Rep. Obey Unlikely Target of Church Discipline: Burke 'Notification' Welcomed by Some, Feared by Others

Article excerpt

On Capitol Hill they are known as the "College of Cardinals"--the 12 subcommittee chairmen by whom every dime of discretionary federal spending must first pass. Congressman David Obey, D-Wis., chairman of the House Appropriations Committee from March 1994 until Republicans took the House in January 1995, was, for that short time, their pope.

Today, the 65-year-old legislator--accused by then-Bishop Raymond Burke of La Crosse, Wis., "manifest grave sin" for his abortion-related voting record--can't even receive holy Communion in his congressional district. If Obey presents himself for the Eucharist, he is to be turned away, according to instructions Burke issued before departing La Crosse to become archbishop of St. Louis.

The veteran liberal lawmaker, hero to neither pro-choice nor pro-life activists, unexpectedly finds himself a test case in the American bishops' struggle to develop a policy for dealing with Catholic lawmakers who reject hierarchical guidance on abortion and other "fundamental life issues," such as euthanasia and embryonic stem cell research.

Obey is one of two Wisconsin Catholic legislators (the other is State Sen. Julie Lassa) who in early December acknowledged receiving letters from Burke concerning their abortion-related voting records. Burke followed up his missives with a publicly released "notification" that called upon all Catholic legislators in the diocese "to uphold the natural and divine law regarding the inviolable dignity of all human life."

Citing church law (see related story), Burke said that Catholic legislators "who are members of the faithful of the diocese ... and who continue to support procured abortion or euthanasia may not present themselves to receive holy Communion."

Further, "they are not to be admitted to holy Communion should they present themselves, until such time as they publicly renounce their support of these most unjust practices." A Catholic legislator who supports abortion-rights and euthanasia, said Burke, "commits a manifestly grave sin, which is a cause of most serious scandal to others."

Burke's decision, said a diocesan spokesperson, remains in effect unless and until his yet-to-be named successor rescinds it.

Some welcomed the action.

"With utmost respect and gratitude, Pro-Life Wisconsin lauds these actions of this wise and caring shepherd," said the group's state director, Peggy Hamill. The group's national affiliate--the American Life League--has launched a campaign urging bishops to deny Communion to pro-choice Catholic lawmakers.

Robert George, professor of politics at Princeton University, applauded Burke and urged other bishops to follow his lead. "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," said George.

Others found the move counterproductive, even partisan.

"All of the people the letters were sent to were Democrats," said Bill Broydrick, a former Wisconsin Democratic Assemblyman. "And on an equally important moral issue, the death penalty, which is normally supported preponderantly by Republicans, there is not a similar admonition."

Broydrick, who had a pro-life voting record as a member of the state legislature, said Burke's move reflects the agenda of the "radical pro-life movement [that] has a partisan tinge to it."

Loyola Marymount University theologian Michael Horan said Burke's actions will likely backfire. "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."

The resulting fallout from Burke's action is not the type of publicity Obey, an insider more accustomed to methodical legislating than headlines, has sought in his 35-year career as a federal lawmaker. …