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A new chapter in the church hierarchy

By Paul M. Weyrich
web posted August 11, 2003

As soon as the landmark decision on Roe vs. Wade was rendered in 1973, the Roman Catholic Church, via the Vatican, condemned it. But many American Catholic politicians saw fit to support abortion rights anyway and the Vatican was silent.

Former Rep. Rob Dornan (R-CA) made several trips to the Vatican following the election of Pope John Paul II to plead with the Pope to speak out against Catholic politicians who supported abortion rights.

On the Pope's first visit to the United States in 1979, he did not address the issue. Indeed, I recall sitting in on a confidential meeting of Republican Senators soon after the GOP captured control of the Senate in 1980, when then-Senator Bob Packwood (R-OR), the Senate's strongest proponent of abortion rights, told his colleagues that they need not worry about the abortion issue. If Senators would just support tuition tax credits, which would bring money to cash-strapped parochial schools, Catholic bishops would overlook support for abortion, Packwood told his fellow Senators. He said, correctly, that no Senator was more linked to the abortion issue than he was, and yet he received excellent support from the Catholic hierarchy because of his support for tuition tax credits.

On his second visit to the United States, no doubt due to pressure from Dornan and other pro-life Catholics he organized to put pressure on the Vatican, the Pope did speak out against pro-abortion Catholic legislators. Still, the Catholic bishops were largely silent on the issue. Of course they condemned abortion, but as for speaking out against individual politicians who were for abortion rights, again the church was silent.

Something has been happening of late, however, which suggests a change in the attitude of the Catholic hierarchy. The Archbishop of Sacramento, no conservative he, recently told Democratic California Governor Gray Davis that he could not be a Catholic and still be an advocate for abortion rights. The Archbishop said there was no such thing as a so-called "pro-choice Catholic." The Archbishop went on to say that Gov. Davis should refrain from receiving Holy Communion lest he continue to place his soul in grave danger.

Roman Catholics believe that Holy Communion is transformed into the body and blood of Christ himself and if you receive Communion while in a state of mortal sin you cut yourself off from the graces of God. The Archbishop made it clear that Davis's support of Planned Parenthood is a grave scandal and clearly means the Governor is in a state of sin. Gov. Davis defiantly received Communion the very next Sunday, but what the Archbishop said was not lost on the Catholic population of California, since it received considerable statewide coverage. It is part of the reason Gov. Davis faces an unprecedented recall election on October 7th.

Meanwhile, in Sioux Falls, South Dakota's Bishop Robert Carlson, last fall scolded then-Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-SD) for his support of abortion rights. A few weeks ago Bishop Carlson sent a letter to Daschle, now Senate Minority leader, telling him to take the term Catholic out of his official biography since by his support for abortion he can no longer be considered a Catholic.

The other day Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput, wrote a stinging commentary in the Denver Catholic Register, about the recent debate in the Senate Judiciary Committee over the nomination of Alabama Attorney General William Pryor to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals. Pryor is an orthodox Catholic.

"...[T]he committee debate on Pryor was ugly, and the vote to advance his nomination split exactly along party lines," Archbishop Chaput wrote. "Why? Because Mr. Pryor believes that Catholic teaching about the sanctity of life is true; that the 1973 Supreme Court Roe vs. Wade decision was a poorly reasoned mistake; that abortion is wrong in all cases, even rape and incest. As a result, Americans were treated to the bizarre spectacle of non-Catholic Senators Orrin Hatch and Jeff Sessions defending Mr. Pryor's constitutionally protected religious rights to Mr. Pryor's critics, including Senator Richard Durbin, an 'abortion rights' Catholic," the Archbishop continued.

"According to Senator Durbin (as reported by EWTN) 'many Catholics who oppose abortion personally do not believe the laws of the land should prohibit abortion for all others in extreme cases involving rape, incest and the health of the mother.'

"This kind of propaganda makes the abortion lobby proud," the Archbishop went on to say, "but it should humiliate any serious Catholic. At a minimum Catholic members of Congress like Senator Durbin should actually read and pray over the Catechism of the Catholic Church and the encyclical Evangelium Vitae before they explain the Catholic faith to anyone. They might even try doing something about their 'personal opposition to abortion by supporting competent pro-life judicial appointments. Otherwise, they simply prove what many people already believe - that a new kind of religious discrimination is very welcome at the Capitol, even among elected officials who claim to be Catholic."

That Denver's Archbishop is not only willing to speak out but to name names represents a new chapter in the life of the hierarchy in the United States. Now if only they will be sure that they handle their sex scandals and the cover-ups in such a way that when they do speak out, they will be taken seriously.

Paul M. Weyrich is Chairman and CEO of the Free Congress Foundation.

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