Posted June 29, 2004
Many think sanctions on politicians a bad idea
By Jerry Filteau
Catholic News Service
WASHINGTON (CNS) -- Many experts consulted think it would be counterproductive for the nation's bishops to impose sanctions on politicians who hold public policy positions contrary to church teaching, Cardinal William H. Keeler of Baltimore told the U.S. bishops in a talk made public June 23.
Most bishops who were consulted also opposed the use of sanctions, he said.
He delivered the talk June 15 as part of an interim report to the bishops by their Task Force on Catholic Bishops and Catholic Politicians. The bishops met June 14-19 in Englewood, Colo.
The following week the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops posted the entire interim report on its Web site, www.usccb.org. It consists of presentations by Cardinal Keeler, Archbishop William J. Levada of San Francisco and Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick of Washington, head of the task force.
Cardinal Keeler's presentation focused on the task force's work since it was formed last fall, particularly the results of the group's consultations with Vatican officials, other bishops' conferences, fellow U.S. bishops, theologians, canon lawyers and state Catholic conference directors.
In consultations with key Vatican officials, he said, "they have consistently affirmed the church's principles and norms that must guide our actions while leaving to us in our episcopal conference the pastoral judgment about how best to apply these principles and canon law in specific circumstances."
The task force was formed to provide guidance to the bishops on how to implement the January 2003 "Doctrinal Note on Some Questions Regarding the Participation of Catholics in Political Life" by the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. It said Catholics must not promote or vote for any laws that would lead to attacks on human life.
Cardinal Keeler said responses the task force received from several other bishops' conferences indicated that all have distributed the doctrinal note but "non of them has developed guidelines or other initiatives based on the note." He said the other conferences expressed interest in learning what the U.S. bishops do.
"Last month our task force met in Chicago with theologians, canon lawyers and state Catholic conference directors," he said. "Participants expressed deep concern about the fact that too many Catholic politicians are carrying out their public duties in ways that are not consistent with fundamental church teaching. They affirmed the need to address this serious problem but raised questions about the best way to do this.
"Some pointed out that since, under canon law, denying holy Communion involves the restriction of a right, this law must be interpreted strictly," he continued. "They pointed out that denial of Communion is not the current practice of the Holy See or other bishops' conferences. They warned that sanctions, particularly the denial of Communion, could be counterproductive.
"This could lead to marginalizing faithful Catholics in public life. It could, in their judgment, actually strengthen anti-life and anti-Catholic forces in American politics."
He said more than 70 U.S. bishops responded to questions from the task force and their responses indicated that the bishops are united in a number of areas but disagree in others.
He said they were united in the view that the Vatican doctrinal note and their own political responsibility statements "provide the right principles and framework" for addressing the issue.
Among other things they were united on, he said, was the principle of "not honoring in special ways or providing prestigious platforms for political leaders or legislators who clearly contradict Catholic teaching."
They agree on the need to teach clearly, educate and evangelize their people better and have a committed Catholic laity "deeply engaged in public life," he said, and they share a "frustration with politicians who call themselves Catholic but vote in ways that are clearly inconsistent with Catholic moral and social teaching."
"We are not yet united on how best to address these matters -- locally or nationally, formally or informally, through a statement or a process of engagement involving discussion and dialogue," he said.
"There is no consensus on how the doctrinal note applies to particular issues," he added. "Some insist we cannot be 'single issue.' Others warn against diluting our witness by too many issues on which people can disagree."
He said among bishops who expressed their views on sanctions, opponents of denying Communion outnumbered supporters of that approach about 3-1. Among those who supported sanctions there were differences as well, he said, with some backing alternatives such as publicly or privately asking an offending politician to refrain from identifying himself as Catholic or to ask the person not to present himself or herself for Communion.
Cardinal Keeler said the rationale of bishops who supported denying Communion to politicians who oppose church teaching on abortion or euthanasia was "that sanctions simply acknowledge that these politicians have cut themselves off from the Catholic community, that our faithful people are scandalized and expect strong action and that it's time to be clear and stop worrying about the consequences."
"On the other hand," he said, "many bishops urged personal communication, dialogue and persuasion rather than ecclesial penalties. Many suggested sanctions would cause more problems than they solve and might make it more difficult, if not impossible, for faithful Catholics to be leaders in public life."
"It was pointed out that the doctrinal note did not call for or provide for sanctions," he added. "It was also suggested this could divide the bishops and our community, not just on issues, but on the role of the church in public life. This could make it more difficult to teach and persuade."