Catholic legislators who voted for legislation to enshrine abortion rights and defy Catholic leaders' request to not partake of the Eucharist commit a sacrilege and live in contradiction, behavior that, under church teachings, can only be remedied by repentance and absolution.
But the Catholic leaders said the church won't monitor whether the 10 Catholic members of the General Assembly who voted for House Bill 1279 — the Reproductive Health Equity Act that affirmed the right to abortion in state law — abide by that request. Instead, the Colorado Catholic Conference, which wrote the open letter, said that burden rests on the legislators – whom they described as having committed a "gravely sinful action" – to follow their conscience.
"Voting for RHEA was participating in a gravely sinful action because it facilitates the killing of innocent unborn babies, and those Catholic politicians who have done so have very likely placed themselves outside of the communion of the Church," Colorado Catholic Bishops said, criticizing legislators, particularly Catholic members, who voted in favor of the bill as it was moving through the General Assembly in March.
The law, signed by Gov. Jared Polis on April 4, affirms a woman's right to abortion or contraception. Democratic lawmakers said they wanted to ensure that, if Roe v. Wade is overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court, a decision expected this month, Colorado maintain abortion rights.
The issue pitted Republicans against Democrats, but it also illustrated the clash of religious teaching and public policy. That conflict is often more pronounced among policymakers who consider themselves Christians but also support abortion rights.
One of the bill's supporters, a legislator that the Colorado bishops had directly named in their advocacy against abortion, described the letter as frustrating.
Sen. Julie Gonzales, a Democrat from Denver, also called the Catholic bishops "out of touch" with their congregations.
"Like most Colorado Catholics, I trust a pregnant Coloradan to make their own decisions about their own body. I’m in line in my advocacy for RHEA, affirming the right of any pregnant Coloradans, whether faithful, atheist or agnostic, and put the trust in them to make their decisions, free from government interference," Gonzales told Colorado Politics. "I would invite them to read the language of the bill that affirms that decision that should be free from government interference."
Gonzales also noted that testimony on the abortion bill included comments from Coloradans who said they were driven by their faith to continue pregnancies, despite a doctor's advice to discontinue those pregnancies to save the life of the mother, and they now have healthy toddlers.
"It is trusting pregnant Coloradans to make that decision for themselves," she said.
"I think that church leadership has strayed too far from its principles around Catholic social teaching," Gonzales said. "This type of politicization of the pulpit is disheartening and out of line with where most Colorado Catholics find themselves."
"Christ did not stop Judas from taking Holy Communion during the Last Supper, but it was on Judas’ conscience and soul to do so," said CCC Director Brittany Vessely. "Similarly, this pastoral letter to Catholic politicians and Faithful places the burden on their conscience."
The June 6 letter was authored by Denver Archbishop Samuel Aquila, Denver Auxiliary Bishop Jorge Rodriguez, Pueblo Bishop Stephen Berg and Colorado Springs Bishop James Golka. In the letter, the bishops said by voting for the abortion law, legislators regarded the "pre-born babies" as "worth less than those who have had the gift of being born, according to this morally bankrupt logic."
That act placed them in "mortal sin," they said.
"Receiving the Eucharist in a state of mortal sin is sacrilegious because it is 'a failure to show the reverence due to the sacred Body and Blood of Christ,'" the bishops, encouraging the Catholic lawmakers who voted for HB 1279 to voluntarily refrain from taking communion.
The "yes" vote is considered a direct defiance of Church teachings, according to Vessely.
“It is not ‘ordinary bread and ordinary drink’ that we receive in the Eucharist, but the flesh and blood of Christ, who came to nourish and transform us, to restore our relationship to God and to one another,” the bishops said.
As noted by the Colorado bishops' letter, voting "yes" on the abortion law puts lawmakers outside a state of grace.
To be absolved in the eyes of the church, the 10 Catholic legislators would have to publicly repent, discern their actions through prayer, and seek absolution through the confession, Vessely added.
Vessely told the Gazette the issue came up in November 2021 at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, when the group of religious leaders wrote "The Mystery of Eucharist in the Life of the Church," a document which explains the importance of the sacrament. Colorado's four bishops decided to write their own open letter after their request to meet privately with Catholic lawmakers was ignored.
