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Tuesday, May 18, 2004 - Page updated at 02:15 P.M.
Bishop in Colorado warns Catholic voters
By David Kelly
DENVER In stark and dramatic language, a Roman Catholic bishop has declared that anyone voting for a politician who supports same-sex marriage, abortion rights, stem-cell research or euthanasia will be denied Holy Communion.
The upcoming presidential election, Bishop Michael Sheridan said in a three-page letter to the Colorado Springs diocese's newspaper May 1, will be one of the most important in history "critical in the battle to restore the right to life to all its citizens, especially the unborn and the elderly and infirm."
His letter likely will have little practical effect, since most people receiving Communion aren't quizzed about their political beliefs beforehand. Still, it caused consternation.
While other U.S. bishops have said politicians who are abortion-rights supporters would be denied Communion in their diocese, Sheridan is the first to threaten voters.
"Any Catholic politicians who advocate for abortion, for illicit stem-cell research or any form of euthanasia ipso facto place themselves outside of full Communion with the church and so jeopardize their salvation," Sheridan wrote. "Any Catholics who vote for candidates that stand for abortion, illicit stem-cell research or euthanasia suffer the same fateful consequences."
The letter said nothing about capital punishment, but Sheridan in the past has said the death penalty was not as weighty as other issues.
Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., the presumed Democratic presidential nominee, is a Catholic who supports abortion rights. His candidacy has ignited controversy over church teachings and how they apply to politics.
The archbishop of St. Louis, Raymond Burke, said he wouldn't give Communion to Kerry because of his political views. Bishops in Boston, Portland, Maine, and New Orleans have agreed that pro-abortion-rights politicians shouldn't take Communion.
Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput called such politicians "dishonest" witnesses for Christ.
Sheridan, who heads a diocese of 125,000 members, did not return calls seeking comment yesterday.
"What is disturbing is that he has broadened the field pretty significantly by saying anyone in an elected position, anyone who supports them or votes for them suffers the sanction of having Communion withheld," Ritter said. "Receiving the sacrament of Communion is the most significant and sacred ritual available to Catholics, so to withhold it is an extremely punitive measure."
Ritter said the bishop's letter offers little nuance, and confines voters to single issues without recognizing the complexity of the choices before them. In the state legislative district where he lives, Ritter said, both candidates support abortion rights.
"If I abide by Sheridan, I am disenfranchised in that election," Ritter said.
Withholding sacraments from political enemies has a long history in the Catholic Church. "It's been a tradition going back to the early popes who, if they didn't like a politician, would deny them Communion," said Lynn Ross-Bryant, professor of Western religion at the University of Colorado. "It was done traditionally as a power play. To be cut off from the sacraments means you are cut off from the grace of God."
Sheridan, 59, took over the diocese in 2003. The city is home to more than 100 evangelical Christian organizations including the politically powerful Focus on the Family, led by James Dobson.
"It's very offensive to find a bishop pushing that kind of perspective and threatening members of his own diocese," said Mary Lou Makepeace, a former Colorado Springs mayor who now heads the Gay & Lesbian Fund for Colorado. "I'd like an equally strong stance against priests who abuse children, who, so far as I know, still take Communion."
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