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The Heavy-Handed Bishop

November 19, 1989

One of the confusions to which hierarchical institutions are particularly prone is the inability to distinguish between authority and authoritarianism. The heavy-handed intervention by San Diego's Roman Catholic Bishop, Leo T. Maher, in the campaign for a vacant state Senate seat is an ample demonstration of such confusion--and of its unwelcome consequences.

Last week, Maher banned Democratic Assemblywoman Lucy Killea, a 67-year-old practicing Catholic, from receiving Communion because she holds a pro-choice position on abortion. The prohibition will remain in force, the prelate said in a letter to the lawmaker, until she recants her views. They are the same views she has held and voted during four terms in the Legislature. Maher decided to punish Killea at this particular moment because she is contesting a pivotal election in which abortion has become an issue. Her opponent, Republican Assemblywoman Carol Bentley believes in abortion only in cases of rape, incest or when the mother's life is endangered.

At stake is the vacant 39th District seat, which will be filled in a special election Dec. 5. The outcome is more than usually important because the 40-member state Senate is at present evenly split on abortion. A victory by Killea would give proponents of choice a 21-19 majority. Pro-choice lawmakers already constitute a majority in the Assembly.

Though Maher characterized his action as "more pastoral than political," his larger intent was betrayed when he told The Times that "I doubt that Lucy Killea will get many Catholic votes."

That, of course, is a matter for Roman Catholics--and, for that matter, all the other voters in the district--to decide in the privacy of the polls. It is not something that can or should be ordered from the pulpit, and that is precisely what is so thoroughly objectionable and improper about the bishop's attempt to intimidate Killea.

The genius of America's pluralistic system is that it makes possible the assertion of all manner of moral values by giving official precedence to none. Societies in which lawmakers fail to exercise their moral consciences are vile places. But so, too, are societies in which conscience is nothing more than an expression of sectarian conformity.

Bishop Maher is not alone in his failure to respect this distinction. In his letter to Killea, he quoted an admonishment recently adopted by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops: "No Catholic," it said, "can responsibly take a 'pro-choice' position."

Some doubtless will use Maher's application of this unfortunate declaration to dredge up the hoary old Nativist slanders about Popish conspiracies and dual loyalties. Today, however, American Catholics are too numerous and prominent, too intimately involved in the broad defense of fundamental human rights for others to put stock in these ancient calumnies. It is, in some sense, a measure of the church's security and acceptance here that the bishops felt free to indulge their pique in this fashion.

Still, many will wonder why a lone woman was singled out for this chillingly harsh censure, when such leading male Catholics as Senators Edward M. Kennedy and Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Gov. Mario M. Cuomo also are professed adherents of the pro-choice position.

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