Cover Story

Lawmakers, lawbreakers

Even though churches have lost significant influence over society, they do at least retain authority over their own members. A look at churches that are considering the exercise of discipline over pro-abortion politicians

Issue: "Roe v. Wade @ 31," Jan. 17, 2004

I DON'T BELIEVE IN ABORTION myself," goes the line, "but other people should have the right to choose for themselves." Or, in another version, "My religion is against abortion, but I don't have the right to impose my religious beliefs on anyone else."

The assumption is that moral and religious beliefs are nothing more than individual preferences, that they have no reference to objective reality, to a transcendent authority that reigns over everyone. Christianity affirms that its tenets are true-not just a sentiment inside a person's head but a revelation that is universally valid, like it or not.

So what about a member of a church, particularly a church with a strong pro-life theology, who assumes that personal beliefs are not transferable to the real world? A typical pew-sitter who is mixed up about theology may be just in need of teaching, and a member who falls into sin-such as the sin of abortion-needs to be brought by the church to a state of repentance and forgiveness.

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But what about a church member who personally does not get an abortion but runs an abortion clinic? Or what about church-going lawmakers who use the power and authority of their offices to increase the number of unborn children who are legally killed? Shouldn't churches have the right to enforce their beliefs on their own members?

Some of the most adamantly pro-abortion politicians are members of the Roman Catholic Church, an institution with a rigorous, well-defined pro-life theology as well as a tradition of enforcing adherence to its beliefs. Now, a committee of American bishops is devising policies to deal with its renegade politicians, and some bishops are already taking actions to hold Catholic lawmakers accountable.

There are Protestant politicians too, especially in the South, who are members of pro-life churches but promote abortion in their votes and policies. Could church discipline bring them to repentance and a change of heart?

Church discipline might awaken politicians to their spiritual danger in participating in the slaughter of innocents. Or it could result in expelling nominal members who are eager to vaunt their status as Catholics or Baptists while campaigning but who do not believe what their churches teach.

Either way, though the influence of Christianity on society has been weakened, churches at least have authority over their own members. For pro-life churches to keep their position theoretical, without insisting that it be lived out by their members, is to fall into the same belief-without-reality fallacy as their erring members.

Letter from the bishop

Wisconsin State Senator Julie Lassa, a Democrat from Stevens Point, last year received a letter from Raymond L. Burke, the bishop of LaCrosse, who has ecclesiastical oversight over her local parish. Ms. Lassa is not only a consistent supporter of abortion; she went so far as to vote against a measure that would allow healthcare professionals to refuse to participate in medical procedures, such as abortion, that conflict with their religious or moral beliefs. If she had her way, Catholic doctors and nurses would be forced to perform abortions.

The 2-1/2 -page letter admonished her as to what her faith required of her: "As a faithful member of the Catholic Church, you have an obligation to fulfill the duties of your office with regard not only to the laws of the state, but also with regard to the moral law," wrote the bishop. "You have failed to restrict the evil of abortion when the opportunity presented itself."

His concern, he said, was pastoral, a concern for her immortal soul. "I call upon you to consider the consequences for your own spiritual well-being, as well as the scandal you risk by leading others into serious sin."

He included a 26-page booklet, Living the Gospel of Life, and asked that she schedule an appointment with him so that they could discuss the booklet and his letter.

Ms. Lassa was not the only one to receive this kind of letter. The bishop also wrote to another state legislator and a U.S. congressional representative. (The diocese did not release any of the names of the recipients. The bishop said that he did not intend that the letters be made public, which means that one or more of the recipients must have made them known. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel obtained a copy of the letter under the state's open records law and published excerpts and other details of the correspondence.)

Ms. Lassa said that she had no intention of meeting with her bishop. What might happen next?


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