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Abortion-rights supporters Kerry, Pelosi take communion at papal Mass

By Carol Eisenberg

April 17, 2008 at 5:18pm

They described it an act of faith, rather than of defiance.

Several Catholic lawmakers who support abortion rights, including Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi received communion today at the Mass celebrated by Pope Benedict XVI, in apparent disregard for the pope’s views on the issue.

Four years ago, when questions arose over whether then-presidential candidate Kerry should receive the sacrament, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger wrote that it could be withheld in certain circumstances, such as “obstinate persistence in manifest grave sin.” One example of such sin, he said, “was consistently campaigning and voting for permissive abortion and euthanasia laws.”

Ratzinger’s letter did not mention Kerry by name, and in any case, he recommended a pastoral, rather than prosecutorial approach — talking to the individual before turning them away from the Communion rail.

But the pope’s visit has already reignited the issue at a time when Democrats are attempting to woo moderate Catholics. A staunch anti-abortion group, American Life League, took out full-page ads this week in the Washington Times and Politico, calling on the pontiff to protect the church from “the bloodstained hands” of Catholic politicians who support abortion rights - complete with photos of 20 lawmakers.

American Life League President Judie Brown said the ad’s objective was to prevent politicians from trying to “exploit” the pope’s visit. “There’s no other word for it than defiance of church law,” she said. Brown’s organization asked Catholics attending the Mass to report back if they saw any abortion-rights supporters receiving Communion.

Both Kerry and Pelosi expressed admiration for the pope in statements this week, attempting to steer clear of the abortion debate.

“In a nation and a world facing such extraordinary and daunting challenges, the pope’s visit promises hope, inspiration and great wisdom,” Kerry said.

Yesterday, when Pelosi greeted the Pope at the White House, she bent to kiss his ring. “In these challenging times, there are many opportunities for the world community to work for justice and come together on issues such as human rights and climate change,” she said in a statement.

The Vatican had invited all Catholic lawmakers to the Mass at Washington’s Nationals Park, and many went to the service, although their offices deflected questions. Rep. Jose Serrano was one of the few to confirm he had received communion.

Sister Mary Ann Walsh, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops, told Politico that the church had no plans to police communion.

“You presume that everyone there knows the rules of the church and follows them,” she said. “No one is policing that. People go to church and people go to Communion if they feel in their heart they are prepared to receive Communion.”

Pelosi had been among 48 Catholic lawmakers — some in favor and some opposed to abortion rights — who signed a letter in 2004 complaining about statements by “some members of the Catholic hierarchy” that focused on the issue of abortion to the exclusion of others.

“If Catholic legislators are scorned and held out for ridicule by Church leaders on the basis of a single issue, the Church will lose strong advocates on a wide range of issues that relate to the core of important Catholic social teaching,” they wrote. “Moreover, criticism of us on a matter that is essentially one of personal morality will deter other Catholics from entering politics, and in the long run the Church will suffer.”

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