Is the Catholic Church risking its tax-exempt status?

That is the substance of a question raised by a reader a week or so ago and that’s been percolating in my mind since. An article in today’s Denver Post (via Atrios) provides a good opportunity to address it. Headlined Bishop draws line for voters, it says:

The bishop of Colorado’s second-largest Roman Catholic diocese has issued a pastoral letter saying Catholics cannot receive Communion if they vote for politicians who support abortion rights, stem-cell research, euthanasia or gay marriage.

Only after citizens reverse their positions and repent for their sins in the confessional would access to the central ritual of the church be restored, Colorado Springs Bishop Michael Sheridan instructed 125,000 Catholics in his charge.

Why is this relevant to South Dakota? There’s good reason. In a homily at a “Respect Life” mass last October, Bishop Robert Carlson of the Sioux Falls Diocese said:

We live today in a sick society. Each one of us must recommit ourselves to being unconditionally pro-life. You cannot be a Catholic in good faith and vote for a pro-abortion candidate for public office when you have a choice. Regardless of your political party, you cannot be a Catholic legislator at the state level or congressman or senator at the national level and vote for abortion. Those that do, like Senators Kennedy, Daschle and Kerry are wrong and are a scandal for the Church.

(Emphasis added.) To ensure its widespread distrubiton, the homily was printed in the November 2003 Bishop’s Bulletin, “a monthly newspaper for the 125,000 Catholics of East River, South Dakota.”

You can’t find the article itself on the Diocese’s web site but the South Dakota GOP is more than happy to carry it on its web site. Moreover, another portion of the Diocese’s web site discussing “Political Responsibility” repeats the homily’s admonition that “no Catholic in good conscience can vote for a candidate that is pro-abortion or for euthanasia.” It then adds: “To do so would be a contradiction of the most basic Catholic principles of faith. In addition, supporting a pro-abortion candidate sets people at odds against the most fundamental of all rights, the right to life.” (See below regarding apparent omissions from this statement.)

What does this have to do with tax-exemption? It’s simple. According to an IRS advisory issued April 28

Organizations described in section 501(c)(3) of the Code that are exempt from federal income tax are prohibited from participating or intervening in any political campaign on behalf of, or in opposition to, any candidate for public office. Charities, educational institutions and religious organizations, including churches, are among those that are tax-exempt under this code section.

These organizations cannot endorse any candidates, make donations to their campaigns, engage in fund raising, distribute statements, or become involved in any other activities that may be beneficial or detrimental to any candidate. Even activities that encourage people to vote for or against a particular candidate on the basis of nonpartisan criteria violate the political campaign prohibition of section 501(c)(3).

(Emphasis added). (An excellent discussion appears in A Guide for Religious Leaders by Americans United for Separation of Church and State.)

Granted, Carlson’s statements do not threaten a voter with the loss of communion nor do they specifically say vote against Tom Daschle. But it likely is coming. Daschle wasn’t a candidate at the time of the homily and this year’s race against John Thune is just underway. (And although Stephanie Herseth has not been mentioned by Carlson or the Diocese to my knowledge, as noted the religious right has been happy to try and pin an “abortionist” label on her.) Moreover, just as John Kerry currently faces “Wafer Madness,” GOP and right entities continually refer to a Weekly Standard article that ran about a year ago reporting that Carlson sent Daschle a letter instructing him not to identify himself as a Catholic in his congressional biography and campaign documents.

Everyone should keep a close eye on statements by Carlson and the Diocese as this election year proceeds. I also think we should be willing to ask the IRS to take a close look at them, too.

Finally, if there is any doubt this is candidate-driven, let’s look at the omissions suggested above. In preparation for this year’s election, in March the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a document called “Faithful Citizenship: A Catholic Call to Political Responsibility.” In a section called “Moral Priorities for Public Life,” there is a discussion about “Protecting Human Life.” As would be expected, it expresses opposition to abortion and euthanasia, the issues the Sioux Falls Diocese specifically refers to in instructing that political responsibity requires voting against anyone who disagrees with the church’s position. Yet that same section also says: “While military force as a last resort can sometimes be justified to defend against aggression and similar threats to the common good, we have raised serious moral concerns and questions about preemptive or preventive use of force.” (Emphasis added). It also states that “reliance on the death penalty cannot be justified.”

Let’s see just how “fair and balanced” South Dakota Catholics will be. What are the odds Bishop Carlson or any other Catholic leader in South Dakota will say sometime between now and November that “no Catholic in good conscience can vote for a candidate that supports the preemptive use of force or the death penalty”?

2 comments to Is the Catholic Church risking its tax-exempt status?

  • Anonymous

    However, given the power that the Catholic Church holds over the majority of its members, I believe any move to revoke the tax-exempt status of the church would be met with opposition in an equal, if not more powerful, move to pass legislation similar to HR235 ( as proposed by Rep. Walter Jones (R-NC 3rd). Whereas if such legislation were to be enacted, it would not simply set the law back to pre-1954 “Johnson amendment” times, it would, in effect, cause irreparable harm to the barrier between church and state setting the stage for increased theocratic influence within the government while diminishing the voice of the minority.


  • Anonymous

    heh….this makes me laugh….Planned Parenthood rails against any politician that immediately doesn’t throw him/herself in favor of placing free abortions on street corners, yet they enjoy tax-exempt status. Really though, check out their website…they have a copious record of many politicians and how they’ve voted in relation to contraceptive/abortion rights. where’s the audit for that? where are the cries to remove their tax exempt status? huh?