- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 15, 2000

The Catholic bishop of Scranton, Pa., barred Vice President Al Gore from giving a speech yesterday in a church-affiliated hospital because the vice president supports abortion, which the bishop called an "unspeakable crime."

Mr. Gore scrambled to find a secular clinic that would let him give his speech on health care. He also tried to smooth things over with Bishop James Timlin by emphasizing that he respected the religious leader's position, even while disagreeing with it.

"I certainly didn't want anyone to experience any discomfort," Mr. Gore told CNN. "So we smoothly shifted gears and did the event [at another] location and it went wonderfully well."

But the dust-up put Mr. Gore conspicuously at odds with an important voting bloc that was previously seen as hostile only to the Republican candidate, George W. Bush.

Earlier this year, Mr. Gore and other Democrats accused the Texas governor of offending Catholics by speaking at Bob Jones University, an anti-Catholic school in South Carolina.

"Much was made of Bush going to the university and I realize they don't like Catholics very much, but I was not alienated or offended," Bishop Timlin told The Washington Times. "Speaking at that university is not even in the same category as supporting abortion.

"We think of abortion as an unspeakable crime, so anyone who condones that is taking a position that we feel is wrong no question about it," he added. "I'm a registered Democrat but I can't, in good conscience, vote for people who are pro-abortion."

Mr. Gore countered: "I do support a woman's right to choose and I make no apologies for that. In fact, I feel very strongly about it."

The dispute overshadowed the content of Mr. Gore's health care speech, which he had planned to deliver at 12:30 p.m. yesterday at Mercy Hospital in Scranton. The vice president was told to find another venue after Bishop Timlin learned of the planned appearance and voiced his objections at about 5 p.m. Tuesday.

Although Mr. Gore pointed out he has "done a number of events" at Catholic institutions, he quickly canceled plans to speak at Mercy Hospital and searched for another venue. Allied Services, a private medical facility nearby, agreed to host the vice president.

Deal Hudson, editor of Crisis, a conservative Catholic magazine, said Mr. Gore's attempt to speak at Catholic institutions is "all the more egregious" in light of the vice president's support for partial-birth abortion.

Mr. Hudson pointed out that Catholic schools and hospitals often provide a platform to pro-choice lawmakers such as Mr. Gore.

"Pro-choice politicians are invited to Catholic institutions all the time," Mr. Hudson said. "What is remarkable about this incident in Scranton is that we have a bishop drawing the line regarding the presence of a politician whose record is unambiguously clear and directly opposed to the Catholic teaching on life."

Yesterday's incident, coupled with a recent decision by another Catholic institution to cancel a speech by a Planned Parenthood official, gives Mr. Hudson hope.

"The leaders of Catholic institutions are beginning to say: 'No more. You're not going to use our institutions to further your agenda,' " he said. "The more Catholic leaders that do this, the more lay Catholics are going to wake up from their slumber, look at their own institutions, alma maters and so forth and say: 'Hey, why aren't we doing this?' "

Catholics have played a crucial role in presidential elections for decades. During the first half of the century, Catholics generally supported Democratic candidates, culminating in an overwhelming show of support for fellow Catholic John F. Kennedy in 1960.

But as working-class Catholics of European descent began to prosper in the second half of the century, many became disillusioned with high taxes and the expanding role of the federal government.

Increasing numbers of Catholics began to support Republicans such as Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. Catholics were a major part of the segment of important swing voters vaunted as "Reagan Democrats."

But Catholic support for Republicans began to wane during the Bush presidency. Democrat Bill Clinton began to win the Catholic vote back in 1992 and won over even more Catholics in 1996.

Yet it remains uncertain whether Mr. Gore will carry a majority of Catholic voters in November. His support of partial-birth abortion offends many practicing Catholics, while many non-practicing church members are expected to support him.

"I think it will be very close because Catholics look a lot like the rest of the country," said Catholic University professor John White, an expert on Catholic voting trends. "They're a very big group, but they're also an enormously diverse group."

Mr. White said the vice president is no more likely to be hurt by his support of abortion than Mr. Bush is likely to be hurt by his appearance at Bob Jones University.

He said Catholics did not view that appearance as an affront to their beliefs, although some Americans in general may have been put off by what they saw as Mr. Bush's unseemly grab for conservative votes.

"Catholics are not single-issue voters," Mr. White said. "That's what always gets lost in this debate. There's no such thing as bloc voting among Catholics and there hasn't been in a long time. I guess the closest was in 1960."

Mr. White predicted that the vice president will win slightly more Catholic votes than Mr. Bush, but not because of abortion or Bob Jones.

Rather, the demographics of U.S. Catholics are shifting again, thanks to growing infusions of Hispanic immigrants who will probably tilt the scales toward the Democratic column.

A Republican strategist who spoke on the condition of anonymity disagreed, pointing out that Mr. Gore is "malpositioned against traditionalist, observant, church-attending Catholics the kinds of Catholics who admire" Pope John Paul II and the late Cardinal John O'Connor of New York.

Mr. Hudson added: "Gore's the one who's going to have a problem with Catholics."

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