Denver Archbishop Chaput rallies support to sanction pro-choice Catholic politicians

Denver Archbishop Chaput asked Notre Dame University Catholics this weekend to press for Church policy that would deny communion to U.S. Catholic politicians who support pro-choice or pro-gay rights positions. The speech comes in the wake of surveys that show most Catholics don’t agree with Chaput on the issues.

“There is unity among the bishops about abortion always being wrong, and that you can’t be a Catholic and be in favor of abortion — the bishops all agree to that,” Chaput said. “But there’s just an inability among the bishops together to speak clearly on this matter and even to say that, if you’re Catholic and you’re pro-choice, you can’t receive holy communion.”

Chaput said the bishops should adopt a clear policy that directs priests to not give communion to pro-choice Catholics and that instructs pro-choice parishioners not to present themselves for communion at mass.

Chaput said he’s been trying to persuade the U.S. bishops conference to take his view on this issue for years but that some bishops believe a hard-line stand like the one he proposes would make it difficult for Catholic politicians to win election.

“Help me convince the bishops on this subject,” he asked the crowd.

Polling data published last month suggests the majority of Catholics in the pews will not help Chaput convince the bishops on the subject because they side with the bishops who oppose him.

On the issue of gay rights, for example, wide majorities of Catholics favor allowing gay people to marry or form civil unions and believe gay people should enjoy legal protections against workplace discrimination.

“It may come as a surprise to many that rank and file Catholics are more supportive of rights for gays and lesbians than are other Christians and the general public,” said Dr. Robert P. Jones, CEO of Public Religion Research Institute, one of the organizations that polled Catholics last month. “The best data available paints this consistent portrait across a range of issues, including same-sex marriage, workplace non-discrimination, open military service, and adoption rights for gay and lesbian couples.”

Speaking on the Institute’s research, Dr. Michelle Dillon, chair of the Sociology Department at University of New Hampshire, told the Huffington Post that Catholics accept the fact that they will disagree with Church leaders on these sorts of issues as a matter of course.

“Most American Catholics believe that one can be a good Catholic and disagree with the Vatican and the bishops on issues of personal conscience. Gay-marriage has clearly become another issue, along with artificial contraception and divorce and remarriage, that Catholics believe is not core to what it means to be Catholic.”

On banning communion, Michael Sean Winters at the National Catholic Reporter wrote that Chaput mischaracterized the debate around the issue in his talk at Notre Dame.

There isn’t an “inability to speak clearly on the matter,” he wrote; there is instead a genuine disagreement on the topic that includes opinion among the majority of bishops that Chaput is incorrectly interpreting Church law, specifically Canon 915 on refusing communion, and that he is promoting bad policy.

It would be more accurate to say that Chaput and very few other bishops interpret Canon 915 in such a way as to suggest that such denial of communion should be the norm, while the vast majority of bishops disagree. The reasons for their disagreement is obvious: It is lousy theology.

There are many reasons why someone might not support a certain piece of legislation that would restrict or criminalize abortion. Chaput’s simplistic approach is belied by the fact that he has never been able to suggest precisely what such anti-abortion legislation should look like. Would women who procured an abortion go to jail? If not, and only a fool would think our polity would tolerate women going to jail for this, what should the penalty be? Would abortion be considered simply as murder? Would the doctor go to jail or merely lose his or her license? These are not easy questions.

Winters believes Chaput is also wrong to suggest that the bishops who oppose him lack courage of conviction.

Those bishops who disagree with [Chaput]… are not cowards. They disagree with Chaput as to whether or not his understanding of Canon 915 constitutes sound theology and/or sound pastoral practice.

Chaput made headlines during the Denver-hosted Democratic Party National Convention in 2008 for saying national Catholic pro-choice politicians like Vice President Joe Biden should be denied communion. Chaput made news in Colorado this month for fighting to defeat same-sex civil unions legislation.

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