Vessely compared the power of politicians to that of celebrities – in that they have the power to sway public opinion by their actions.
“As politicians, they have public influence both in their speech and in their vote. Their sin is a public one and that’s why the bishops asked for public repentance,” Vessely said.
Indeed, in crafting the letter, the bishops drew upon the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops' 2021 document outlining Catholic teaching on the Eucharist and why it's important for Catholics to partake of the sacrament – or not to do when under a state of mortal sin.
The document says the bread and wine "become the body and blood, soul and divinity of Christ," and that the "real, true, and substantial presence of Christ in the Eucharist is the most profound reality of the sacrament." Catholics believe the Eucharist is the "representation of the sacrifice of Christ by which we are reconciled to the Father," according to the document.
Vessely wouldn’t identify the 10 Catholic lawmakers who received the letter. She insists the letter was written in a pastoral vein and not a political one.
"We don’t fit into any partisan box. We worked with Democrats on the death penalty in 2020. We've also consulted with them on immigration and we have worked with Republicans on life issues," Vessely added.
In a 2014 Pew Religious Landscape Study, 65% of Colorado Republicans said they believed that abortion should be illegal in all or most cases compared with only 20% of Democrats who felt the same way. In the same poll, 27% of Republicans believed abortion should be legal in all or most cases, while 56% of Democrats agreed with that sentiment. The remaining respondents either leaned one way or another but did not feel strongly about the abortion issue.
Efforts by the Catholic Church against the abortion bill appeared to rely in part on 2019 nationwide polling that showed Hispanics are slightly more opposed to – than in support of – abortion. One alert from the Colorado Catholic Conference prior to the bill's March 17 Senate hearing specifically mentioned two Democratic senators the bishops said are Catholic: Gonzales and Robert Rodriguez, both of Denver.
It's not a new tactic. In 2004, then-Archbishop Charles Chaput weighed in on the abortion issue, stating that Catholic politicians who ignore church teachings, especially when it comes to abortion, are not real Catholics and should refrain from taking communion. Chaput made the comments during the election season, when two Catholics fought for the U.S. Senate: then-Attorney General Democrat Ken Salazar and Republican Pete Coors. Salazar was pro-abortion, Coors was anti-abortion.
Gonzales, who was singled out by the bishops, said she was raised "culturally Catholic." That is, her family members are Catholic, but they gave her the ability to make her own decision when she went through catechism classes. She decided not to be baptized, an important distinction, and said she chose not to become Catholic because there were too many questions around why women couldn’t be ordained or surrounding women's subservience.
Those were "questions that the Catholic faith could not resolve for me," she said.
But being "culturally Catholic" is vague, according to Vessely.
"We didn't look up the legislators' baptism records," Vessely said. "I don't know what 'culturally Catholic means. If she's calling herself Catholic, that's why the bishops reached out to her."
Gonzales told Colorado Politics the June 6 letter frustrated her, arguing the church is not consistent in its advocacy. She pointed out she had been a co-prime sponsor of the 2020 bill to abolish the death penalty and said the church did not send out letters to Catholic lawmakers who opposed the repeal. At least one Catholic Republican, Sen. Jim Smallwood of Parker, voted against the repeal.
"Catholic social teachings speak about advocacy for the poor or the stranger among us," Gonzales said.
But the church, she argued, had not sent out letters to lawmakers who support anti-immigrant or policies against the poor.
The Catholic church has argued for a more humane approach to America's immigration issues, arguing Catholics a "moral obligation to treat the stranger as we would treat Christ himself."
Mykala Aguilar, deputy director of the Colorado Organization for Latina Opportunity and Reproductive Rights (COLOR), said her group conducted a survey last year that showed of those polled, 66% believed in expanding access to abortion, and the view cut across party lines.
"That’s what we’re seeing in our communities," she told Colorado Politics. "So many support access to abortion because of their faith, not despite it."
Aguilar also noted that the winning "no" vote margin on Proposition 115 in 2020, which sought to ban abortions after 22 weeks, resulted from the Latino community's opposition.
"It's incredibly sad to see the Catholic church to being so divisive and targeting Latino legislators," Aguilar said. "We would like to see the Catholic church take on other issues important to Latinos."
Those issue, Aguilar said, include climate change and the pandemic, which disproportionately affected people of color.