Summary of Consultation Process

Cardinal William H. Keeler
Task Force on Catholic Bishops
and Catholic Politicians
Bishops’ Spring Meeting
Denver, CO

June 15, 2004

Mr. President, my brother bishops:

I’ve been asked to review what our task force has already done.

In September 2003 our Administrative Committee considered a varium brought by Cardinal McCarrick, referring this matter to a task force made up of the chairmen of the USCCB’s major public policy committees and the Doctrine Committee. The task force includes:

  • Cardinal McCarrick, chair of the Domestic Policy Committee,
  • Bishop Kicanas, chair of the Communications Committee,
  • Bishop Wenski, chair of Migration and Refugee Services;
  • Archbishop Levada, chair of the Doctrine Committee,
  • Bishop Harrington, chair of the Education Committee,
  • Bishop Ricard from the International Policy Committee,
  • myself as chair of Pro-Life Activities, succeeding Cardinal Bevilacqua.

The task force has met several times since September, most recently last night. At the USCCB meeting last November, we reported on our efforts and were asked to consult broadly and carefully within our own conference as well as with other bishops’ conferences, with the Holy See, and with canon lawyers, theologians, and state Catholic conference directors. This consultation process has been carried out during the past six months.

Our president and officers sought the guidance of key Vatican officials during their trip to Rome earlier this year. Cardinal McCarrick met with Cardinal Ratzinger of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and Cardinal Re of the Congregation for Bishops. During recent ad limina visits, a number of bishops have sought guidance on this question and we continue to receive information and guidance from Vatican officials. They have consistently affirmed the Church’s principles and norms that must guide our actions while leaving to us in our episcopal conference the pastoral judgment about how best to apply these principles and canon law in specific circumstances.

We have also reached out to other episcopal conferences and have received responses from Germany, Canada, Italy, England, Chile and Poland. Others have asked for more time. The responses suggest that all have distributed the Doctrinal Note and none of them has developed guidelines or other initiatives based on the Note. The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops may take up this matter after the upcoming Canadian national election. All of the conferences expressed interest in hearing about our efforts.

Last month, our task force met in Chicago with theologians, canon lawyers, and state Catholic conference directors. Participants expressed deep concern about the fact that too many Catholic politicians are carrying out their public duties in ways that are not consistent with fundamental church teaching. They affirmed the need to address this serious problem, but raised questions about the best way to do this. Some pointed out that since, under Canon Law, denying Holy Communion involves the restriction of a right, this law must be interpreted strictly. They pointed out that denial of Communion is not the current practice of the Holy See or other bishops’ conferences. They warned that sanctions, particularly the denial of Communion, could be counterproductive. This could lead to marginalizing faithful Catholics in public life. It could, in their judgment, actually strengthen anti-life and anti-Catholic forces in American politics.

They also raised questions about whether some Catholics, including Catholic politicians, have had adequate preparation in the faith in order to fully understand their grave responsibility to protect life from the moment of conception. They suggested that applying canon law on this matter would require a dialogue with the individual to ensure that he/she understands Catholic teaching and, given differing roles and responsibilities of various office-holders, to determine whether his/her actions result in grave culpability.

In light of Catholic teaching that “the education of the conscience is a lifelong task” (Catechism No. 1784), we were urged to renew efforts for dialogue between bishops and Catholic politicians on all of the fundamental principles of church teaching regarding the defense of life at all its stages, but especially in its beginnings.

Finally, and most importantly, our task force has consulted with our brother bishops. We received more than 70 responses containing very thoughtful and helpful insights and I express our thanks for your assistance. Few dioceses have written policies, but all bishops use many ways to teach and preach on human life and dignity, on faith and political life.

From our consultations with our brother bishops, we have learned that we are united in many areas and not yet united on others. We are united:
  • in our efforts to teach clearly and to reach out to Catholic and other legislators;

  • in our frustration with politicians who call themselves Catholic but vote in ways that are clearly inconsistent with Catholic moral and social teaching;

  • in our reliance on state Catholic conferences for relationships with many elected officials;

  • and in our sense that the Doctrinal Note, Faithful Citizenship and Living the Gospel of Life provide the right principles and framework.
We are also united:
  • in our conviction that faithful Catholic laity must be deeply engaged in public life and have essential roles in reaching out to other Catholics who advocate policies inconsistent with church teaching, though this cannot substitute for the teaching and pastoral responsibilities of bishops.
We are also united:
  • in not honoring in special ways or providing prestigious platforms for political leaders or legislators who clearly contradict Catholic teaching; and

  • in our recognition of the need for greater education and evangelization of our own people regarding our obligation to protect human life.
We are not yet united on how best to address these matters--locally or nationally, formally or informally, through a statement or a process of engagement involving discussion and dialogue. We are not clear at this point on whether national guidelines would help or hurt.

There is no consensus on how the Doctrinal Note applies to particular issues. Some insist we cannot be “single-issue.” Others warn against diluting our witness by too many issues on which people can disagree. Some bishops ask how these concerns apply not only to Catholic politicians, but also to voters and other lay Catholics – judges, attorneys, CEOs, physicians, etc.

There are also clear differences among the bishops over sanctions for politicians – their appropriateness, wisdom, etc. Among those who expressed a view, the majority were negative on refusing Communion by a margin of roughly 3-1.

Those who supported sanctions advocated several differing alternatives, including private or public calls for politicians to refrain from identifying themselves as Catholic or refrain from receiving Communion. Others proposed publicly refusing Communion to politicians who oppose church teaching on abortion and euthanasia. These bishops’ rationale for sanctions included the conviction that sanctions simply acknowledge that these politicians have cut themselves off from the Catholic community; that our faithful people are scandalized and expect strong action; and that it’s time to be clear and stop worrying about consequences. Several bishops applauded the leadership of those who have already stepped forward.

On the other hand, many bishops urged personal communication, dialogue and persuasion rather than ecclesial penalties. Many suggested sanctions would cause more problems than they solve and might make it more difficult, if not impossible, for faithful Catholics to be leaders in public life. It was pointed out that the Doctrinal Note did not call for or provide for sanctions. It was also suggested this could divide the bishops and our community, not just on issues, but on the role of the Church in public life. This could make it more difficult to teach and persuade.

We received a range of advice: go slowly and consult broadly vs. we need clear guidance now. Some suggested we should share best practices and outline various strategies for bishops while others called for development of theological position papers on the applicability and wisdom of canonical sanctions and on moral responsibility in public life.

Many of us who were at the Administrative Committee meeting last September can vividly recall Cardinal McCarrick’s reporting of two notable comments: “a national response is better than a local response” and “a local response is better than a national response.”

In light of the range of responses we received from our brother bishops, and in light of our ongoing discussions within our conference and with the Holy See, our task force has developed interim reflections that attempt to begin to bring together some of the suggestions and insights we have gained through our consultation process.

Cardinal William H. Keeler