Communion and Politics

Tuscaloosa, AL – Earlier this month the U-S Conference of Catholic Bishops released a statement concerning the actions of Catholics in political life. The statement came in response to concerns raised by bishops who say Catholic politicians supporting certain positions should be barred from receiving Holy Communion. And now religious leaders across the country, as well as in Alabama, are taking their own stances on the issue. Alabama Public Radio's Terri Jenkins reports.

Bishop Raymond Burke of Saint Louis and Bishop Michael Sheridan of Colorado have sparked a controversy that spans both politics and religion. Bishop Burke said Democratic Presidential hopeful John Kerry should not be allowed Communion because of his pro-choice abortion stance. Bishop Sheridan took the issue a step farther, announcing that Communion should be denied to all Catholics who vote for candidates supporting causes such as abortion rights, stem cell research and gay marriage. The debate has placed the sacrament of Holy Communion squarely in the political sphere.

"Religious bodies, be they Christian or non-Christian, are political entities..."

Steven Wilson is a professor of theology at Spring Hill College, a Catholic school in Mobile.

"...and they often times provide a politics that are counter to the prevailing politics of modern nation-states. And I think those religious bodies have an obligation to put forward its ideals, no matter what they are."

But Wilson says he's not certain the denial of Communion is the best way to offer counsel to a Catholic. The Reverend James Evans, pastor of First Baptist Church in Auburn, shares Wilson's belief that the church should offer political and social guidance to believers. But the former president of the Alabama Interfaith Alliance expresses stronger concern about the refusal of Communion.

"I would not want a bishop or any religious leader to be silent, but to use their authority in that way, to deprive grace to someone in order to get them to adopt a political position, I think that's a mistake."

The U-S Conference of Catholic Bishops has issued a statement urging Catholic leaders to teach the faith's commitment to the protection of human life. Bishops stress that Catholics must support their principles and should not honor politicians or others who defy those morals. The statement also gives individual bishops the power to deny Holy Communion to a Catholic who advocates a position contrary to Catholic beliefs. Father Michael Farmer with the Archdiocese of Mobile says he believes a Catholic's public support of an issue like abortion rights must be addressed, and the denial of Communion could be a valid option.

"You might still be part of the church, but your stances are counter to your faith. And so, not that the church can in any way counsel you out of a relationship with God. It can say, as a disciplinary practice, you cannot receive the body of Christ at this time."

But Reverend Evans disagrees, saying the refusal of Communion is never the right way to counsel a congregation member. He compares the debate to the fervor surrounding the tax hikes proposed by Governor Bob Riley last year.

"It would be as if the Baptists and Methodists who got in behind that said, 'If you don't vote for Ammendment One, you're going to go to Hell.' That this issue rises to the level of such a moral failure that to fail to do this is to be completely cut off from God's grace."

But that didn't happen. Evans says instead, most of the state's religious leaders encouraged congregations to look at the issue from a faith-based perspective. Father Farmer with the Archdiocese of Mobile agrees church officials should advise members of their political choices, and he says he's troubled by a social climate that does not support that privilege.

"Somehow the Church cannot speak to a public person who is a Catholic person. And it has nothing to do with separation of Church and State for a bishop to speak to a Catholic who is in the public forum."

The Archdiocese of Mobile has not made an official statement on the refusal of Communion. The Diocese of Birmingham released a statement saying members will not be refused Communion because of their political views. However, in a strong warning, Bishop David Foley of Birmingham says a person cannot support abortion rights and still be Catholic.

For Alabama Public Radio, I'm Terri Jenkins.