Bishops on Giuliani, Abortion

On Nov. 14, in the enormous ballroom of the Baltimore Marriott Waterfront hotel, hundreds of black-clad bishops were called to prayer-and then they got down to business. After a long debate, 221 of 224 members of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops approved the document, called "Faithful Citizenship." The goal: to encourage American Catholics to use their faith as a guideline as they make choices in the presidential elections.

Behind the show of unity, however, deep fissures remain among the bishops on how best to express their faith in the political sphere-especially on the question of whether pro-choice politicians should be entitled to receive communion, a question not addressed in "Faithful Citizenship." In interviews after the vote with NEWSWEEK, at least four bishops said they still believe that pro-choice politicians who are Catholic should be denied communion; two of them specifically included Republican presidential hopeful Rudy Giuliani in that group. "If I were assured, and I think we are, that he's been properly counseled in this regard, then I would have to deny, because [the canon] directs me to do that," said Bishop Michael Sheridan of Colorado Springs. "That's what I'm bound to do by church law."

Denying Giuliani or any other pro-choice politician would be "consistent with church teachings," asserted Bishop Thomas J. Tobin of Rhode Island-who then compared Giuliani to Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor who "gave in to what he thought was the will of the people" and so condemned Jesus to death. Bishop Samuel Aquila of Fargo, N.D., said he would ask a pro-choice politician "to refrain from Holy Communion if they're going to hold on to the intrinsic evil they believe in." This is not the first time during this election cycle that a bishop has made such a remark. In October, Archbishop Raymond Burke of St. Louis told the Associated Press that he would deny Giuliani communion. When asked about Burke's remarks while campaigning in New Hampshire, Giuliani responded, "Everybody has a right to their opinion."

The question of denying communion to pro-choice politicians got the nation's attention during the 2004 election, when about a dozen bishops-including those mentioned above-said they'd deny communion to the Democratic nominee John Kerry, creating a cycle of negative news that Kerry concedes helped sink his campaign. "People want to know what your values are, who you are. In the case of our race that got a little clouded," he told NEWSWEEK last week. As the controversy peaked, the bishops did some soul searching. Should they be concerned with promoting a Catholic agenda in the public sphere, particularly around questions of abortion, gay marriage and embryonic stem cell research? Or should they keep politics in the background and focus on being good shepherds to their flocks?

At the bishops' meeting in Denver in 2004, Washington Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick issued a conciliatory document. "Our conference is not united," McCarrick wrote, "with several bishops sincerely convinced that [denying communion] is necessary and many others who do not support such actions." The document ended with a plea for the Catholic faithful, including bishops, to look carefully at their own lives and hearts. "Are we worthy to receive the Eucharist?" it asked. "Are we free of serious sin? Do we live according to the gospel?"

As the interviews with NEWSWEEK show, a number of bishops continue to believe that denying communion is the right course, although all of them stress the need for counseling the politician in question about the "intrinsic evil" of abortion before making such a move. For these hardliners Giuliani presents an interesting test case. He rarely goes to mass and even more rarely takes communion; practically speaking, he is not likely to be rebuffed at the communion rail. He is also a Republican, which inoculates the bishops against accusations that they're being partisan. These bishops insist that a pro-choice stance by Giuliani or any other Catholic politician is a clear violation of Catholicism's first principles. "It's important for us to help our people as teachers and to make sure they understand the unalienable gift of life comes from God," says Aquila.

The million-dollar question, then, is this: does the Catholic laity care what its bishops say? "Catholic voters are not monolithic," answers Frank Fahrenkopf, who is Catholic and led the Republican National Committee from 1983 to 1989. "Some bishops are going to urge from the pulpit that they shouldn't vote for someone, but I don't think that's the way voters make decisions. We're all good Catholics and we love our bishops, but I don't think [denying communion] is the approach to take." So much for a show of unity.