WASHINGTON – Catholic members of Congress who publicly support the right to abortion will trek to Nationals Park Thursday for a Mass celebrated by a pope who has said such lawmakers should not receive Communion.
Leading these lawmakers, some of whom have repeatedly complained about remarks by Pope Benedict XVI and a few bishops on the subject, will be House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the government's highest-ranking Catholic and a supporter of abortion rights. Nowhere in her remarks or her actions this week has she referred to strains with the new pontiff.
Instead, she bent to kiss his ring at the White House Wednesday as Benedict arrived in a blaze of pageantry, and later she spoke glowingly on the House floor about his commitment to truth, justice and freedom. A week before he arrived, the House passed a resolution welcoming him to Washington.
And yes, her spokesman said, she intends to receive Communion from one of the 300 priests and lay ministers who will offer it to the gathered flock of 45,000.
Benedict's stance on abortion and Communion has been painful for elected officials who inhabit the troubled zone where Catholicism and their political beliefs intersect.
Pelosi was one of 48 Catholic lawmakers — some who support and some who oppose abortion rights — who signed a letter in 2004 complaining about statements by "some members of the Catholic hierarchy."
"If Catholic legislators are scorned and held out for ridicule by Church leaders on the basis of a single issue, the Church will lose strong advocates on a wide range of issues that relate to the core of important Catholic social teaching," they wrote. "Moreover, criticism of us on a matter that is essentially one of personal morality will deter other Catholics from entering politics, and in the long run the Church will suffer."
None of the Catholic lawmakers interviewed Wednesday said they hesitated to attend Thursday's celebration of Mass. This event, they said, is about bigger themes and values, such as hope and compassion.
"Pope Benedict's historic visit is an important opportunity for Catholics and for all Americans to reflect on the ways we can contribute to the common good, address global issues of poverty, disease and despair," said Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., whose views in 2004 led several Midwestern bishops to say they would deny the Democratic presidential nominee Communion.
"In a nation and a world facing such extraordinary and daunting challenges, the pope's visit promises hope, inspiration and great wisdom," Kerry said in a statement.
Only a few of the more than 250 U.S. bishops have said they would withhold Communion from Catholic lawmakers who support abortion rights. Most American prelates say parishioners must search their own consciences to decide whether they should receive the sacrament.
During the 2004 U.S. presidential election, Benedict, who was at that time Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, said the sacrament could be withheld under some circumstances.
Last May, when a reporter pressed Benedict on whether he agreed that Catholic politicians who had recently legalized abortion in Mexico City should be considered excommunicated, his response was, "Yes."
Benedict's spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, later said the pope was not setting a new policy and did not intend to formally excommunicate anyone. But Lombardi added that politicians who vote in favor of abortion should refrain from receiving Holy Communion.
Not this time.
"There's a time for celebrating who we are as Catholics, and this is one of those times," said Rep. Jose Serrano, D-N.Y.
"The leader of my church and a head of state is visiting my country, my city where I work, in a brand new ballpark," he added. "There is a great sense of excitement."