Santa Rosa Bishop Robert Vasa Sunday called politicians who support abortion rights "unfit for public office" and suggested they face excommunication from the Catholic Church for expressing such a position.
Vasa made the remarks at a rainy afternoon rally in Courthouse Square on the 37th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade decision, granting women the right to legal abortion.
The event drew about 100 participants who prayed, sang songs and carried signs such as "Defend life" and "Women do regret abortion." It also drew a handful of protesters who tried to disrupt the event with chants of their own supporting abortion rights.
Vasa, who previously served as bishop of the Baker Diocese in politically conservative eastern Oregon, was blunt in his condemnation of laws and leaders that don't stand up to protect the unborn.
He said that because of the position of the United States on the issue of abortion, it is "not the land of the free and the home of the brave."
"It's a land of the imprisoned and the home of the cowards," said Vasa, who traded his bishop's mitre for a baseball cap in deference to the weather.
Such forceful public rhetoric is a marked departure from that of previous leaders of the 165,000-member Santa Rosa Catholic diocese, which sits in a strongly liberal region with widely held feminist values. Vasa became its spiritual leader in July.
Sunday, he called laws like Roe v. Wade "illicit and invalid" and leaders who support abortion rights "as guilty of abortion as those who choose it themselves."
"Any government leader, particularly those who claim to be Christian, who claim to be pro-choice, is unworthy of public office," Vasa said to cheers from the damp crowd. "Absolutely unworthy and absolutely unfit for public office."
In an interview after his remarks, Vasa suggested such leaders who publicly hold such a position shouldn't accept communion at Mass.
He also said they could be excommunicated, or banished from the church through their actions. "In some ways, they excommunicate themselves," he said.
If he learned a politician expressed a position so out of line with Catholic beliefs, then he would first try to have a "face-to-face" with that person and urge them to recant their remarks. If they did not, then that person would be "on thin ice."
But he noted that the church "tends to resist" formal excommunications, noting that Catholics who advocate abortion rights suffer from the conflict between two incompatible positions within them.
"I, for one, if someone wants to put hot coals on their own head, I say fine," Vasa said.
Rep. Mike Thompson, the North Coast's seven-term Democratic congressman, is Catholic and supports abortion rights.
"I support a woman's right to make decisions about her health care," Thompson has said, adding that he separates his role as a lawmaker from his Catholicism.
Midway through one of the early speeches, an abortion-rights activist jumped up and attempted to disrupt the event.
When protesters pushed JT Bymaster, a 33-year-old massage therapist, and told him to leave, he began yelling "Abortion is a right!" and noted he was in a public place and enjoyed the same free-speech rights as they.