WASHINGTON -- Frustrated that so many Catholic politicians support abortion rights, the bishops of the United States said yesterday that they will begin evaluating whether they can impose sanctions against elected officials who vote contrary to church teachings.
In a freewheeling discussion reflecting years of concern, some bishops suggested that the church should consider punishments ranging from denying honorary degrees to elected officials, refusing to allow them to speak at Catholic institutions, or even excommunicating them.
"I am tired of hearing Catholic politicians say, `I am personally opposed to whatever, but I can't impose my moral judgment on others,' " said Bishop Joseph A. Galante of Dallas. "That's nonsense. They do it on other issues . . . That's a weaseling out."
The bishops said they were prompted to act by a document issued in January by Pope John Paul II. That document outlined the responsibilities of Catholics actively involved in politics. Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick, the archbishop of Washington, suggested that the bishops examine how they should deal with Catholic politicians who do not heed the Vatican's urgings.
No names were mentioned, but some Catholics have long lamented the support for abortion rights voiced by Massachusetts Senators Edward M. Kennedy and John F. Kerry, both Catholics. In January, after the pope's statement was issued, both men cited church-state separation as their guiding principle. Kerry, who is running for president, declared at the time, "As a Catholic, I have enormous respect for the words and teachings of the Vatican, but as a public servant, I've never forgotten the lasting legacy of President Kennedy, who made clear that in accordance with the separation of church and state, no elected official should be `limited or conditioned by any religious oath, ritual, or obligation.' "
The bishops have created a task force to examine the church's relationship with Catholic politicians. A member of the task force, Bishop John H. Ricard of Pensacola-Tallahassee, Fla., said the group will try to come up with a set of guidelines that examine issues such as "honors for politicians."
"We face a serious pastoral challenge," Ricard said. "Some Catholic politicians defy Church teaching in their policy advocacy and legislative votes, first and most fundamentally on the defense of unborn life, but also on the use of the death penalty, questions of war and peace, the role of marriage and family, the rights of parents to choose the best education for their children, the priority for the poor, and welcome for immigrants."
Ricard accused some lawmakers of choosing "their party over their faith, their ideology over Catholic teaching, the demands of their contributors over the search for the common good."
The discussion about Catholic politicians occurred at the end of the first day of the annual fall meeting of the bishops' conference. At the start of the day, the conference president, Bishop Wilton D. Gregory, reflecting on the clergy sexual abuse crisis, said that "We can do better talking with and listening to one another as members of the church" and that "even we bishops need to reflect on our own need to accept just criticism, to apologize, and to forgive."
Outside the conference, a variety of organizations offered suggestions to the bishops. Voice of the Faithful, a lay organization, praised some bishops for meeting with its members, but criticized others for barring its organization from meeting on church premises. Members of Soulforce, a gay rights organization, and the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, held silent vigils alleging inattention to their concerns.
The bishops have been increasingly focused on political matters as the presidential campaign intensifies. They recently published a guide for Catholic voters, urging them to consider Catholic moral teachings when deciding how to vote. But the document says that neither political party in the United States is a perfect fit for Catholics, who are supposed to oppose the death penalty as well as abortion and to make helping the poor a priority.
During yesterday's discussion, some bishops made it clear they support punishing politicians who vote against church teachings on abortion.
"It's a constant source of scandal that the most prominent proabortion people are Catholics . . . who seem to go unreproved," said Bishop Fabian W. Bruskewitz of Lincoln, Neb.
Cardinal Francis E. George of Chicago said the bishops' task force should address "the whole question of sanctions, which we're challenged from time to time to apply."
But George said bishops are not only supposed to speak the truth, but also to "keep unity."
"It's that charism of unity that causes many of us to pause," he said. "It's not a lack of courage, it's an act of understanding our role."
At a news conference, Galante said the bishops will scour canon law to find options for sanctioning politicians. Those sanctions could include excommunication, which denies politicians participation in the sacraments. He said that such a step would be "the extreme" and that there is debate about whether it could be justified. Galante said some bishops already refuse to allow some elected officials to speak on Catholic properties.
Michael Paulson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.