Showdown at the Communion Rail

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It has — amazingly — been 44 years since a Catholic ran for the presidency of the U.S. under a major-party banner. And how things have changed. In 1960 John F. Kennedy had to convince Americans that he was not too Catholic to be President. In 2004 John F. Kerry has to convince the Catholic bishops that he is not too American.

By "too American," I mean in the sense that religious faith is a personal matter, that it can be sealed off from public life, that it doesn't dictate political views on any one issue or another. But on the issue of abortion, that is exactly what some in the Catholic hierarchy and conservative grass roots seek to challenge. These orthodox Catholics believe that no public official can be openly Catholic and support the right to a legal abortion, which the church regards as a moral evil of the highest order. The distinction between someone's private view on the morality of abortion and his or her public stance about its legality is a distinction without a difference, they argue. Until now, that has been simply a rhetorical assertion — and certainly one well within the rights and duties of the bishops. But in the past few years, accelerating fast in recent weeks, orthodox forces have been demanding more stringent action — that pro-choice politicians be not simply publicly reprimanded but barred from receiving Holy Communion, the central, unifying act of Catholic worship.

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The Governor of New Jersey, James McGreevey, under intense pressure from his local bishops, declared recently he would no longer receive Communion as a Catholic. A group of bishops headed by Theodore Cardinal McCarrick of Washington is pondering how far to push the issue with Kerry. McCarrick has said he is personally "uncomfortable" with barring public officials from Communion — and that has been the established pastoral practice in the past. But several other bishops have already said they would bar Kerry (and others) from Communion for a pro-choice stance, and the archbishops of Newark, N.J., and Colorado Springs, Colo., have issued letters suggesting that even voting for a pro-choice politician could be reason to bar lay Catholics from Communion. A conservative Catholic group, the American Life League, paid for a recent advertisement in the Washington Times that upped the ante even further. The ad portrayed the agony of Jesus on the Cross. The caption read, CARDINAL MCCARRICK: ARE YOU COMFORTABLE NOW?

It couldn't get more fevered or more personal. And that is why it would be a terrible self-inflicted wound for the Catholic Church to enter the culture war so brazenly in a political year. It is one thing for the church to preach what it believes — the sanctity of unborn human life. It is another thing to use the sacraments of the church to enforce political uniformity on the matter. How many of us Catholics are completely worthy every Sunday of receiving what we believe to be the body and blood of Jesus? The church understands this and has long left it up to the individual to wrestle with his or her conscience as to whether going to Communion is appropriate. To turn the tables and make the giving of Communion contingent on a public, political litmus test would politicize a sacred ritual that is and always should be beyond politics.

Moreover, whatever the intent of the bishops, the effect of the policy would be catastrophic for the political neutrality of the church. As a simple matter of fact, both of our major parties have become polarized on the issue of abortion. The Democratic Party, with almost no exceptions, is now the pro-choice party. The G.O.P., with still a sliver of dissent, is now the pro-life party. By saying that Communion will be denied anyone who is pro-choice, the church will in effect be barring any major Democratic official from the sacramental life of the church. It would be essentially anathematizing one major political party — the party that was once, ironically, almost synonymous with the Catholic Church.

This, of course, is the religious right's dream: to destroy the Catholic base of the Democratic Party, create a hard-right rump of true believers and integrate the latter into the G.O.P. But it shouldn't be the church's mission to foster this scheme. You only have to look around the world to see what happens when politics and religion become fused. Politics suffers; faith is corrupted; the space for personal conscience is erased. In this case, the most sacred sacrament of Catholic faith would have a partisan tinge. "My kingdom is not of this world," Jesus said. It is up to the bishops to keep it that way.