LA CROSSE, WIS. Bishop Raymond Burke said he does not regret sending letters to Roman Catholic lawmakers warning that they should vote more in line with church teaching on abortion and other issues.
Burke, who has been appointed archbishop of St. Louis, said the letters were supposed to be confidential, in the spirit of a pastor counseling parishioners, and were not meant as a public reprimand.
The letters were made public in a story last week by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, which said it obtained a copy of one of the letters from state Sen. Julie Lassa under open records law.
"I have no regrets whatsoever," Burke said. "It was my duty as bishop to write those letters."
Lassa said she would not let religion determine how she served her constituents.
"When I was elected, I swore an oath to uphold the constitution, and that means I have to represent all the people of all faiths in my district," she said.
But Burke said elected officials and all Catholics are obligated to follow Catholic teaching in their private and public lives, or risk their spiritual well-being if they do not.
Burke told the lawmakers that if they continue taking political positions at odds with the church, he would ask them not to receive the sacraments.
Some critics said Burke's actions raise questions about whether lawmakers should base their policy decisions on personal religious beliefs. But Burke said, "I don't think you'd want to vote for any candidate who didn't follow his conscience."
The nation's bishops took up the issue at their November meeting in Washington, forming a task force to explore the idea of sanctions for Catholic politicians who favor policies contrary to church teaching.
William Bablitch, a Catholic who served in the Wisconsin Senate from 1972 to '83, and then on the state Supreme Court until retiring this year, disagreed with Burke's approach.
"Certainly, the bishop has every right to express his own views to an elected official," Bablitch said. "But to invoke the moral authority of the church in a threatening way to a legislator seems to cross over a line that has been very carefully drawn and is very well-respected in this country."