(CNSNews.com) - While calling on Catholic politicians to "live in accordance with their faith," the new spiritual leader of Arizona's largest diocese this week stopped short of calling for the outright denial of Holy Communion to those leaders who support abortion rights.
Phoenix Bishop Thomas Olmsted said, "The protection of human life, from conception to natural death, is a very important responsibility we all have. That includes any Catholics, whatever their profession would be."
Holy Communion, in which participants receive a thin wafer that is blessed and treated as the body of Jesus Christ, is the most important element of the Mass celebrated by the millions of Roman Catholics all over the world.
Olmstead made direct reference to the flap over whether high-profile pro-abortion Catholics, such as presumed Democratic presidential nominee and Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry should receive Communion.
"These teachings are fundamental to our faith. If someone has the ability to influence things in that (abortion) area and consistently does not do so, they are not acting in accordance with their Catholic faith and thus should not receive Communion."
But Olmsted added that he would not deny Kerry or other like-minded Catholics the Eucharist should they approach for Communion.
"I would like to be in communication with them ahead of time to explain why they should not receive Communion. I would hope they would see that there should be a consistency between what one believes and what one does. I hope I would help them see that there's an integrity issue here and that they would live according to what they profess."
In fact, Diocese spokeswoman Mary Jo West said that Bishop Olmsted puts the responsibility for deciding if one should receive Communion squarely in the lap of the worshipper.
"It is incumbent on a pro-choice Catholic to abstain from Communion rather than for the Church to refuse it to them," she said.
Other so-called "conservative" bishops have made it clear that they do not want to see Kerry in their dioceses to receive the Eucharist. St. Louis Archbishop Raymond Burke and Colorado Springs Bishop Michael Sheridan have gone a step further, indicating that they would refuse Communion to anyone voting for a Catholic politician who supports abortion rights.
Olmstead denied the criticism that he is too conservative for his diocese.
"What I've been teaching is what has been taught for two thousand years and it will be taught two thousand years from now. I think there has to be a consistency between our faith-life and our responsibilities in the public forum. There is no one more vulnerable than an unborn child, so I'd hope that those who have a love for the Eucharist would be assisted by that love to see Christ's presence there."
In May, U.S. House Democrats, including Rep. Ed Pastor from Phoenix and Rep. Raul Grijalva of Tucson, sent a letter to Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, in Washington D.C., warning that using Communion as a tool to persuade Catholic voters about the Church's teachings on reproductive rights would backfire.
Bur Olmstead is not backing down. "I think that we have to expect that all of our people, if they say they are Catholics, would live according to their faith. The state and those in public positions have a responsibility to protect human life and so there is a political dimension to that. But it's my responsibility to stand up and say these are human beings being killed and to protest this terrible evil," the bishop said.
Shane Wikfors, executive director of Arizona Right to Life, agreed. "It's not politicizing the issue at all, but because it's a (presidential) candidate, it looks like politics. They (Catholic bishops) are just supporting their own doctrinal position."
Wikfors maintains that the differences between Kerry and President George W. Bush over the abortion issue have forced many in the Catholic Church to take a stand. "This (issue) demonstrates the extremes of the candidates. The Church feels compelled to assert itself. The country is divided ideologically and the Church is just one side of the equation," he said.
Both The Arizona Democratic Party and Planned Parenthood in Arizona declined comment for this article.
Send a Letter to the Editor about this article.