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NEWS ANALYSIS : Bishops Facing a Dilemma on Pro-Choice Politicians


A sampling of the nation's leading Roman Catholic bishops indicates that most are distancing themselves from San Diego Bishop Leo T. Maher, who last week banned a Democratic assemblywoman from Communion for her openly pro-choice stance, saying they prefer to appeal to an official's conscience first. Several of the bishops said, however, they still may ultimately penalize Catholic politicians who blatantly oppose the church's teaching on abortion.

Although the action against San Diego Assemblywoman Lucy Killea appears to be an isolated response, the bishops still are faced with a two-pronged dilemma: How to consistently implement a strongly worded resolution they adopted two weeks ago calling for Catholic politicians to publicly adopt an anti-abortion stance while, at the same time, avoiding backlash from American voters who resent political "meddling" by church authorities.

In the long run, Maher's action may hurt, rather than help, the bishops' cause, and stiffen the resolve of pro-choice Catholic lawmakers to steer their own course independently of church counsel, according to some church leaders and politicians.

In a two-page letter sent to Killea last Wednesday, Maher accused the four-term legislator, who has a solidly pro-choice voting record, of being "an advocate of this most heinous crime" and banned her from receiving Communion--the most sacred element of the Catholic Mass--unless she recants. She said she would follow Maher's order, but would not change her position on abortion.

Killea faces Assemblywoman Carol Bentley (R-El Cajon) in a special election Dec. 5 for a vacant Senate seat in San Diego County.

Other pro-choice Catholic politicians responded quickly to support Killea, saying they were concerned about the potential political fallout of Maher's action against her.

"I am appalled that the Catholic Church has entered into politics in this manner," declared State Sen. Diane E. Watson (D-Los Angeles). "What this action says to Catholics everywhere is that the church can dictate public policy by issuing orders to Catholic lawmakers."

New York Gov. Mario Cuomo issued a statement saying Maher's denial of Communion to Killea raised "troubling questions." Cuomo asked whether the church would now impose sanctions on Catholic officials who differ with its teaching on such issues as the death penalty or distribution of contraceptives.

California Atty. Gen. John K. Van de Kamp said he did not think the flap would affect his campaign for governor in 1990. The Catholic Van de Kamp's strong pro-choice position "is well known," spokesman Duane Peterson said Tuesday. "He has discussed his views with (Los Angeles Archbishop) Roger Mahony. They disagree on the issue and it ends there."

Peterson added that while Van de Kamp personally opposes abortion, "he believes it is not the place of government to make the choice for women."

Julie Sly, a spokeswoman for the California Catholic Conference in Sacramento, said the state's bishops decided at a meeting last month in San Diego that the best strategy for swaying Catholic lawmakers to the church's abortion view was for each bishop to meet individually with legislators in their own dioceses rather than to impose sanctions.

"Some might have interpreted Bishop Maher's actions as being too strong," she conceded Tuesday.

The bishops themselves are not unmindful that the resolution they unanimously adopted at their national conference in Baltimore on Nov. 7-- which urged all public officials, especially Catholics, to work to end legal abortions--could backfire.

Although that resolution declared that "no Catholic can responsibly take a 'pro-choice' stand when the 'choice' in question" involves abortion, it did not mention sanctions. And when Archbishop John L. May of St. Louis, outgoing conference president, was asked directly at a press conference in Baltimore whether he thought sanctions would be effective, he bluntly replied:

"No, I don't think it would help us one bit to change America's thinking" about abortion. "It might even have an adverse effect," he added.

Cardinal John O'Connor of New York, the newly elected chairman of the bishops' Committee for Pro-Life Activities, also downplayed the matter of sanctions, and Chicago's Cardinal Joseph Bernardin appeared reluctant to be drawn into discussion of the issue by the reporters.

"It seems to me that it's not so much a question of expelling a dissident person as it is motivating that person to change his or her mind and heart," Bernardin said when pressed. He added, however, that the possibility of sanctions "needs further study."

The Killea situation is so sensitive that few bishops would comment directly.

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