NEW YORK -- The head of a US bishops' task force studying Roman Catholics in public life told fellow bishops that withholding Holy Communion from politicians or others could hurt the church in its efforts to stop abortion and euthanasia, according to documents released yesterday.
But Washington Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the task force leader, and a top Vatican cardinal who advised him, also indicated that the sacrament could be withheld under some circumstances.
McCarrick made the comments during the bishops' closed-door spiritual retreat last week in suburban Denver. The US Conference of Catholic Bishops disclosed details of the task force presentation yesterday.
''Disciplinary actions are permitted," McCarrick said. ''But they should be applied when efforts at dialogue, persuasion, and conversion have been fully exhausted."
McCarrick said keeping the sacrament from defiant Catholic lawmakers could turn Communion into a ''partisan political battleground," create a backlash in support of abortion rights and raise concerns about the loyalties of Catholic politicians.
''It could be more difficult for faithful Catholics to serve in public life because they might be seen not as standing up for principle, but as under pressure from the hierarchy," McCarrick said. ''We could turn weak leaders who bend to the political winds into people who are perceived as courageous resistors of episcopal authority."
He recommended instead that bishops do more to educate Catholics that opposition to abortion and euthanasia is based on the earliest church teachings and is unequivocal.
Church leaders at the Colorado meeting voted 183 to 6 to adopt a statement warning lawmakers at odds with church teaching that they were ''cooperating in evil," but made no definitive statement on whether they should be denied Communion. Under church law, each bishop decides how to apply Catholic teachings in his own diocese.
McCarrick's task force is developing guidelines on this and other issues as it adapts for the American church a 2002 Vatican doctrinal document called ''Participation of Catholics in Political Life."
Their work drew national attention after Archbishop Raymond Burke of St. Louis said he would deny Communion to the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, Senator John F. Kerry, a Catholic who supports abortion rights.
McCarrick also outlined the guidance provided to the US bishops by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican's orthodoxy watchdog. It was Ratzinger's office that issued Rome's document on Catholics in public life. Ratzinger said bishops should meet with, teach, and warn Catholic lawmakers before deciding whether to deny Communion.
Ratzinger also said that voters would be guilty of ''cooperating in evil" if they backed a candidate specifically because he or she supports abortion rights or euthanasia. But he left open the possibility that a voter could legitimately decide to support a proabortion rights candidate, based on that person's overall platform.