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On May 1, 2004, Bishop Michael J. Sheridan of the Diocese of Colorado Springs issued a pastoral letter to the Catholic faithful in his diocese "On the Duties of Catholic Politicians and Voters."

In it the bishop noted the importance of the upcoming November 2004 election and addressed the often-distorted or misunderstood teaching of the Church on the formation of conscience. He then stated:

"There must be no confusion in these matters. Any Catholic politicians who advocate for abortion, for illicit stem cell research or for any form of euthanasia ipso facto place themselves outside full communion with the Church and so jeopardize their salvation. Any Catholics who vote for candidates who stand for abortion, illicit stem cell research or euthanasia suffer the same fateful consequences. It is for this reason that these Catholics, whether candidates for office or those who would vote for them, may not receive Holy Communion until they have recanted their positions and been reconciled with God and the Church in the Sacrament of Penance."
Concluding his letter, Bishop Sheridan wrote:
"Let us all pray for those politicians who claim to be Catholic yet continue to oppose the law of God and the rights of persons that, by the grace of God, they will be converted once again to the full and authentic articulation and practice of the faith.

"Finally, I wish to affirm my brother bishops who have proclaimed the truth of these critical matters and who have admonished those Catholic politicians who place themselves at odds with the truth of God. May that truth which is the foundation of genuine freedom prevail in our country."

In this exclusive interview with IgnatiusInsight.com, Bishop Sheridan discusses his May 1 letter, the reaction to it, and what Catholics should always keep in mind when voting.

IgnatiusInsight.com: You issued a pastoral letter in which you stated that Catholic politicians who support abortion rights should not receive Holy Communion. You were fiercely criticized in the media for your stance, with some commentators suggesting that you were acting contrary to Catholic teaching. Then Cardinal Ratzinger issued a memo regarding some general principles on worthiness to the receive Holy Communion, which essentially supported your position. Do you feel vindicated by Cardinal Ratzinger's memo in the pastoral stance you took?

Bishop Sheridan: I do. However, this is the opposite of what some in the media are saying. Clarifications will continue to come and will need to be made, but basically we’re on track.

IgnatiusInsight.com: In your letter, you stated that Catholics who vote for pro-abortion rights politicians should also refrain from receiving Holy Communion. Some people interpreted your letter to mean that you were excommunicating Catholics who under any circumstance voted for a candidate who supported abortion rights. Is that a correct interpretation of your position?

Bishop Sheridan: Well, no. Excommunication is a specific canonical penalty. The Church has always taught that anyone who is in mortal sin should refrain from communion. To refer to what I stated as "excommunication" is misleading and incorrect.

IgnatiusInsight.com: In a recent column, you wrote that an incorrect notion of conscience was behind some of the opposition to your comments about pro-abortion rights Catholics refraining from receiving Holy Communion. What is that incorrect notion of conscience? Why is it incorrect?

Bishop Sheridan: To put it succinctly, what I wanted to do, based on pastoral experience and years of listening to people, was to talk to them about what some people seem to think "conscience" is and to address this matter. So very often they say that conscience involves paying attention to Church teaching, but as one part of a great mix of personal ideas, feelings, and emotions. Frankly, in the end, some people believe it is possible to make an authentic moral decision that is contrary to what the Church teaches and still say they have followed their conscience.

So Church teaching, though in the mix, tends to be overwhelmed and lost. But there is no teaching on the conscience that says you can choose against Church teaching but still be true to conscience. In some cases, for some people, I don’t know if Church teaching is even brought into the picture. People will say they that thought about Church teaching, but it ultimately takes a back seat to other criteria.

IgnatiusInsight.com: Some people have criticized you and some other bishops as being concerned with a single issue--abortion. How would you respond to that charge?

Bishop Sheridan:
In fact, if you wanted to group together non-negotiable issues, there’s more than abortion; it’s really four or five issues. But the point of the main question is: what about everything else? Other issues are not unimportant, but I believe that some issues do trump others. I also think that for a number of people, they would buy that belief as long as the issue was the right issue for them. But these issues—including abortion—aren’t the right issues for these people. But bring up the "right" issue and they would say that a person’s rejection of that issue would disqualify them as a worth candidate.

The example I give is that of a theoretical candidate who has all of the answers to the world’s problems, but supports the restoration of slavery. Of course people would say, "I wouldn’t stand for that." Then people would become one-issue voters. So while there is more than one issue, some take precedence over others.

IgnatiusInsight.com: With respect to how a Catholic's views on certain political issues can affect whether that Catholic should receive Holy Communion, is Church teaching on abortion, euthanasia, and same-sex marriage different from Church teaching on such things as capital punishment and whether to go to war in a particular instance?

Bishop Sheridan: I’m not aware of Church teaching that capital punishment is evil in and of itself. The Pope has called for an end to it, and I’m with him on that. But he hasn’t stated that capital punishment is intrinsically evil. And there is also the just war doctrine in the Catholic tradition. But there is a difference between things that are always evil and thing that could be, but may not be.

