As the 2004 election season heats up, certain candidates might be looking over their shoulders at an unlikely special-interest group: the U.S. Catholic bishops.
America's 275 active bishops are gearing up a new task force that could bring Catholic politicians in line in a way not seen before in American politics.
Announced at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops annual meeting last month, it is headed by Washington Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick. The task force will produce guidelines on how to deal with recalcitrant politicians. But Cardinal McCarrick hedges when asked about their most potent weapon: excommunication.
"I wouldn't be in favor of that," he said.
But the bishops have felt pressured to come up with sanctions with a bite to them ever since January, when the Vatican came out with a 17-page "doctrinal note," a document on how Catholics in politics should behave.
"Those who are directly involved in lawmaking bodies have a grave and clear obligation to oppose any law that attacks human life," it said. "For them, as for every Catholic, it is impossible to promote such laws or to vote for them."
Besides abortion, the document listed euthanasia, slavery, religious freedom and the sanctity of marriage as black-and-white issues for Catholic politicians.
Ever since the Holy Roman Empire in pre-medieval Europe, the Vatican has seen the church as a public institution entitled to negotiate with political figures, says David Walsh, a political-science professor at Catholic University. Given the bias toward separation of church and state in American politics, U.S. bishops have hesitated to intervene.
"They'd rather say that even more than being religious issues, these are human rights issues," he says. "I think that'd be the kind of rhetoric McCarrick would be more comfortable with."
Less than a handful of American bishops actually have excommunicated a politician. In April 1962, New Orleans Archbishop Joseph F. Rummel excommunicated three segregationists, including a state judge and a state senator.
In 1989, San Diego Bishop Leo Maher told pro-choice Democratic Assemblywoman Lucy Killea that she was banned from receiving Communion. However, he was undercut by Bishop Francis Quinn of San Francisco, who allowed the assemblywoman access to the rite.
In 1996, Bishop Rene Gracida of Corpus Christi, Texas, excommunicated three persons: two abortion-clinic workers and an abortionist.
But the vast majority of America's Catholic bishops are notoriously slow on punishing dissidents, says Russell Shaw, a former press officer for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
There being 150 Roman Catholics in the 108th U.S. Congress -- double the amount of Baptists, the second largest group -- and three Catholics in line (Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich of Ohio, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts and Wesley Clark, a retired general) for next year's Democratic Party presidential nomination, the issue is far from moot.
"If you can't bring your faith into public life, what's the use of having it?" said the Most Rev. Fabian W. Bruskewitz, bishop of Lincoln, Neb.
"It's embarrassing," he said, "to read consistently of Catholic senators all proclaiming their support for abortion. It's not able to be explained by me how Catholics can do that, particularly if they go unrebuked."
In 1996, Bishop Bruskewitz issued a list of 12 organizations -- including Planned Parenthood, the liberal Catholic group Call to Action and several Masonic groups -- in which membership meant automatic excommunication for Catholics.
None of the bishops on the hastily drawn-up committee would say whether guidelines would be issued in time for the 2004 elections.
"This task force is to help Catholics be more coherent," says Bishop Thomas G. Wenski of Orlando, Fla. "You cannot separate beliefs from politics because they deal with man: his dignity and destiny. These are moral issues."
The American Life League has a "deadly dozen" list of the most vehement pro-choice Catholic politicians. It counts 71 Catholic members of Congress and an additional 415 Catholics in state legislatures across the country in the same boat.
Mr. Kerry and Mr. Clark are pro-choice Catholics. Mr. Kucinich previously was pro-life, but reversed himself prior to announcing his bid for the Democratic presidential nomination.
"We ask the bishops to engage these people, make clear why this is not acceptable and give them a chance to repent," assistant media-relations director Erik Whittington says. "Because they are so public, they could lead large numbers of Catholics to believe this is acceptable."
But few bishops are willing to move publicly against such politicians, he said. Thus, Mr. Kerry and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat, took part in the installation Mass for the Most Rev. Sean P. O'Malley of Boston.
"What more scandal could you ask for than the two most ardent supporters of abortion in the Senate show up and get Communion?" Mr. Whittington asks. "The sheep who have gone off the reservation to support pro-death policies need tough love that says what they are doing is wrong."