The perfect political storm has descended upon the Archdiocese of Washington.
Arriving soon in Washington is Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, the newest nominee for Health and Human Services secretary, whose advocacy of abortion rights so outraged her hometown bishop last spring that he told her to distance herself from the Communion table.
Catholic bishops are usually loath to take such a step, preferring backdoor dialogue and informal pastoral sessions.
But in April, when the governor vetoed an abortion reform bill in Topeka, the Most Rev. Joseph F. Naumann had had enough. He had already chastised her for vetoing pro-life legislation over the past few years, not to mention her coup de grace: A 2007 shindig in the governor´s mansion for George Tiller, the late-term abortionist who has the grisly work of killing viable fetuses. (The state finally caught up with the man, slamming him with 19 counts for illegal late-term abortions soon after the Sebelius fiesta).
Here’s where it gets tricky. Although the presumed new HHS chief may have to forego the sacrament in Kansas, she can partake here in Washington. Archbishop Donald W. Wuerl and his predecessor Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick have both refused to deny Communion to such Catholics.
Things have always been unregulated in these environs. Once, when I was interviewing Frances Kissling, the now-retired president of Catholics for a Free Choice, she told me she has no problem receiving the sacrament in her D.C. parish (which she refused to name). And several well-known pro-choice politicos took Communion during Archbishop Wuerl’s June 2006 installation.
It’s long been his position that it’s the politician’s local bishop who calls the shots on partaking of Communion.
“Every Catholic member of government has a pastor and a bishop, and they need to be in dialogue with them,” he told me in 2007. The idea that the archbishop of Washington is somehow bishop for the nation is not acceptable.”
But what if the home bishop is refusing to dole out the Communion wafer? Do the restrictions extend to here?
As the Obama administration elevates more liberal Catholic Democrats, watch for more bishops to announce bans. Soon after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s strange meeting with Pope Benedict XVI in Rome last month, Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver served notice she better not be taking Communion in his diocese.
And on Feb. 26, Scranton Bishop Joseph Martino ordered all his priests and Communion ministers not to give the sacrament to those “whose unworthiness to receive Holy Communion is known publicly to the Church.”
This was probably aimed at Sen. Bob Casey, who the bishop publicly rebuked the same day for doing little to “oppose abortion and other moral evils.” He slammed the Pennsylvania Democrat last month for his vote to dump the Mexico City policy, which prohibited U.S. taxpayer funding of overseas abortions.
Mr. Casey no doubt will ignore this. After all, he can take Communion here.
But one phone call could change that. All the local bishop needs to do is ask the Washington Archdiocese to cease allowing its churches to function as an ecclesiastical duty-free zone.
And then what will Archbishop Wuerl do?
• Julia Duin’s Stairway to Heaven column runs Thursdays and Sundays. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.