IgnatiusInsight.com: What are some basic principles that Catholics as voters should keep in mind in assessing candidates for office?

Bishop Sheridan: Again, we have to be clear about non-negotiables. Those are abortion, euthanasia, embryonic stem cell research, and same sex marriage. I mention at least those four because they’ve reached a certain level of political discussion and legislation. We have to know the difference between those and other issues that may not have a "Catholic" answer. I think that so often, too when we discuss these principles, we think that they are an imposition of Catholic teaching on the public. But we’re talking about basic issues of human rights, of natural law, and these are not sectarian religious doctrines we are trying to call others to.

What is the first issue of justice? The right to life. Someone may go to the wall in working to abolish capital punishment, but why set it against the killing of innocent human beings? We need to be consistent in these matters.

IgnatiusInsight.com: How would you respond to the objection that the Church should stay out of politics?

Bishop Sheridan: This statement: "The Church should stay out of politics" is often times a way of saying that people of faith should just keep their mouths shut, because they have nothing to say about the promotion of the common good. Or they will hold up the separation of Church and state as a way of saying that religious institutions have nothing to add to the political discourse and process. It’s simply a way of telling us to shut up.

IgnatiusInsight.com: What has been the response, in general, from other bishops to your statements and actions in this matter?

Bishop Sheridan: I’ve received no negative responses. A number of bishops have causally, in informal conversation, expressed a supportive stance. But I think to that the whole thing is such a hot item we are waiting to see how this shakes out. And now Cardinal Raztinger is part of the discussion, so many bishops are waiting to see how it resolves itself. But no negative things have been said at all.

Other documents from Bishop Sheridan:

Bishop Sheridan's column in the June issue of the Catholic Herald, responding to questions about his Pastoral Letter, can be read here.

More responses to questions can be found in the bishop's column in the July issue of the Catholic Herald.

Recommended resources from Ignatius Press about the culture of death, abortion, the Church's moral teachings, and natural law:

Architects of the Culture of Death

Authors: Donald DeMarco and Benjamin Wiker
Length: 410 pages
Edition: Paperback
Your Price: $16.95

The “Culture of Death” has become a popular phrase, and is much bandied about in academic circles. Yet, for most people, its meaning remains vague and remote. DeMarco and Wiker have given the Culture of Death high definition and frightening immediacy. They have exposed its roots by introducing its “architects.” In a scholarly, yet reader-friendly delineation of the mindsets of twenty-three influential thinkers, such as Ayn Rand, Charles Darwin, Karl Marx, Jean-Paul Sartre, Alfred Kinsey, Margaret Sanger, Jack Kevorkian, and Peter Singer, they make clear the aberrant thought and malevolent intentions that have shaped the Culture of Death.

Still, this is not a book without hope. If the Culture of Death rests on a fragmented view of the person and an eclipse of God, hope for the “Culture of Life” rests on an understanding and restoration of the human being as a person, and the rediscovery of a benevolent God. The “Personalism” of John Paul II is an illuminating thread that runs through Architects, serving as a hopeful antidote.

Read an interview with Dr. DeMarco and Dr. Wiker here.

Three Approaches to Abortion:
A Thoughtful and Compassionate Guide to Today's Most Controversial Issue

Author: Peter Kreeft
Length: 101 pages
Edition: Paperback
Your Price: $9.95

The popular author and professor, Peter Kreeft, tackles the most controversial issue of our times in his always unique and compassionate style. He presents approaches to the abortion issue from a logical, psychological and dialogical explanation of the pro-life position. Kreeft hopes that clear reason, rather than force, will help convince people of the truth of abortion and the need to protect innocent human life. He presents the objective logical arguments against abortion, the subjective, personal motives of the pro-life movement, and how these two factors influence the dialog between the two sides of the abortion issue.

Read the introduction to Three Approaches to Abortion here.

Peter Kreeft, a Professor of Philosophy at Boston College, is one of the most widely read Christian authors of our time. His more than 25 best-selling books include Back to Virtue, Love is Stronger than Death, Catholic Christianity, Prayer for Beginners and A Summa of the Summa.

Fifty Questions on the Natural Law:
What It Is and Why We Need It

Author: Charles Rice
Length: 335 pages
Edition: Paperback
Your Price: $17.95

Charles Rice, professor of the jurisprudence of St. Thomas Aquinas for the last twenty years at Notre Dame Law School, presents a very readable book on the natural law as seen through the teachings of Aquinas and their foundations in reason and Revelation. Reflecting on the most persistent questions asked by his students over the years, Rice shows how the natural law works and how it is rooted in the nature of the human person whose Creator provided this law as a sure and knowable guide for man to achieve his end of eternal happiness.

This book presents the teachings of the Catholic Church in her role as arbiter of the applications of the natural law on issues involving the right to live, bioethics, the family and the economy. Charles Rice has produced a firmly grounded and accessible handbook which touches on the most important topics regarding natural law that will benefit readers of all backgrounds.


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