Communion Ban Unleashes Backlash : Abortion: Reaction, both pro and con, has been swift to Bishop Leo T. Maher’s decision to bar Assemblywoman Lucy Killea from Communion because of her pro-choice stand.
San Diego Bishop Leo T. Maher’s denial of Communion to Assemblywoman Lucy Killea for her pro-choice stand drew dollars and support to Killea’s state Senate campaign Friday, as the controversial decision continued to draw nationwide attention from leaders on both sides of the abortion issue.
In New York, Gov. Mario Cuomo, who, like Killea, is a Democrat and a pro-choice Catholic, said that Maher’s action “raises very many fundamental issues” and questioned whether the bishop might impose similar sanctions against Catholics who differ from the church’s position on issues such as the death penalty and contraception.
“I am curious about the bishop of San Diego’s position,” Cuomo told reporters in New York City. “It raises a very interesting question. And I will be watching, as every citizen should, I think, because it goes beyond Catholics and politicians. It’s church, state, religion and government.”
Even as overwhelmingly positive reaction and, more importantly, pledges of financial and volunteer help poured into her office Friday, Killea made tentative plans for a nationwide television appearance Monday on the Phil Donahue show.
The growing consensus in political circles is that Maher’s action significantly boosts Killea’s chances in the special Dec. 5 state Senate race, an uphill campaign in a heavily Republican district in which she has sought from the outset to make abortion a pivotal issue.
“I think the bishop may just have elected Lucy Killea,” said Dick Dresner, whose New York-based firm managed San Diego City Councilwoman Abbe Wolfsheimer’s successful reelection campaign and handles dozens of campaigns nationwide.
Few others went quite that far, noting that Republicans hold a 49%-38% registration edge in the 39th District. Nevertheless, most concur with the assessment of Mary Jean Collins, a spokesman for the Washington-based Catholics for a Free Choice, who said: “If the bishop’s intent was to punish Lucy Killea, he seems to have done just the opposite.”
Cuomo’s comments and Killea’s impending national TV appearance, combined with the scores of interviews given by Killea and Maher to reporters nationwide in the past two days, underlined the magnitude of the debate touched off by the bishop’s action.
Saying that he was motivated by Killea’s pro-choice television ads in her race against Assemblywoman Carol Bentley (R-El Cajon), Maher, calling Killea “an advocate of this most heinous crime,” banned her from receiving Communion unless she recants her position--something that the four-term legislator has emphasized that she does not intend to do.
In New York City on Friday, Cuomo, who was asked for his reaction to Maher’s action at a ceremony honoring Polish labor leader Lech Walesa, responded skeptically.
“With all due respect for this bishop of my church, I wonder if now he will deny Communion to everybody in his diocese who is for the death penalty, because the Catholic Church teaches that the death penalty is the wrongful taking of life,” Cuomo said.
“Or how about Catholics who believe . . . that, while they will not use contraceptives--just as they will not have abortions--you ought to make contraceptives available to the non-Catholics? And they will vote for budgets that do it. Will they be denied? Will every politician be denied Communion because he allows you to buy contraceptives?
“These are questions of conscience every woman or man has to decide for himself and herself. Every bishop has to decide for himself. Unfortunately, I cannot say herself, for there are no female bishops.”
Dan Pitre, a spokesman for Maher, argued that the questions raised by Cuomo have “no relevance” to the bishop’s sanction against Killea.
“The bishop has no intention of opening up these other areas because pastoral problems don’t exist there,” Pitre said. “The pastoral problem he faced existed because Lucy Killea went public with her ads and pro-choice views, and did so in a blatant and adamant and persistent way. That’s why he took action.”
The reaction that Maher has received, from both church officials and lay Catholics, has been 95% favorable, Pitre said.
Maher’s action has aroused intense emotions on both sides of the abortion issue, as well as renewed the familiar debate over the separation of church and state.
In a letter to Maher, a top official of one statewide anti-abortion group praised him for “providing moral leadership in the battle to stop the holocaust against innocent preborn babies and (against) abortion collaborator Lucy Killea.”
“For far too long, those of us who do daily battle have watched the most militant oppressors vote for the slaughter and then put on the cloak of respectability when they label themselves as ‘Catholic,’ ” wrote Jeannette Dreisbach, legislative director of the California Pro-Life Medical Assn.
Leaders of pro-choice organizations, however, said they have been inundated by calls from people outraged by Maher’s action who are eager to help the pro-choice cause generally and Killea’s campaign specifically.
“Our phone has been ringing off the hook for two days,” said Collins, of the Catholics for a Free Choice. “People have it absolutely clear in their mind that this is an attempt by the bishop to hurt this woman’s campaign and to intimidate other Catholics. They see it as something intrusive and improper.”
Similarly, Larry Sheingold, Killea’s consultant in her race for the state Senate seat vacated by Larry Stirling when he accepted a Municipal Court judgeship last month, said Friday that Killea’s campaign has received dozens of calls from people wanting to contribute time or money.
“Exactly how much it’s helped remains to be seen, but there’s no question it’s helped us,” Sheingold said. “The bishop really framed the issue better than we ever could have. It’s really highlighted an issue that we wanted to emphasize and that Carol Bentley wanted to talk about early and quickly and then move on to other subjects. What the bishop has done is prevent Bentley from shifting the agenda.”
But David Lewis, Bentley’s consultant, professed to be unconcerned about the campaign’s sharper focus on the abortion issue, arguing that the freshman assemblywoman could even benefit by having a better opportunity to explain her own position on abortion. In contrast to Killea’s pro-choice position, Bentley opposes abortions except in cases of rape, incest and where the mother’s life is endangered.
“We’re happy to talk about that issue, because Carol’s position is much more in tune with the majority of America than Lucy Killea’s is,” Lewis said.
From Killea’s perspective, though, Maher’s action is a major strategic coup that appears to enhance her chances of both attracting the Republican votes and generating the higher-than-usual Democratic vote essential to her chances in the lopsided GOP district. Abortion, Killea’s backers believe, is precisely the kind of emotional issue that can persuade voters to cross party lines and draw people to the polls in a low-turnout election--particularly in light of the political firestorm ignited by Maher.
Bentley strategist Lewis, however, argues that the episode may have only a minimal impact on the race. If anything, it has simply solidified both candidates’ support among strong partisans on both sides of the abortion issue, he contends.
“The votes we won’t get because of this are ones we wouldn’t have gotten anyway, and it’s the same for Lucy,” Lewis said. “By next week, I think the focus will have shifted away from this, and this all will seem a lot less important than it does now.”