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Prop. 187 May Show Clergy's Political Role Is Dwindling : Churches: Many worshipers, especially white non-Latino Catholics, supported the anti-immigration measure despite opposition by leaders such as Cardinal Roger M. Mahony.

November 20, 1994|JOHN DART | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When California voters--especially white Roman Catholics--resoundingly approved Proposition 187 over the opposition of many of their churches, they raised strong questions about the power of religious leaders to sway political debates with moral arguments.

The initiative's big victory reveals "a Catholic electorate which increasingly seems to view the statements of its pastoral and moral leaders as having little credibility or urgency," The Tidings, the newspaper of the Los Angeles Catholic Archdiocese, said in a post-election editorial.

The way the election turned out signaled "an alarming trend," in the Catholic Church, which already has "a shepherd-flock gap" between the attitudes of lay Catholics and their bishops' strict stands against legalized abortion and the death penalty, wrote Editor Tod Tamberg.

Although Protestant voters heavily favored Proposition 187 at the polls, Protestantism's plethora of denominations and long tradition of emphasis on individual conscience often weaken efforts to rally churchgoers to one side of a moral or political issue.

The Catholic Church, by contrast--the largest denomination in the state, representing about 25% of the electorate--has a hierarchical structure that can marshal its many pulpits to one side, as happened with Proposition 187. Los Angeles Cardinal Roger M. Mahony was especially active in the anti-Proposition 187 campaign.

Although Catholics overall opposed the initiative by a narrow 51%-49% (according to The Times' exit poll), it was favored 58% to 42% by non-Latino white Catholics. That put those white Catholics--who outnumbered Latino and non-white Catholics 2 to 1 at the polls--precisely in step with the 59% of the rest of the electorate who voted to approve the measure.

The result appears to indicate that white Catholics simply shrugged off church leaders' stern denunciations of the proposition as inhumane and immoral.

One devoted parishioner who objected to her priests' homilies against Proposition 187 was Pat Shuff of Fullerton. She said she and her husband have significantly scaled back their contributions to the church as a result.

"People who are here illegally are breaking the law; I don't think we should pick and choose which laws we should abide by," she said. Not only that, Shuff said, "I do believe in separation of church and state, and I don't think it was proper for the church to take a stance."

Several readers wrote to The Tidings last week to object to Tamberg's editorial lamenting the failure of Catholic voters to heed the cardinal's urgings, the editor said in an interview. The writers protested that the bishops had taken the liberal side of a social dispute "and that they should stick to religion and stay out of politics," he said.

The Tidings, celebrating 100 years of publishing, has a largely older, non-Latino white readership that has dwindled in recent decades to 27,000.

Tamberg said he believes the Catholic church needs to continue educating members about the social implications of their faith.

"When Cardinal Mahony said 187 was an affront to human dignity, for instance, many Catholics will hear that as a political statement, rather than a teaching that draws upon church tradition," the editor said.

"Look at all the state's mainline religious leaders who spoke against it" to little or no effect, he said. "These are people who know the Gospel and their churches' tradition. I think we have a great deal of educating to do."

The Times' exit poll showed that of the 48% of voters who identified themselves as Protestant, 69% said they voted for Proposition 187. That might seem surprising in light of the public opposition expressed by United Methodist, Episcopal, Presbyterian and other mainline church leaders.

However, the many religiously and culturally conservative Protestant churches and bodies around the state were silent on the issue. And even in the old-line denominations, church executives say they can do no more than recommend stances on selected ballot measures.

Some clergy see the split between their moral views and those of the laity in their churches as a warning sign that perhaps the clergy need "educating" too.

"We are not listening to our own constituency," said Bishop Roy Sano, who heads the Pasadena-based California-Pacific Conference of the United Methodist Church.

"No doubt we could have done more" in opposing Proposition 187, he said, but mainline denominations, while remaining faithful to Christian ethics, need to hear what church members are saying.

The Catholic bishops are aware of the dangers of overloading parishioners with social and political lectures, said Julie Sly, communications director for the Sacramento office that represents the bishops' positions on public policy.

The bishops "deliberately tried to argue the case against Proposition 187 on a higher plane, drawing on specific church teachings," she said. "We have tried to limit the statements to the initiatives which have clear moral or ethical implications," she said.

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