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Faith, politics collide again

L'Italien controversy reminiscent of past conflict

Ten years before state Representative Barbara L'Italien was asked to step down from her position as cantor of St. Augustine Parish in Andover, Kathleen Caron witnessed her own battle between church and politics.

Caron, like L'Italien, was a politician who supported abortion rights. When she made her opinions known during her 1994 campaign for state representative against now-Lynn Mayor Edward Clancy, her church heard what she had to say and responded.

Caron, who now lives in Maine and works for a contractor as manager of training for the Big Dig highway project, was told by her pastor at St. Maria Goretti Church in Lynnfield that she should step down from public roles at the parish because of her political stance on abortion.

So, she left. Caron said she saw no other way to remain at peace with her faith and her public life.

"I was invited, frankly, by other churches to remain and participate," said Caron, noting that she returned to the church once the Rev. John Flynn left his post. "I think he's probably a victim of his time. I was able to distance myself from it."

Catholic politicians north of Boston who have followed L'Italien's church controversy said keeping political views separate from religion is an almost impossible task, especially before elections, when candidates make their positions clear to the public.

It came up recently during the debate over gay marriage, when many legislators came forward with their opinions on same-sex unions while contending with their religious affiliations. It surfaced when Governor Mitt Romney ran for office and his Mormon background was tied to his political identity. L'Italien said she was asked by the Rev. William M. Cleary at St. Augustine to step down from her posts at church just after she won a second term in November.

Cleary did not return phone calls seeking comment.

After hearing of L'Italien's disagreement with her pastor on abortion rights and gay marriage, local priests agreed that there is no clear way to handle the conflicts that might arise between Catholic politicians who may not support the beliefs of the church when they act on behalf of the voting public.

The Archdiocese of Boston has decided not to set a rule about the issue. It released a statement after L'Italien was asked by her church to step down as cantor. The church said there is no archdiocese edict about whether those who support abortion rights can hold public positions within a church. Instead, the statement said it is up to the local parish to make decisions.

"I think it's something that is between the parishioner and a priest," said the Rev. Thomas Powers, who works at Caron's former church in Lynnfield. "I would work with the individual and support them as they made an informed decision of their conscience."

L'Italien said earlier this month that she will not leave her post at the church, and will continue to be involved with the youth choir and serve as a cantor.

"I have no plans to leave my faith or change churches," said L'Italien, who represents parts of Boxford, Georgetown, and Haverhill. "I think that's the easy way out."

Caron said her experience with her church never affected her faith or confidence in Catholicism, but did change her opinion about whether politicians can have public roles in the church. She had taught religious education, was a lector at the church, and served on the parish council prior to her run for state representative. She said she was asked to step down from those roles and since then has refrained from high-profile duties in her parish.

"I never do things of an overt nature," she said.

Caron said she believes politicians should be able to be involved in church without parish leaders making decisions about them based on their political agendas. But she acknowledges that it's easier to be a public person in politics if you are a private person in church.

"I strongly believe in the separation of church and state. I do understand the dilemma -- when you have a church opinion conflicting with one's own. I personally feel that conscience is the rule."

Salem Mayor Stanley J. Usovicz said he believes politicians can be active in church, although he acknowledged that it is easier to be involved as a mayor than as a legislator. As mayor, he said, his opinions about hot-button issues such as abortion and gay marriage do not matter.

"It's not a relevant issue for most mayors to begin with. It clearly is for state legislators," said Usovicz, a parishioner of St. James Church in Salem. "I think they all have a difficult task in trying to balance personal views and political views but I think the separation remains clear."

Usovicz is a lector at his parish and said being a member of the church has always been separate from his day job.

"I think, to tell you the truth, how someone holds a position publicly shouldn't reflect how they're treated by the church," said Usovicz. "We should be in the business of saving souls, not condemning them."

The Rev. Paul Garrity of St. Mary Parish in Lynn said he used the St. Augustine incident as a teachable moment for his church. He wrote about it in his bulletin, telling parishioners that the choice to ask L'Italien to step down from her cantor post but to remain in the congregation may have been seen as the best compromise.

"In the end, there is no simple solution to situations like the one that the Andover parish is now confronting," he wrote in the bulletin. "The application of prudence is obviously what is needed and, by no means, do pastors have this virtue all to themselves."

Meredith Goldstein can be reached at mgoldstein@globe.com. 

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