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Inside Politics
Mark Shields is a nationally known columnist and commentator.

The Catholic campaign of 2004

WASHINGTON (Creators Syndicate) -- On the eve of the 1984 presidential campaign -- during which the support of legalized abortion by Catholic politicians would stir a major controversy -- Cardinal Joseph Bernadine of Chicago, an opponent of abortion, cautioned Catholics against turning abortion into a single voting issue: "Our moral, political and economic responsibilities do not stop at the moment of birth.

"Those who defend the right to life of the weakest among us must be equally visible in support of the quality of life of the powerless among us: the old and the young, the hungry and the homeless, the undocumented immigrant and the unemployed worker. ... Consistency means we can't have it both ways."

Now into the 2004 campaign with a pro-choice Democrat about to become the first Catholic presidential nominee in 44 years comes Nigerian Cardinal Francis Arinze, a major Vatican official.

Refusing to mention John Kerry by name, Cardinal Arinze answered a reporter's question as to whether a priest should refuse to give communion to politicians who support legalized abortion: "Yes, if the person should not receive it, then it should not be given."

Further pressed, Arinze tossed this political grenade into the collective laps of the American hierarchy: "The Catholic Church exists in the United States. There are bishops there. Let them interpret."

Immediately, all sides have rolled out the old rhetorical artillery. Literate testimonials have been issued on the primacy of the individual conscience and the genius of the American separation of church and state.

Should not church men and women just stay the hell out of politics? True, generations of politicians ducked and hid confronting the national evils of first slavery and later legally sanctioned racial discrimination until they were forced to act, largely by the heroic witness of Protestant ministers, Jewish rabbis, Catholic priests and Catholic nuns.

Apparently ignoring the indispensable role of the organized religious community and opposing the U.S. war in Vietnam, one nationally syndicated liberal columnist recently wrote: "We do little but emulate our enemy, the Taliban, by allowing religious conviction to determine public policy."

American Catholic bishops have individually intervened in opposition to pro-choice candidates before.

In 1996, the Catholic archbishop of New Orleans declared that "if a person actually believes in Catholic doctrine, then I don't see how they can vote for (pro-choice U.S. Senator and Louisiana Democrat Mary) Landrieu without a feeling of sin."

Before that, the bishop of San Diego had publicly denied communion to pro-choice Democrat and state Senate candidate Lucy Killea. Perhaps boosted by voter anger at church leaders publicly opposing pro-choice women, both Landrieu and Killea won tough races.

Some Catholic leaders now see in any official church opposition to John Kerry the potential for a major swing to the Democrat among Catholic and non-Catholic voters furious at any implicit endorsement of George W. Bush, who as Texas governor led the world in legally executing men and women.

Newspaper support for or opposition to church people in politics depends almost entirely upon whether that particular newspaper opposes or supports the particular cause which the church people are championing.

Let's look at the record of The New York Times. About the intervention of the San Diego bishop in opposing the pro-choice candidate, that great paper wrote: "By imposing a test of religious loyalty, Bishop Maher threatens the truce of tolerance by which Americans maintain civility and in large religious liberty."

Contrast that with the Times' praise of the Catholic Prelate in an earlier church state showdown: "Men of all faiths must admire the unwavering courage (of) the most Reverend Joseph Francis Rummel, Archbishop of New Orleans," and went on to conclude, "We salute the Catholic Archbishop.

He has set an example founded on religious principles and responsive to the social conscience of our time." To deserve those bouquets, Cardinal Rummel had excommunicated Louisiana's powerhouse Democratic political boss, a white supremacist who had publicly opposed the Church's authority in desegregating the diocesan schools.

In 2004, voters in competing camps would do well to reflect on the wise counsel of Cardinal Bernadine, who reminded those who emphasize political opposition to abortion to the exclusion of all other social justice issues that to believe that life begins at conception does not mean that it -- or our serious responsibilities -- politically end at birth. And that the separation of church and state does not mean the divorce of religion from politics.

Click here for more from Creators Syndicate.

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