What do you think? Leave a respectful comment.

Bishops Consider Stance of Catholic Politicians

America's Catholic bishops began a week-long conference in Colorado to discuss, among other issues, whether to withhold Communion based on parishioners' political beliefs. Following a look at how the debate developed in the Diocese of Colorado Springs, correspondent Jeffrey Brown talks to two prominent Catholics about the issue.

Read the Full Transcript

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Catholic bishops from across the nation began a week-long retreat today in Englewood, Colorado. One key agenda item is a controversy over Catholic politicians, abortion, and the church's teachings. The political stakes in this debate could be high: The nation's 64 million Catholics account for about 27 percent of the electorate. We begin with this background report from Betty Ann Bowser.

  • FATHER BILL CARMODY:

    We can't just be Catholic in our homes and in our place of worship. We have to be Catholic when we vote.

  • BETTY ANN BOWSER:

    At a recent Mass in Colorado Springs, Father Bill Carmody told his parishioners not to vote for politicians who support abortion rights. His remarks came during a political season when several bishops around the country have said that Catholic politicians who support any form of abortion rights should not receive communion. Although no specific politicians were named, Democratic presidential hopeful John Kerry fits that description. So do seven Republicans and 79 Democrats in Congress. In May, one church leader went a step further. Bishop Michael Sheridan of Colorado Springs wrote in a pastoral letter than any Catholic who votes for an abortion rights politician should not receive communion. Some Catholics, like Rhonda Miller, have welcomed that statement.

  • RHONDA MILLER:

    What he said is, if you do anything such as vote for a candidate that is in direct opposition through supporting abortion or any of these other anti-life issues, then you've sinned yourself. And that is the teaching of our church.

  • RIC KETHCART:

    The person saying that to me is saying that I will go to hell and I cannot receive communion. Them's fighting words. And it's that that I object to.

  • RIC KETHCART:

    Here you go.

  • BETTY ANN BOWSER:

    Businessman Ric Kethcart says he's against abortion, but in the past has voted for several Colorado Democrats who support abortion rights. Kethcart wrote a letter to Bishop Sheridan saying his statements were heavy- handed and reminiscent of the Inquisition, when the church tried to pummel Catholics into correct thought. Kethcart also said if the bishop did not recant his statement, he would revoke a $100,000 pledge to the diocese.

  • RIC KETHCART:

    It's going to polarize people and create controversy– unnecessary controversy– within a church that's suffering right now to step away from its recent problems with pedophilia. My concern with this position is, it can create a schism itself that could really make it very difficult for the most supportive Catholics to remain supportive.

  • BETTY ANN BOWSER:

    It's not just lay people who are upset by the bishop's position. Father Patrick Kennedy is a priest in the Denver diocese.

  • FATHER PATRICK KENNEDY:

    How can you use communion as a whipping stone? Never, Eucharistic theology never allowed for that. But we have allowed ourselves to start using it as a threat, a club — you know, "I'm holding this over you. You cannot go to communion unless you do what I tell you to do."

  • BETTY ANN BOWSER:

    Father Kennedy says even though he supports the Church's pro-life position, he will vote for John Kerry, because he thinks abortion is just one issue Catholics should consider when they vote.

  • FATHER PATRICK KENNEDY:

    What about somebody who votes against education programs for children? What about the inequities of the tax system? Is this not immoral?

  • BETTY ANN BOWSER:

    But Father Carmody says the life issue takes precedence over all others. He told his parishioners they cannot overlook a politician's stand on abortion just because that politician does other good things. Carmody said it was like the German people overlooking what Adolf Hitler was doing to Jews.

  • FATHER BILL CARMODY:

    Because before Hitler, I didn't have bread on my table. After Hitler, I had bread on my table. So they overlooked it. How many of us, when we vote, overlook the life issues because it puts bread on the table? And we need to understand Bishop Sheridan is telling us that the life issues are just like that. It trumps everything.

  • BETTY ANN BOWSER:

    An advocacy group called Americans United for Separation of Church and State thinks the Colorado Springs diocese has gone too far. It has asked the internal revenue service to investigate, saying Bishop Sheridan may have crossed the line into unlawful partisan politics.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Now, a dialogue on this issue between two prominent Catholics, led by Jeffrey Brown.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    For Mario Cuomo, the challenge facing a Catholic public official is not a new one. He's been there before. During his years as governor of New York, Cuomo, who is personally opposed to abortion, was sharply criticized by church officials for supporting legalized abortion.

