I have written to Robert Deeley, bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Maine, to express my disappointment that the U.S. Conference of Bishops has voted 73 percent-27 percent to prepare a statement that might prohibit pro-choice Catholic politicians from Communion. This initiative will do far more harm than good.

The Church has much good to offer: the idea of examination of conscience; the special power of the sacraments; the festival days; the Church’s multi-ethnicity and universality; its underappreciated intellectual history (Jacques Maritain, Thomas Merton, Avery Dulles); the saints; Catholic social teaching and humanitarianism (Dorothy Day, Mother Teresa), and, above all, the faith of exemplary human beings, both lay and clergy, both in my family and beyond. Bishop Deeley and the Church have done much good, and still do.

But the Church has been wrong many times, including its resistance to democracy (Franco); its historical attraction to power and money; its late awakening on slavery; its marginalization of women and those of non-traditional sexual orientation, and its totally self-defeating ban on contraception.

Nevertheless, the leadership’s default approach is to resort to force by fiat. It has not worked to keep the flock. Catholics are leaving the Church in droves. According to Cardinal Timothy Dolan, those who identify as ex-Catholics would amount to the second largest denomination in the U.S.

The coercive approach has also failed on abortion, and the ban on contraception certainly does not help. Catholics have abortions as often as non-Catholics. To many, the single-minded obsession with abortion seems like a case of selective prosecution: Church leadership has been painfully slow to condemn sexual predator priests who administer Communion and all too eager to deny Communion even to faithful parishioners like Joe Biden who hesitate to use the criminal law to impose Catholic morality on non-Catholics. The demand that Catholic public officials robotically impose Catholic dogma on the whole country is exactly what John F. Kennedy’s opponents warned against in 1960.

Has denying Communion worked historically? No. For as long as I can remember, divorced and remarried Catholics could not receive Communion. Many of these “sinners” simply leave the Church. Withholding sacraments does not protect the flock; it simply makes for a smaller, sadder, more sheep-like flock.

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Catholics are raised to put charity first: “If I have a faith that can move mountains but do not have loves I am nothing” (1 Corinthians 13). The Conference vote relegates charity to a subordinate position, despite Pope Francis’ pointed reminder that Communion is for sinners, not perfectionists. (What happened to the deference to the Holy Father that conservatives demanded we give to Popes John Paul II and Benedict?)

The truth is that much of the American Church leadership is unabashedly right wing or has permitted itself to appear right wing. Fox News owner Rupert Murdoch is honored with a Papal Knighthood, and Newt Gingrich’s mistress of six years and now wife, Callista, is accepted as Ambassador to the Holy See. EWTN television and Relevant Radio deride progressive or even centrist political initiatives on many issues. Pope Francis tries to temper these arch-conservative messages with entreaties of charity and justice, but to no avail.

Even more ominous, as the American Church hierarchy is moving ever rightward, northern European prelates are moving in the opposite direction, raising the specter of schism in the Church. Witness the German bishops’ outcry over the announcement of the ban on the blessing of same-sex relationships (not marriage – relationships), with the announcement’s gratuitous (and false) dig that such relationships are somehow a “disorder.”

The Church should be a unifying force, not a divisive one.  The times call for reconciliation, as exemplified by Pope John XXIII and the Second Vatican Council. The path the Conference is following will hurt the Church, our country and the world. And it will not reduce the number of abortions.

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