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Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
Scranton native Sen. Joe Biden would likely feel at home any day of the week in Northeast Pennsylvania.
Well, any day except possibly Sunday.
The Most Rev. Joseph F. Martino, bishop of Scranton, has strongly supported refusal of Holy Communion for politicians who campaign for or vote in favor of abortion rights.
When asked whether the Democratic vice presidential candidate would be refused Communion should he tour the region, the diocese held firm to its past statements.
“I will not tolerate any politician who claims to be a faithful Catholic who is not genuinely pro-life,” Bishop Martino said in a pastoral letter Sept. 15, 2005, and reiterated this week.
“No Catholic politician who supports the culture of death should approach Holy Communion,” Bishop Martino said. “I will be truly vigilant on this point.”
Bishop Martino has also pointed to the need to privately meet with Catholic politicians and instruct them on the church’s teachings, prior to refusing them Communion.
While willing to reiterate these points, the bishop declined to comment specifically on Mr. Biden or any other politician.
Speculation on whether priests would welcome Mr. Biden to take Communion while he is touring the nation over the next nine Sundays is likely to fuel another “wafer watch,” which is how a similar conflict was dubbed by the news media in 2004.
At that time, then-Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry and other Catholic politicians were warned by St. Louis Archbishop Raymond L. Burke not to present themselves for Communion if they supported abortion rights.
This year, Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput already has said Mr. Biden should refrain from Communion because of his stance on abortion rights.
Mr. Biden attends church weekly and, at least last Sunday, took Communion at his hometown church in Delaware, The Associated Press reported. Mr. Biden’s campaign aides said he declined to comment for this story.
The Delaware senator is more moderate on abortion rights than many of his colleagues. He voted in favor of the federal partial birth abortion ban and he also supported the Hyde Amendment in 1976, which barred Medicaid funding for abortion.
But he opposed a controversial Senate amendment that was rejected by a 49-50 vote, dubbed the “Unborn Child” amendment, in August 2007. NARAL Pro-Choice America, the nation’s best-known abortion rights advocacy group, said the amendment might have eroded the legal framework for abortion rights by recognizing an embryo as a separate beneficiary of government programs.
Given some of his stances, “he is clearly not pro-abortion,” said Father David Hollenbach, S.J., the university chairman in human rights and international justice and a professor of moral theology at Boston College.
“I think it can be seriously questioned whether Sen. Joe Biden can be seen as involved in ‘formal cooperation’ in abortion,” Father Hollenbach said. “Formal cooperation is a technical term in Catholic moral tradition and must be interpreted with great care.”
When asked if Mr. Biden is “genuinely pro-life,” the phrase Bishop Martino uses in his statement, the president of the Catholic League, Bill Donahue, Ph.D., said “no, not at all.”
“His voting record is clear. When NARAL congratulates him, that ends the discussion,” said Dr. Donahue.
Mr. Biden does not get a perfect score from NARAL, but in a statement last week the group said: “Sen. Biden has consistently expressed support for a woman’s right to choose. While we have not agreed with him on every vote, we have a longstanding relationship with Sen. Biden that is open, positive, and constructive.”
Dr. Donahue commended Mr. Biden for attending Mass every week, but to the extent “he tries to wear Catholicism on his sleeve, when he’s the poster boy of NARAL, oh yeah, we’re going to have a big problem with that.
“I think they have to be very, very careful selling him as a Catholic,” Dr. Donahue said.
Mr. Biden told the Christian Science Monitor in August 2007 that his views “are totally consistent with Catholic social doctrine.”
“There are elements within the church who say if you are at odds with any of the teachings of the church, you are at odds with the church. I think the church is bigger than that,” Mr. Biden said at the time.
Chris Korzen, executive director of Catholics United, said Mr. Biden’s leadership on issues like health care and economic justice “constitute a policy that’s consistent with human life.”
He said ending abortion is an important theological issue for Catholics, but he questioned whether criminalizing abortion was the correct public policy to achieve that.
“I think we need to start asking different questions,” Mr. Korzen said.
While Democrats have not struck from their party platform the right for women to have abortions, Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama mentioned abortion in his acceptance speech Thursday, saying: “We (Republicans and Democrats) may not agree on abortion, but surely we can agree on reducing the number of unwanted pregnancies in this country.”
Mr. Korzen said he thought it was also “historic” to see Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., talk about abortion during his speech at the Democratic convention last week.
But Dr. Donahue said Mr. Casey “blew it” with his line that Mr. Obama will “pursue the common good by seeking common ground.”
“There is no common ground … it’s all or nothing,” Dr. Donahue said about abortion rights.
Mr. Casey also declined to comment for this story.
A memorandum issued in 2004 by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, said while there might be a legitimate difference of opinion on issues of war and the death penalty, there is no wiggle room with regard to abortion.
Bishop Martino, in a statement Sept. 30, 2004, pointed to that memorandum to explain his own reasoning for when the church should refuse Communion.
In an interview in April 2004 with The Sunday Times, Bishop Martino said: “There are unfortunately Catholic theologians, or so-called theologians, and even Catholic priests who at times advised some of these politicians in a way that I think is very dangerous — that they can be personally opposed to abortion but on their voting record they can be anything but opposed.”
Bishop Martino also added in that interview: “All these bugaboos about separation of church and state are brought up, which are just not true. What that really means is, ‘Shut up bishop, shut up.’ I have a right to speak up like any other citizen, and I have a right to remind Catholics — that’s my duty — to remind Catholics it’s not what they can do but what they should do. I think that’s something that they haven’t heard enough of and they’ll hear it for me.”
Bishop Joseph F. Martino defines his stance on politicians receiving Holy Communion by pointing to a July 2004 memorandum written by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI. Here are some excerpts from that letter:
— “Regarding the grave sin of abortion or euthanasia, when a person’s formal cooperation becomes manifest (understood in the case of a Catholic politician as consistently campaigning and voting for permissive abortion and euthanasia laws), his pastor should meet with him, instructing him about the Church’s teaching, informing him that he is not to present himself for Holy Communion until he brings to an end the objective situation of sin, and warning him that he will otherwise be denied the Eucharist.”
— “When these precautionary measures have not had their effect or in which they were not possible,” and the person in question, with obstinate persistence, still presents himself to receive the Holy Eucharist, “the minister of Holy Communion must refuse to distribute it.” … This decision, properly speaking, is not a sanction or a penalty. Nor is the minister of Holy Communion passing judgment on the person’s subjective guilt, but rather is reacting to the person’s public unworthiness to receive Holy Communion due to an objective situation of sin.”
— “… A Catholic would be guilty of formal cooperation in evil, and so unworthy to present himself for Holy Communion, if he were to deliberately vote for a candidate precisely because of the candidate’s permissive stand on abortion and/or euthanasia. When a Catholic does not share a candidate’s stand in favor of abortion and/or euthanasia, but votes for that candidate for other reasons, it is considered remote material cooperation, which can be permitted in the presence of proportionate reasons.”
— “Not all moral issues have the same moral weight as abortion and euthanasia. … There may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about waging war and applying the death penalty, but not, however, with regard to abortion and euthanasia.”
Copyright (c) 2008, The Times-Tribune, Scranton, Pa.

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