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Lawmakers, lawbreakers

"Lawmakers, lawbreakers" Continued...

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

Bishop Burke told a reporter that if the politicians did not change their pattern of voting, "I would simply have to ask them not to present themselves to receive the sacraments because they would not be Catholics in good standing."

This would be "self-excommunication." The step after that, presumably, according to historic Catholic practice, would be the formal rite of excommunication, in which the person would be ritually cast out of the church.

Bishop Burke's action grows out of a Vatican edict issued last year titled "The Participation of Catholics in Political Life," which states that "those who are directly involved in lawmaking bodies have a grave and clear obligation to oppose any law that attacks human life. For them, as for every Catholic, it is impossible to promote such laws or to vote for them."

In response the conference of American bishops formed a task force on Catholics in Public Life. Last November, they issued a preliminary report, in an ongoing effort to develop guidelines for how bishops should respond to Catholic politicians who defy their church.

But some bishops have moved more quickly. In 1989 Bishop Leo T. Maher of San Diego excommunicated state senator Lucy Killea for her stance on abortion. In 1996 Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz of Lincoln, Neb., excommunicated everyone in his jurisdiction who belonged to right-to-die or abortion-rights organizations. And last January Bishop William Weigand of Sacramento called for pro-abortion Catholic politicians to abstain from receiving the sacraments, singling out then-Gov. Gray Davis.

And now Bishop Burke has just been appointed bishop of St. Louis, where there are many more Catholic Democratic politicians.

Church and state?

The reaction of lawmakers and local media was indignation and outrage. "I can't let my religion take precedence over my duties as a legislator," said Wisconsin State Sen. Lassa.

"I'm concerned that the bishop would pressure legislators to vote according to the dictates of the church instead of the wishes of their constituents because that is not consistent with our Democratic ideals," she said. "When I was elected, I swore an oath to uphold the Constitution, and that means I have to represent all the people of all faiths in my district."

U.S. Rep. David Obey (D-Wis.)-widely assumed to be one of the recipients of the letter, which he would neither confirm nor deny-was even more defiant. "Under the Constitution, the public has a right to know that, in the end, the votes I cast are driven by my own independent judgment and conscience," he said, "not by a set of marching orders given by any church hierarchy, prelate, or associated lobby group."

Ironically, those Catholic politicians echoed the anti-Catholic rhetoric of an earlier day, when many Protestants worried that if Catholics were elected, they would turn the country over to the pope. They feared the old teachings of papal claims to superiority over earthly rulers. In the 16th century, the pope tried to depose Queen Elizabeth of England and worked for her overthrow.

Four hundred years later, John F. Kennedy became the first Roman Catholic president, but not before he met with a group of Baptist ministers in Dallas and vowed not to let the head of his church usurp the sovereignty of the United States of America.

Although the politicians and the pundits invoked the precedent of President Kennedy, this is surely a different case. The belief that abortion is morally wrong is by no means an exclusively Catholic position. Conservative Protestants also reject abortion, as do adherents of other religions and pro-lifers of no religion.

Furthermore, the opposition to abortion is a moral, not a religious teaching. All major religions affirm the moral law, which is valid for everyone, believer and unbeliever alike. Their differences, in addition to the different gods they worship, have to do mainly with salvation-in the case of Christian theologies, how to find forgiveness for violating that moral law.

It is simply not true that defending the unborn is "imposing your religion on someone else." The moral law, apart from any religious significance it might have, is necessary for any kind of social order. If there are not morally grounded laws to protect the innocent, society would be, literally, impossible, with sinful human beings tearing each other apart.

Separation of church and state is one thing. But separating morality and state is something completely different, a formula for anarchy, oppression, and totalitarianism. And the need to protect the most innocent and vulnerable life-developing babies, the very purpose of the family, which is the foundation of every other social institution-is the most urgent application of the social contract.


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