

Former legislator and mayoral candidate Frank Pignanelli remembers voting against a 1991 bill to restrict abortions in Utah because he thought the bill was unconstitutional. A few days after the vote, Pignanelli went to Mass at the Cathedral of the Madeleine and discovered that his bishop and two priests were waiting for him. "The priests said they were severely and dramatically disappointed in me," remembers Pignanelli, who was House minority leader. Later, the bishop invited Pignanelli and other Catholic legislators over for lunch to again express his disappointment in them.

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