Breaking Communion

The line between church and state got a little blurrier this winter when then-Bishop of Lacrosse Raymond Burke issued a statement that barred Catholic politicians from the Eucharist if they were voting in support of abortion and euthanasia. Burke, who has recently been installed as the Archbishop of St. Louis, published the notification along with a pastoral letter called "On the Dignity of Life and Civic Responsibility" on Jan. 9.

"A Catholic legislator who supports procured abortion or euthanasia, after knowing the teaching of the Church, commits a manifestly grave sin which is a cause of most serious scandal to others," the notification read.

Burke could not be reached for comment in St. Louis.

Art Hippler, director of the office of Justice and Peace for the diocese of Lacrosse, assisted Burke while he wrote the notification and pastoral letter.

"Bishop Burke was always strongly concerned with protecting the dignity of life," Hippler said. "Then a little over a year ago the Vatican published a document that addressed the questions of Catholic involvement in political life."

Inspired by the papal document, Burke was thinking about taking action when another bishop did something similar last January.

"Burke was incredibly inspired by Bishop Weigand's (Sacremento, Calif.) stance against Governor Gray Davis's vociferous support for abortion," Hippler said.

Weigand publicly asked Davis to not take communion while he was still supporting abortion during the homily of a mass. However, while Weigand just asked that Davis consider whether or not to come up for communion, Burke's notification said that those legislators who voted in violation with teaching and still came up for the Eucharist would be denied.

"I did not intimate that we would refuse Communion to someone who approaches," Weigand said in a letter to The Catholic Herald. "After instructing people, we respect them and strive to treat them as adults. We prefer to trust in their sincerity and goodwill."

Burke's notification takes a harsher stance.

"Catholic legislators who are members of the faithful of the Diocese of Lacrosse and who continue to support procured abortion or euthanasia may not present themselves to receive Holy Communion," read the notification. "They are not to be admitted to Holy Communion should they present themselves, until such time as they publically renounce their support of these most unjust practices."

Concern has come that Burke's actions are overly harsh and will drive these Catholic politicians away from the Church.

"I think this is actually a very compassionate action," Hippler said. "It shows that the Bishop is truly concerned for the spiritual well being of these legislators. It would be irresponsible for him, as their shepherd, to allow them to act in a way that is harmful to them.

"In the past legislators have recanted and come back to the Church."

Hippler also said Burke corresponded with several legislators for some time before publishing the document.

"You only come to the step of denying them the Eucharist if the person is extremely obstinate," Hippler said. "Dialouge always happens first."

Milwaukee Archbishop Timothy Dolan vocally supported Burke's actions in an interview with the Milwaukee Journal Sentienal that was published on Jan. 24.

"No matter where you stand on the particular style of what he's done, I think all of us — certainly as bishops, Catholic leaders, people committed to the pro-life cause — are glad that this issue has been front burnered," Dolan said.

Dolan said he would continue to deal with the issue the same way he had before — via strong preaching and homilies. Kathleen Hohl, spokeswoman for Dolan, said the Archbishop was waiting to hear from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops as to whether or not there will be national action taken.

Bill Ryan, deputy director of communications for the UCCB, said that a committee was formed in November in response to the Papal document and it is reviewing the issues of the responsibility of Catholic politicians

"No real report has come out yet," Ryan said. "I do not imagine one will come out for several months."

Ryan said they would eventually give a report and that the committee was composed of six or eight bishops.

Hippler said that overall the response to Burke's actions seem to be very positive.

"Some people just seemed very relieved that the bishop was taking a response," Hippler said. "No one seems to be arguing with his reasoning. Many are just worried about the consequences."

Responses to the issue by legislators have been volatile. Julie Lassa, one of the legislators that Burke was corresponding with released a statement in regards to the notifications.

"When I was sworn into office, I took an oath to uphold the Constitution," Lassa's statement read. "My constituents have the right to expect that I will represent people of all faiths."

In addition, the issue has brought mixed feelings in the Lacrosse diocese. Several priests and parishioners refused to comment on the issue. One priest in the area would only comment if his name was not published.

"Let's just put it this way — there are a lot of people who are glad Burke got the hell out of here," the priest said. "Now he can go ruin another diocese while we try to rebuild."

When asked why Burke chose to only focus on abortion and euthanasia, Hippler said Burke would have addressed capital punishment as well, but did not since Wisconsin does not have the death penalty.

Questions were also raised about the timing of the documents, as they were published just a few weeks before he left for St. Louis. However, Hippler said that the documents were being drafted long before Burke found out about his move to St. Louis.

"The document was out literally days before Bishop Burke was informed of the decision," Hippler said. "It may seem like he threw a grenade and left, but his preference would have been to stay and see how things are effected."