updated 11/17/2004 10:20:02 PM ET 2004-11-18T03:20:02

Washington Cardinal Theodore McCarrick blamed the media and partisan activists for unjustly attacking U.S. Roman Catholic bishops who spoke out this election year on whether dissenting Catholic politicians should receive Communion. He accused them of spreading internal dissension among church leaders.

In a speech delivered behind closed doors and released Wednesday, McCarrick pleaded for unity among his colleagues.

“The media or partisan forces sometimes tried to pit one bishop against another. I look around the room and see bishops who have been unfairly attacked as partisan, others who have been called cowards,” he said during a private session of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. “That is not who we are. We are united in our defense of life and the dignity of the human person.”

The bishops wound up at the center of a nasty national debate over religion and politics after St. Louis Archbishop Raymond Burke said he would deny the Eucharist to Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry, a Catholic who supports abortion rights.

Anti-abortion advocates pressured more bishops to follow Burke’s lead. Other Catholics lobbied the prelates to highlight a broader range of moral issues in the election, such as war and poverty.

Kerry backers jump into the fray
Kerry supporters joined the fight, accusing Catholic leaders of trying to help re-elect President Bush, a Methodist whose position on abortion is more in line with Catholic teaching. Bush won the Catholic vote.

McCarrick, head of a bishops’ task force on Catholics in public life, became a target of critics himself after saying he opposed using Communion as a sanction. The American Life League, a group of outspoken abortion opponents, took out ads denouncing his stance.

The cardinal said it has been a difficult year. Bishops were accused of being “single issue” if they spoke out on abortion, and if they didn’t, they were derided as indifferent to the “destruction of unborn human life,” he said.

“We do not believe that our commitment to human life and dignity and our pursuit of justice and peace are competing causes,” he said. “While we do not believe that all issues have equal moral claims, we will work to protect those whose lives are destroyed by abortion and those who are dying of hunger. We will strive to protect human life from the moment of conception until the moment God calls us home and we will strive to pursue peace ... This is who we are and what we believe.”

In an interview, McCarrick said that the bishops’ position on Communion has been widely misunderstood.

Only a few of the more than 250 American bishops said that dissenting lawmakers should be denied Communion. A dozen or so other prelates said the politicians should voluntarily abstain from the sacrament, but would not be denied if they sought Communion.

Most bishops took the same position as McCarrick.

‘The center is holding’
“The vast majority of bishops are in the center and the center is holding,” he said. Last June, the bishops issued a statement in Denver saying politicians who supported abortion rights were “cooperating in evil,” but also affirmed church law that individual bishops can determine how to respond to those politicians.

The bishops have been upset that their internal differences on the issue have been played out in public. They prefer to keep their differences private so they can send a clear message on church teaching. Last month, Pope John Paul II said they should build greater unity among themselves.

In other business, bishops voted in open session to join a new alliance that would be the broadest Christian group ever formed in the United States, linking American evangelicals and Catholics in an ecumenical organization for the first time.

The alliance, called Christian Churches Together in the U.S.A., is set to kick off next year. It would also include mainline Protestants, Orthodox Christians, and black and other minority churches, though with about 67 million members the U.S. Catholic Church would be the largest denomination.

Church leaders also authorized a third-round of annual audits of all U.S. dioceses to determine whether they are complying with the bishops’ policies on preventing clergy sex abuse.

The bishops also agreed to launch a multiyear initiative that would aim to strengthen marriage by, among other projects, raising awareness about church teaching on the importance of the sacrament and provide resources for church programs on preventing divorce.

The bishops ended their public sessions Wednesday and planned to conclude their meeting in private Thursday morning.

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