    For Michael Novak, the nexus of private belief in public responsibility has been a long-time area of study. Novak, a leading Catholic scholar, is author of 25 books and a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. The two joined us last week in the Mullen Library on the campus of Catholic University in Washington, D.C.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Mario Cuomo, Michael Novak, welcome to you. Mr. Novak, in our set-up report from Colorado, we heard a priest who said, who asked, how can you use communion as a whipping post? What's the answer?

  • MICHAEL NOVAK:

    Well, there's no question of a whipping post. There is a question of a kind of truth in advertising, and it's hidden in the word "communion." Communion means communion with the Church; that means with its teaching. What's happened in America over the last 30 years is abortion has had a deeper and deeper hold in our life, distorting our politics and our culture. And the numbers of those, particularly of Catholics, who are supporters of… they might say they're personally for pro-life, but they're supporters of abortion, are growing in numbers. It's ten, it's 20, it's 30, it's 60. And so the bishops have to say something because the only point of being Catholic is to be faithful to the teachings of Jesus Christ and to the sacraments, and so just a kind of truthfulness requires them to say whether what politicians who do this are doing is right or is it not right?

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    So, Governor Cuomo, for the Catholic lawmaker, to what extent is there freedom of conscience then in voting?

  • MARIO CUOMO:

    There's always total freedom of conscience. As a matter of fact, our religion teaches you have to follow your conscience. It's what is the well-made conscience. And I agree with what Mike said as a description of one theory, but the question really is, are you in communion with your church if, for example, you're a Catholic who accepts the abortion teaching, as I did, and lived by it for say 50 years, which I have, but refuses to take the position that now I have to make the whole society of non-Catholics, non-believers, and even those Catholics who do not accept abortion; I have to impose the law upon them or attempt to.

    And if you do it, you had better do it about just war, which also takes life, the death penalty, which also takes life, care for poor and sick children, which also takes life. And if you do that, you're talking about a Catholic theocracy. If you tell people that, they'll never vote for a Catholic.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Mr. Novak, are you suggesting that the Catholic lawmaker, if he or she wants to remain Catholic and a lawmaker, does not have the kind of freedom of conscience that we're talking about?

  • MICHAEL NOVAK:

    Oh, sure. You have the freedom of conscience. If you disagree with the church there's nothing in the world that obliges you to stay in it. And even if you disagree on a relatively minor matter, that's perfectly acceptable. But abortion is a little bit different from most other issues because it's a deliberate taking of innocent human life and that may not be done under any circumstances. The Pope has made that perfectly clear, and he's asked statesmen around the world to, if they are Catholic, if they are Christian, and if they are reasoning from the point of view of natural rights, this is not a matter of doctrine. There is nothing specifically Catholic in this doctrine. It's a matter of natural rights. If people are reasoning, that he's urging them to argue for that in public. Don't let the culture go by drift the other way – fight it, just as we overcame slavery after many years, but by argument, and by dint of more and more people turning sides.

  • MARIO CUOMO:

    The Church didn't fight slavery in the 19th century because it wasn't prudential for them to do it, because it was a weak church. Number two, the argument that this is the taking of life, that's the Church's position at the moment. It wasn't always. It wasn't Saint Ambrose's, it wasn't Aquinas', it wasn't Augustine's. And it turns on this proposition that life begins at conception. This is very complex stuff. If you wanted to, you'd have to start as a church by saying, "Let me explain this to you, we conclude that the whole world should believe life begins at conception." That means no woman under any circumstances can ever have an abortion, period, not even to save her own life.

    Incidentally, that is not a position that the Church has taken. That is not a position that any Republican president or Democratic president has ever taken. Nobody has ever tried a constitutional amendment. If the Church were really serious about this, it should be beating up every Republican and every Democrat stepping forward saying, "Pass a constitutional amendment right now: Life begins at conception." And then you can't do stem cells and you can't ever have an abortion under any circumstances. Who takes that position?

