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Catholics question focus on abortion

WASHINGTON -- A question has been gnawing at Frank McNeirney since he read that some Roman Catholic bishops want to deny Communion to Catholic politicians, such as the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee John F. Kerry, whose public positions are at odds with church doctrine.

"Does this only apply to abortion?" asked McNeirney, 67, of Bethesda, Md. "What about the death penalty?"

After retiring as a trade magazine editor a dozen years ago, McNeirney founded a nonprofit organization, Catholics Against the Death Penalty, which has 1,200 members across the country. It's a mom-and-pop operation, run by McNeirney and his wife, Ellen, out of their home. They are the first to acknowledge that it has nowhere near the political clout or public visibility of the nation's antiabortion groups.

But McNeirney is not alone in questioning whether the church's political vision has become myopic, focusing too narrowly on abortion.

Some Catholic publications, educators, and elected officials are also warning that church leaders may appear hypocritical or partisan if they condemn Kerry because he favors abortion rights, but they say nothing about Catholic governors who allow executions, Catholic members of Congress who support the Iraq war, or Catholic officials at all levels who ignore the church's teachings on social justice.

Answering questions at a news conference in Rome on Friday, a top Vatican official said politicians who unambiguously support abortion rights are "not fit" to receive the Eucharist, which Catholics believe is the body and blood of Christ. But the official, Cardinal Francis Arinze, was not asked about politicians who disobey other church teachings.

Meanwhile, the head of a US bishops task force examining the problem said yesterday that Roman Catholic politicians who advocate policies contrary to church teaching on abortion and other issues may risk sanctions that fall short of denial of Holy Communion.

"I have not gotten to the stage where I'm comfortable in denying the Eucharist," Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, archbishop of Washington, D.C., said in an interview.

Asked what sanctions the task force might recommend for politicians, McCarrick said Catholic universities could deny honorary degrees, dioceses may withhold honors, and Catholic institutions may not invite them to speak. The Washington archbishop, who met privately with Kerry on April 15, said he was not speaking specifically about Kerry. "It is not a question of Senator Kerry, but of American Catholic politicians," he said.

No major Catholic lay organization has called for bishops to take politicians to task because of their stands on other matters.

"Both Kerry and [President] Bush support the war in Iraq and [Pope John Paul II] does not. The pope has made that very, very clear. But does it get any attention? No," said Raymond L. Flynn, head of the group Your Catholic Voice and a former US ambassador to the Vatican and former mayor of Boston.

One reason, Flynn said, is that antiabortion groups are "far better organized" than Catholic organizations that focus on promoting peace, fighting poverty, or abolishing the death penalty.

Another reason, in the view of many Catholics, is that abortion is a more important and clear-cut issue. "Abortion is a foundational piece. If you don't have life, the other rights don't matter," said Susan Gibbs, spokeswoman for McCarrick. "Abortion is always wrong. The death penalty and war are not always wrong."

Still, McNeirney said Catholic governors such as Jeb Bush of Florida who have approved numerous executions are "morally worse" than politicians such as Kerry who vote for abortion-rights legislation but are not "personally participating in the killing."

"I think the church is very consistent in saying that ending human life is something that should be up to God, not man," he said.

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