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 Washington Notebook

February 4, 2004
Vol. 1, No. 5

Joe Feuerherd, NCR Washington correspondent


It's more of an issue for the theologians than for the politicians.

Mario Cuomo
commenting on a notification to Catholic legislators who support 'procured abortion or euthanasia'


Communion denial raises stakes for bishops and pro-choice legislators; Bush budget blasted; Block grants feared; CARA gets an award

By Joe Feuerherd

The issue was abortion, the Catholic church, and a bishop's denial of communion to legislators who he says stray from church teaching on such a "fundamental" issue.

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Mario Cuomo didn't want to talk about it. The former three-term Governor of New York and a veteran of the abortion wars of the 1980s and 1990s hadn't read what Bishop Raymond Burke, writing in a chancery office 1,100 miles away from Cuomo's Manhattan law office, had said on the subject.

What the bishop said (The "notification" is on the diocesan Web site: is that Catholic legislators in the Diocese of La Crosse who support "procured abortion or euthanasia" should not present themselves for communion, and, if they did, they would be refused the sacrament. (Last month, Burke was installed as archbishop of St. Louis, but his directive is still in-place.)

Cuomo's reluctance (frustration?) is understandable. More than any other politician he has engaged the issue, most notably in a 1984 speech, (Religious Belief and Public Morality: A Catholic Governor's Perspective, at Notre Dame.

Still, Cuomo was curious. Did Burke's decree apply to Catholic legislators who supported the death penalty? (No, it didn't, but then Cuomo, a skilled litigator, is not one to pose a question for which he doesn't know the answer.) And how did the bishop reconcile his hard-line stance on abortion with the teachings of Augustine and Aquinas? ("Hard to say, governor, would you mind if I turned on my tape recorder?")

Before dismissing the journalist (he didn't agree to be recorded), a seemingly exasperated Cuomo said, "It's more of an issue for the theologians than for the politicians."

The politicians agreed.

Rep. David Obey (D-WI), a direct target of Burke's actions, didn't want to talk about it. He issued a statement, said his press secretary, and that is to be the extent of his comment. Wisconsin State Senator Julie Lassa, another subject of Burke's discipline, didn't return a phone call.

The only one directly involved who would engage the subject was Burke, who told reporters in St. Louis that if Massachusetts Senator John Kerry, a pro-choice Catholic, presented himself for communion while campaigning in the Missouri presidential primary, he would refuse him the sacrament.

So what conclusions can be reached about Burke's actions?

First, say what you will about Burke, but don't say what he did raises grave questions of church-state separation. Despite a widespread intuition otherwise, there is no Constitutional issue at play.

"It is not possible for a private party to violate the separation of church and state because that is a protection that the Bill of Rights accords individuals against government action," said Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. If such a constitutional issue existed, Lynn, Washington's leading church-state separatist, would find it.

Next, did Burke, a canon lawyer, act properly under church law? Hard to tell.

He employed Canon 915, which allows a bishop, in the name of quashing scandal and instructing the faithful, to deny communion to someone he determines is guilty of "manifest grave sin." But Canon 915, because it represents a restriction on a right (in this case, the right to receive communion, found in Canon 912) must be interpreted narrowly.

Burke's public "notification" is broadly written; it applies to all legislators in the Diocese of La Crosse. A canonical no-no? Perhaps. Those affected by Burke's order, the "pro-choice" lawmakers, can appeal to Rome if they feel procedures have been abused.

Third, was Burke's action theologically sound? Depends on whom you ask.

The burden is on the lawmakers, not the bishop, says Princeton University's Robert George. "You are not fully in communion with the church if you have placed yourself on the side of so grave an injustice in the public realm thus denying to some members of the human family their basic human rights." Burke, said George, is "making clear that [this] is a fundamental matter on which a pretense of unity will not be tolerated, cannot be tolerated."

Burke's way off base, counters Loyola Marymount theologian Michael Horan.

"From a pastoral theological perspective, this new policy, if made practice by the bishop toward individual Catholics, is more likely to cause scandal than the practice of the politicians themselves," says Horan.

He continued: "The bishop's point of view presumes that the Eucharist is a reward for good behavior. Interestingly, the only transgressions for which the early church communities practiced excommunication were adultery, apostasy and murder (of human beings already born). Abortion was not one of the transgressions that merited excommunication."

Finally, a U.S. bishops committee is studying the question of how to deal with "Catholics in Public Life," particularly those thought to leave their religious values behind when voting on moral issues. It's unclear when the committee, headed by Washington Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, will release its recommendations.

A key question: Is denying communion to pro-choice legislators likely to reduce the number of abortions performed in the United States, to further the cause of those who would restrict abortion-rights? Or will it simply harden the hearts of those, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, who have a visceral reaction to religious bodies interjecting themselves into contentious public policy issues?

Thanks to Archbishop Burke -- and a few of his colleagues who appear ready to follow his lead -- we're about to find out.

(For more reporting on the fallout from Archbishop Burke's "notification," see NCR's Feb. 13 print issue.)


