Though it does not dominate the front pages in the same way that arguments about Vietnam medals and current war catastrophes have, one of the more bitter debates that has developed during the current presidential campaign involves the question of whether Catholics should vote for John Kerry, a Catholic, for president. The Roman Catholic bishop of Colorado Springs, Michael Sheridan, recently issued a pastoral letter arguing that Catholics ought not receive communion if they vote for politicians who defy church teaching by supporting abortion rights, stem-cell research or same-sex marriage.
Kerry does support abortion rights and stem-cell research. He's not for same-sex marriage, but he's otherwise supportive of gay rights initiatives. So, in Bishop Sheridan's view, voting for the presumptive Democratic nominee would, at best, be wrong, and, at worst, downright sinful. And Sheridan is not alone in griping about Kerry's pro-choice stance; a number of bishops have threatened to deny communion to Kerry and other Catholic politicians who fail to follow church teachings on abortion and other hot-button social issues.
But what about politicians, like President Bush, who violate church teachings with regards to launching preemptive wars and imposing the death penalty? Should conservative Catholic politicians who back the president and his war be denied the Eucharist? Should their supporters sanctioned?
That's the critical question for the bishops who are going after Kerry, Wisconsin Representative David Obey and other politicians who have not always followed church teachings on social issues but who hold views that are closer to those of the Vatican on economic issues, the death penalty and matters of war and peace.
Father Andrew Greeley, the sociologist and author who is one of America's most prominent Catholic thinkers, raised the question well when he noted recently that, "(The) Pope and the national (Catholic) hierarchy also have condemned the death penalty and the war in Iraq. Are these bishops willing to deny the Eucharist to Catholic politicians who support the death penalty or the Iraq war? And if not, why not? Moreover, will they tell Catholics that it is a sin to support an unjust war and to vote for a candidate who is responsible for such a war? And, again, if not, why not?"
Don't get Greeley wrong. He's opposes abortion, and that puts him at odds with Kerry.
But, as Greeley notes, abortion and gay rights are not the only issues this fall. And, on some key issues, Catholics like Greeley find themselves close to Kerry, a death penalty critic who, though he is hardly anti-war, has challenged the Bush administration's management of the current fight.
"I subscribe to the consistent ethic of life that the late Joseph Cardinal Bernardin enunciated some years ago," explains Greeley. "I believe abortion is wrong. I believe the death penalty is wrong. I believe preemptive war is wrong. I will take seriously the 'pro-life' enthusiasts when they are ready to protest against and denounce the death penalty. I will take them seriously when they also denounce criminally unjust wars."
Greeley gets to the heart of the matter when he suggests that, by focusing so much criticism on the pro-choice stances of Kerry and other politicians and failing to address so many other issues, church leaders such as Bishop Sheridan run the risk of appearing to be "doing the Republican National Committee's work for it."