  • MICHAEL NOVAK:

    In Catholic teaching there has always and everywhere been a conviction that abortion is wrong. But the argument always rests on what science has to teach you at a given time about how far back you can trace the human being. Science has answered a great deal. I believe the Church is going to move with it.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Pick up on the governor's other issue of the electability of Catholics. If non-Catholic voters believe that the Catholic politician is somehow bound by what the Church says…

  • MICHAEL NOVAK:

    There are a lot of doctors… I mean, I have a friend who is a pediatrician, and they advertise that they don't do abortions — an obstetrician practice as well. And they… it just brings all kinds of people to them who want to be in that kind of environment. So I think with the politicians. If you're honest… look I'm not a politician. Mario can tell you this, professionally, better than I can. But if you're honest on your position and they like other things you do, they will respect you for it. They'll allow you to be different in this one. Most politicians have that. They have a couple issues where they're very strong. Not everybody agrees with them, but they say this guy is a straight shooter.

  • MARIO CUOMO:

    The best way for Catholics in my simple, humble opinion to teach people their religion is better than any body or belief they now have is to live it, to show it, to demonstrate it, to stop having abortions, to stop participating in unjust wars, to work the works of charity that Christ did, to have a liberal agenda — not with a capital "l"– for all the people who are in trouble, you know, just demonstrate to the whole society that you mean it when you say you're a Catholic and you believe in Jesus and you believe all he stood for. We're not doing that, and that's one of the big problems here, especially with abortion. We don't live up to our hopes, idea as to what's right about abortion. And unless you do, there's no point in trying to teach it to the rest of society.

  • MICHAEL NOVAK:

    Well, we couldn't teach anything if we followed that rule.

  • MARIO CUOMO:

    Well, then maybe we shouldn't teach.

  • MICHAEL NOVAK:

    We're a pretty sad group, and the Gospels are a judgment on all of us, and we till still have to be faithful to the full message of the Gospels. Furthermore, the church that's really a problem here is the Democratic Party. Politically, it's become a matter you have to kowtow to if you want to be a national Democrat. Governor Casey found that out.

  • MARIO CUOMO:

    Excuse me. I think this is wrong. Don't you think the bishops should be talking to President Bush about unjust war?

  • MICHAEL NOVAK:

    Sure they should.

  • MARIO CUOMO:

    Excuse me. But Mike, they're not.

  • MICHAEL NOVAK:

    They did, and by the way, it's a different sort of issue, because the Catholic Church.

  • MARIO CUOMO:

    But they're not talking about any issues. There appears to be a total exemption of all Republicans. Now I didn't raise the political issue, you did. There seems to be…Kerry, yes. But there are Republicans who take exactly the same position.

  • MICHAEL NOVAK:

    Bishops should be just as tough…

  • MARIO CUOMO:

    But who is going to tell them.

  • MICHAEL NOVAK:

    …on Democrats or Republicans.

  • MARIO CUOMO:

    But who is going to tell them?

  • MICHAEL NOVAK:

    Bishops should be bishops.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    This obviously is taking place amid a political season.

  • MICHAEL NOVAK:

    Sure.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    So what do you think might be the political impact of this debate over the role of Catholics?

  • MARIO CUOMO:

    I can give you the polls. Sixty-seven percent of the people said the bishops should be minding their own business, and shouldn't be trying to tell the people. Now that's 67 percent of the whole population. Sixty-one percent of the Catholics said the bishops shouldn't be telling us. Let's not lose perspective: You're talking about a very small number of bishops who are doing this. The others overwhelmingly are not doing it. I'm with the ones who are not doing it.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Mr. Novak.

  • MICHAEL NOVAK:

    Well, the bishops only have to face one election, and that's at Judgment Day. They have a responsibility. They have three responsibilities: To teach, to sanctify and to oversee. That's all that they have to do, and that's what they're going to answer for. And it's a sad commentary on them as the polls that show what they do. But they can't be led by those. They have to teach what is right. And I think there are a good many more than Mario is saying, and I think the numbers are going to grow, and the Pope has already twice spoken on this with the universal Church. I wouldn't be at all surprised if there were yet another message on this subject.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Mario Cuomo and Michael Novak, thank you very much for joining us.

  • MICHAEL NOVAK:

    Thanks.

  • MARIO CUOMO:

    Thanks.

  • MICHAEL NOVAK:

    Good to see you.

The Latest