President Bush released his Fiscal Year 2005 Budget earlier this week. It calls for increased military spending (up 7 percent though it doesn't mention the extra money that will be needed to continue operations in Iraq), a 10 percent increase in domestic anti-terrorism spending ("Homeland Security"), and permanent implementation of previously approved tax cuts.

Domestic discretionary spending (that part of the budget not devoted to the Pentagon, interest on the national debt, or entitlements such as Social Security and Medicare) is slated for Reagan-era-like cuts. Bush proposes to eliminate a $247 million family literacy program, a $149 million public housing revitalization initiative, a $77 million migrant farmworker training program, a $59 million juvenile crime prevention block grant, and 61 other programs.

Critics reacted swiftly.

Network, the Catholic social justice lobby, urged its members to write members of Congress in opposition to the proposal. "The nation needs a budget that creates possibility for all where each has affordable and safe housing, access to health care, a good education, and the opportunity to work at a wage that is livable."

An analysis from the authoritative and liberally-minded Center for Budget Policy and Priorities (See "Issues Raised by the President's Budget" on the center's Web site.) says the proposed budget is "disproportionately tilted against lower-and-middle-income families, while affluent and powerful constituents are essentially given a free ride."

What of the president's state of the union speech commitment to increase training programs through community colleges? Turns out, says anti-poverty lobbyist David Bradley, that the administration is playing a budgetary shell game, switching money from one pot to another. "They're pulling money from other Department of Labor programs" to fund the $250 million initiative, said Bradley.

A silver lining? Look for Congress to reject many of the proposed cuts.

For example, said Bradley, of the proposed $150 million reduction in funding for the country's 1,000 Community Action Agencies, "the administration proposed the same thing last year and it was rejected by Congress. I expect it will be rejected this year."


The president's budget includes proposals to create "Block Grants" for a host of domestic social service programs -- everything from housing vouchers for the poor to foster care assistance.

Republicans in Washington like block grants, as do governors. The idea is to give states a pot of money targeted to a particular need and have them design programs through state, county and non-profit agencies to meet that need. It's based on the notion that the government closest to the people knows best what will work in their jurisdictions. Homelessness in Montana, for example, is a different phenomenon than homelessness in New York City, and programs to address the need should reflect local conditions.

Fair enough.

But Washington Democrats, mayors, and advocates for the poor generally don't like block grants. Rather than have members of Congress vote on a specific appropriation designed to meet a targeted need, a block grant allows Congress to pass responsibility to the states. Mayors don't like them because a block grant is allocated by the state rather than putting funds directly into city coffers where, local elected officials say, it can be best spent.

Advocates for the poor, meanwhile, don't like block grants because cash-strapped states find creative ways to use the funds for purposes that have little to do with meeting the needs they were designed to address. Plus, block grants tend to get smaller over time.

Here's how the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities describes the phenomenon:

"An analysis of 11 block grants that serve low-income people in housing, health, and social services shows that, when adjusted for inflation, funding fell by an average of 11 percent from 1982 (or the first year the program was funded as a block grant, if later) through 2003. Two of the 11 block grants fund child care assistance and received large funding increases in the late 1990s to respond to the growing need for child care under new welfare-to-work requirements. When these two block grants are excluded, the drop in inflation-adjusted funding for the remaining grants was even greater: 22 percent."

So when Msgr. Kevin Sullivan, CEO of the New York archdiocese's Catholic Charities, testified before the House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Human Resources late last month, block grants were on his mind. He urged Congress not to convert funding for federal foster care and residential treatment programs into a block grant.

"We cannot continue to underfund a system that responds to children in significant danger. We are talking about children who have been burned, beaten, and starved -- children who have never been held or read to," Sullivan told the subcommittee. "We must make sure funds are available to provide enough social service professionals and sufficient supervision to insure that these children are in a safe haven where growth and learning are possible."

He continued: "In New York we have an experience with foster care block grants that I believe tells another story. Initially, the [state's] block grant to counties showed some promise of more investment in prevention and rehabilitation services to natural parents. After a few years, however, as state and county budget problems worsened, these bright promises dimmed. In New York City funds were diverted from foster care to other services, leaving a strapped foster care system even more pressed for critical resources."

Sometimes, it seems, how federal money is spent can be as important as how much is spent.


One of Washington's Catholic gems -- the Center for Applied Research on the Apostolate (CARA) -- is being honored. The Georgetown University-based research center will receive the 2004 Lumen Gentium Award from the Conference for Pastoral Planning and Council Development at that group's March meeting.

Founded 40 years ago, CARA's research is an indispensable tool for anyone (such as journalists covering the church) looking at trends in the American church. Among its latest offerings is a National Profile of Catechetical Ministry (done in collaboration with the National Conference for Catechetical Leadership, the National Catholic Educational Association, and the US Conference of Catholic Bishops). In addition to its national surveys and reports (including its annual random telephone poll of U.S. Catholics), CARA provides services to diocesan strategic planners and other church bodies.

The annual award recognizes distinguished pastoral leadership and influence on people and church programs, while raising awareness of the principles of the Vatican II document Lumen Gentium. Receipt of the award puts CARA in prestigious company. Previous winners include Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, and Bishops Kenneth Untener and Howard Hubbard.

The e-mail address for Joe Feuerherd is

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