The Roman Catholic bishops are considering penalizing American politicians who fail to sufficiently toe the line on issues such as abortion and gay marriage.
U.S. church leaders have yet to decide what the penalties will be, but they could include bans on speaking at Catholic institutions, denial of the sacraments and even excommunication.
"I get tired of hearing Catholic politicians say, 'I am personally opposed to abortion,' or whatever, 'but I can't impose my moral standards on everybody else,'" said Bishop Joseph A. Galante of Dallas at a meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Washington, D.C.. "That's a weaseling-out."
During a meeting in November, the bishops formed a new task force to study the issue of how to deal with straying Catholic politicians. The group will be headed by Cardinal Theodore W. McCarrick of Washington, D.C.
McCarrick said Catholic lawmakers have an obligation to "oppose any law that attacks human life. For them, as for every Catholic, it is impossible to promote such laws or to vote for them."
The church's announcement is seen as having strong political overtones. Three of the nine candidates seeking the Democratic presidential nomination are Catholics and all three U.S. Sen. John F. Kerry, U.S. Rep. Dennis Kucinich and retired Gen. Wesley Clark are pro-choice on reproductive rights. (Clark often attends Presbyterian services but says he still considers himself Catholic.)
Other prominent pro-choice Catholics in office include House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) and California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R).
It remains to be seen how aggressive individual bishops would be if a crackdown is ordered but some are clearly ready to go. Last April, Bishop Robert Carlson of Sioux Falls, S.D., sent a letter to U.S. Sen. Tom Daschle, who is pro-choice, asking him to stop calling himself a Catholic, and several church leaders have already banned pro-choice Catholics from the pulpit.
Some critics said the bishops were being hypocritical in their choice of issues, noting that church leaders complain when pro-choice Catholics vote to uphold abortion rights but rarely say anything when conservative Catholic officeholders vote in favor of the death penalty, even though the church opposes capital punishment in most instances.
Detractors also pointed out that the bishops were holding Catholic politicians to a higher standard than the rest of the American church. Public opinion polls have shown that most American Catholics are pro-choice. The Los Angeles Times also reported recently that 88 percent of U.S. Catholics believe using birth control is morally acceptable, and 67 percent believe premarital sex is permissible.
The bishops have been feeling pressure over the issue from outside groups. Last year, the American Life League, an extreme anti-abortion group composed primarily of ultra-conservative Catholics, released a list of pro-choice Catholic lawmakers in Congress and in state legislatures.
"We ask the bishops to engage these people, make clear why this is not acceptable and give them a chance to repent," ALL's Erik Whittington told The Washington Times. "Because they are so public, they could lead large numbers of Catholics to believe this is acceptable."