WASHINGTON – Scores of leading Roman Catholic (search) politicians across the country appear undaunted by election-year warnings from bishops that those who support abortion rights may be unworthy to receive Holy Communion. In Associated Press interviews with more than 75 such politicians, none said that they are abstaining from the sacrament over the issue, and many said they believed voting for legalized abortion (search) did not jeopardize their standing with the church.
AP reporters spoke to governors, state legislators, congressional representatives, U.S. senators and other public officials, who all said they were at peace with their political and religious practices.
"I believe that what I do as a public servant is in accord with church teaching," said Virginia Lt. Gov. Tim Kaine, the presumptive Democratic candidate for governor next year. He supports abortion rights with restrictions such as requiring parental consent for minors and banning late-term abortions. "It hasn't caused me discomfort as a Catholic personally," he said.
Individually, American bishops disagree over whether Communion (search) should be used as a sanction. But together they issued a statement last month saying lawmakers who consistently back abortion rights risk "cooperating in evil" and must examine whether they should receive the sacrament. Communion affirms a Catholic's bond with God, and asking a parishioner not to participate is a harsh punishment.
A few of the best-known Catholic lawmakers who back abortion rights — such as Republican New York Gov. George Pataki and U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat — said their faith was a personal matter and would not comment.
Two others officials were not taking the sacrament because they had divorced without a church annulment — not because of their policies on abortion.
U.S. Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, who became an abortion rights supporter last year, said he would abstain at the request of his bishop, but his prelate has not asked him to do so.
And New Jersey Gov. James McGreevey said he would not seek Communion in public after warnings from two local bishops in May, leaving open the possibility that he might do so in private.
The remainder of those interviewed said they would not change how they worship — with many saying they resented any attempt to link the sacrament to politics.
"I am very comfortable with my status, and quite frankly, my relationship with God is direct and personal and the church is merely a guest in that relationship," said U.S. Rep. James Langevin, a Democrat from Rhode Island, the state with the nation's highest percentage of Catholics.
Langevin believes abortion should be allowed only in cases of rape, incest or if a mother's life is in danger. But Catholic opposition to abortion is based on the earliest church teachings and is unequivocal — extending to those cases.
Deal Hudson, editor of the conservative Catholic magazine Crisis, has been highly critical of bishops who fail to take a hard line against dissenting Catholic lawmakers, and said he wasn't surprised that the politicians hadn't reconsidered their positions.
"Bishops have been ignoring this issue for 30 years, so (politicians) don't take the bishops seriously," Hudson said.
However, Bill Ryan, a spokesman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said it was too soon to know whether the bishops have been effective, since they are focused on building relationships with Catholic politicians and educating them about church teaching.
"The bishops want to have a dialogue with Catholic officials," Ryan said. "If an elected official were to say that he or she did not choose to give consideration to these matters, that would be unfortunate, but it would not be a reflection on the Catholic bishops."
The Communion debate gained national attention after Archbishop Raymond Burke of St. Louis said in January he would deny the sacrament to John Kerry, a Catholic who supports abortion rights. When Kerry is officially selected as the Democratic presidential candidate next week, he'll be the first Catholic at the top of a major party ticket since John F. Kennedy ran in 1960.
U.S. Rep. William Lacy Clay, a Missouri Democrat who favors abortion rights, met with Burke this month to discuss the issue, but neither would release details of their talk. However, Clay said he would continue taking Communion, and if a priest refused him, "I would stand there."
"I think Archbishop Burke has gone too far," Clay said.
Kerry has said he is personally opposed to abortion, but sees the bishops' appeals as breaching the separation of church and state. Many of the lawmakers the AP interviewed expressed similar views. Some feared that singling out Catholic lawmakers would revive suspicions that their first loyalty was to their church not their country. Others said they were obligated to formulate policy based on the views of all their constituents.
"As a practicing Catholic, I respect the church's view that abortion is wrong," said Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine. "As a United States senator, however, I will not make criminals of those women who do not agree with the Catholic Church's position on this difficult issue."