Forty-eight Catholic members of Congress have signed a letter warning that the church risks bringing "great harm" on itself if bishops decide to deny communion (search) to legislators who support abortion rights (search) or take other public positions that are odds with church doctrine.

In a May 10 letter to Cardinal Theodore McCarrick (search) of the Washington archdiocese, the legislators, all House Democrats, wrote that they were concerned about recent statements by some members of the Catholic hierarchy "indicating that the sacrament of communion should be withheld from certain Catholic legislators because of their votes on public issues."

"We do not believe it is our role to legislate the teachings of the Catholic Church (search)," wrote the legislators, some of whom oppose abortion rights. "For any of us to be singled out by any bishop by the refusal of communion or other public criticism because we vote in what we believe are the requirements of the United States Constitution (search) and laws of our country, which we are sworn to uphold, is deeply hurtful."

The legislators said denying the sacrament to legislators based on their voting records "would be counter-productive and would bring great harm to the Church."

McCarrick is chairing a seven-member task force of bishops that is considering whether to recommend sanctions in guidelines on how prelates should respond to Catholic lawmakers who do not uphold church values in their work. The legislators requested a meeting with McCarrick and possibly with other members of the task force to discuss the matter.

Susan Gibbs, a spokeswoman for McCarrick, said Thursday the cardinal was open to talking with the legislators, noting that the task force has heard from a number of people and groups. She said the task force has no deadline for completing its work.

McCarrick told The Associated Press last month that Roman Catholic politicians who advocate policies contrary to church teaching on abortion and other issues may risk sanctions that fall short of denial of Holy Communion. "I have not gotten to the stage where I'm comfortable in denying the Eucharist (search)," he said.

For example, McCarrick said, Catholic universities could deny honorary degrees, dioceses may withhold honors, and Catholic institutions may not invite them to speak.

The issue has come to the forefront with the emergence of Sen. John Kerry (search), a Catholic who supports abortion rights, as Democratic presidential candidate.

In their letter, the legislators wrote that while the "paranoid anti-Catholicism" that once denied public office to church members seems to be in the past, "attempts by Church leaders today to influence votes by the threat of withholding a sacrament will revive latent anti-Catholic prejudice, which so many of us have worked so hard to overcome."

The letter, which was circulated by Reps. Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut and Nicholas Lampson of Texas, was first reported by The New York Times and The Washington Post.