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As U.S. Catholic bishops pursue a plan that could deny President Joe Biden communion over his support for abortion rights, other Catholic politicians are likely to be drawn into the issue, including Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly.
Despite warnings from the Vatican, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops voted last week to draft guidelines for receiving communion, a move driven in large part by the election of the nation’s second Catholic president.
Biden’s stance on abortion has rankled conservative bishops, who object to media descriptions of Biden as a devout Catholic.
Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann of the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas, which covers 21 counties in eastern Kansas, including Shawnee County where Kelly resides, has been particularly vocal in criticizing Biden.
“One of the issues is the extent to which he supports legalized abortion, even to the point of wanting all Americans to fund abortion. But the bigger issue, for us, is the one you alluded to, which is that he does these things, and then in reply to questions about them, he or his press secretary says, ‘Biden’s a devout Catholic,’” Naumann told The Atlantic earlier this year.
“Whether he intends it or not, he’s basically saying to people, ‘You can be a good Catholic and do similar things.’”
Naumann did not respond to inquiries Monday or Tuesday. He has played a major role in the effort to draft new communion guidelines in his capacity as chairman of the conference’s Committee on Pro Life Activities.
Kelly, like Biden, is proud of her Irish Catholic background.
In a 2019 interview with 1A, which airs on public radio stations around the country, she playfully corrected the host when he described her as Kansas’ third female governor. Kelly instead said she was the state’s third female Irish Catholic governor, a nod to former Govs. Kathleen Sebelius and Joan Finney.
But Kelly, a Topeka Democrat, is also an ardent supporter of abortion rights and has a long record of opposing legislation intended to restrict access to the procedure both as governor and during her 14-year tenure in the Kansas Senate.
Ahead of last week’s vote, Vatican officials warned bishops that the move could become a source of discord rather than unity within the U.S. church. The decision by the bishops to move ahead with the plan highlights the long-standing tension between Pope Francis and conservative bishops in the U.S.
The pope said this month that communion “is not the reward of saints, but the bread of sinners.” Kelly referenced this comment Tuesday when asked about the potential denial of communion to her and other Catholic politicians in the state.
“I heard what the pope had to say and I appreciate his position,” the governor said.
Kansas state Rep. Stephanie Clayton, an Overland Park Democrat and practicing Catholic, questioned the impulse to deny politicians communion based on abortion but not on where they stand on other matters, including the death penalty, which the church also opposes.
“If the bishop doesn’t like ‘Cafeteria Catholics,’ then he can’t be a cafeteria bishop,” Clayton said, borrowing a colloquial term for Catholics who pick and choose which portions of doctrine they follow.
“I know that Naumann is trying to primary the pope, but that’s not how it works. I have concerns with the bishops breaking from ‘Holy Mother Church’ in this regard. Not how I was raised,” she said, comparing the bishop’s efforts to a political campaign against an incumbent from the same party.
Three of the four bishops in Kansas supported moving forward with Eucharist guidelines.
Bishop John Balthasar Brungardt of the Dodge City diocese is on administrative leave and did not participate in the vote, said Chuck Weber, the executive director of the Kansas Catholic Conference, an organization which represents the state’s bishops.
Weber, a former Republican state representative from Wichita, said the discussions over communion predate the current presidential administration. He called it a pastoral, rather than political, issue.
“The U.S. Bishops and the Kansas Catholic Bishops are fully on board with what they consider a revival of the love of the Eucharist for all. Why? Because the Eucharist is the Source and Summit of Catholic faith — a personal encounter with Christ that should be fully understood and appreciated for both the current and eternal good of the person,” Weber said in a statement.
“There is a level of concern involving Catholic elected officials who, by the nature of their status as public figures and the subsequent possibility of creating public scandal, bear a special responsibility on this question,” Weber said. “People watch them and their behavior.”
Scandal is defined in The Catechism of the Catholic Church as “an attitude or behavior which leads another to do evil.”
The Missouri Catholic Conference declined to say how the state’s bishops voted.
Bishops will draft guidelines and vote on them in the near future, but it will require two-thirds support and Vatican approval to go into effect. The vote may prove to be only symbolic in the end if the Vatican blocks it.
Bishop James Vann Johnston Jr. of the diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph referred The Star to a statement he issued last month, which said bishops have a duty to address the issue of worthy reception of communion and specifically highlighted support for abortion as in conflict with the sacrament.
“Advocating for or enacting laws which promote such killing as a right, which subsidize such killing, or which seek to expand access to such killing are gravely evil acts, contrary to the Catholic faith. The Catholic Church teaches that any person engaged in such acts is called to repentance and reconciliation prior to presenting oneself for Holy Communion,” Vann Johnston said.
“Catholics in public life who advocate for abortion in these ways and then present themselves as devout Catholics according to their own self-understanding create a source of great confusion among American Catholics.”
Communion as a political tool
In addition to Biden, a slew of prominent Democratic politicians who support abortion rights identify as Catholic and have publicly spoken about their faith, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
But any push to deny these national figures communion is also likely to ensnare local and state-level politicians.
A similar effort in 2004 to deny communion to John Kerry, the Democratic nominee for president, prompted Missouri state Rep. Pete Merideth, a St. Louis Democrat, to stop.
“I haven’t gone to communion since 2004,” Merideth said. “When I saw that they started to use it as a political tool and exclude people from it—I can’t conceive of Jesus ever turning anyone away from the table. If Catholics really believe that this table is sharing the essence of Jesus, then… I can’t imagine Jesus denying himself to anyone based on your viewpoints, your political viewpoints.”
Merideth said he has come close to leaving the church over political disagreements with church leaders, but that he always ends up “staying because my church is my community and my extended family.”
He emphasized that he’s never been denied the sacrament and made his own choice to forgo it, but other Catholic Democrats in Missouri and Kansas are contemplating for the first time the possibility that they could be turned away when they walk up the aisle of the church to receive the Body of Christ.
“I very much identify with being a Catholic. My faith is very important to me. It’s part of who I am and no one’s going to tell me I can’t participate in mass,” said Kansas state Rep. Kathy Wolfe Moore, a Kansas City, Kansas Democrat who has served as a Eucharistic minister in her parish.
Wolfe Moore, who has served in the Legislature since 2011, said she neither classifies herself “pro-choice” or “pro-life,” and instead votes on each piece of abortion legislation on its individual merits. She called them the most difficult votes she takes.
She said the church should be welcoming people instead of pushing them away and lamented the bishops’ treatment of Biden, the second Catholic to serve as president.
“The Catholic Church should feel so fortunate and so honored to have such a strong, devout Catholic as the president of the United States and instead of that we’re looking for ways to slap him around,” Wolfe Moore said.
John F. Kennedy broke the barrier as first Catholic president after famously reassuring a gathering of Protestant ministers in 1960 that he was the Democratic nominee, “who happens also to be a Catholic,” rather than the Catholic candidate for president.
Clayton said her duties as a public official are separate from her duties as a practicing Catholic. “I also believe in separation of church and state. My faith is private. And I recognize that not everyone I represent is a Catholic,” she said.
Clayton said she goes to confession before receiving communion to be in a state of grace when she receives the sacrament, in accordance with church teaching. She said she mentions her voting record on abortion to the priest each time.
“As a descendant of Irish Catholic immigrants, you don’t get to tell me who I am. That is between me and God, and between me and the priest in the confessional,” Clayton said.
The Star’s Katie Bernard contributed to this report.