From John Kerry to the governors of Indiana and New Jersey, Roman Catholic politicians are being challenged by bishops in a new and tougher way this election season over their stance on abortion.
Some bishops have taken the radical step of declaring that officials who support abortion rights shouldn't receive Holy Communion, and one has even said he'd personally refuse Kerry at the altar.
Critics think such tactics are fraught with risks. The hierarchy could be seen as partisan, or morally suspect in the wake of the clergy sex-abuse crisis. A backlash could even hurt the anti-abortion cause, or boost Kerry.
Historian John McGreevy, author of "Catholicism and American Freedom," says the church is on new ground.
"The bishops have to figure out what they want to do, and Kerry needs to figure how to respond."
It's quite a change from the Catholic pride during the 1960 campaign of John F. Kennedy, the only Catholic president and the last church member even in position to win the White House.
Since the Supreme Court legalized abortion in 1973, the only Catholic on a major party ticket has been Geraldine Ferraro in 1984. Cardinal John O'Connor criticized Ferraro for her abortion stand, while then-New York Gov. Mario Cuomo defended Catholic politicians' choices anticipating the debate of 2004.
This latest confrontation has been building for several years.
In 1998, a declaration from the U.S. bishops' conference said it's a "grave contradiction" for politicians to claim to be "credible Catholics" yet disagree with the church on a fundamental matter like "direct attacks on innocent human life." But that left open exactly what the church should do about it.
Then, last year, a Vatican doctrinal decree directed at Catholic politicians said a well-formed conscience forbids support for any law that contradicts "fundamental" morality, with abortion listed first among relevant issues. A second Vatican statement said it's "gravely immoral" not to oppose legalization of same-sex unions another matter on which Kerry and the hierarchy disagree.
Bishop William Weigand of Sacramento, Calif., then upped the ante, saying then-Gov. Gray Davis should renounce support for abortion rights or have the "integrity" to "abstain from receiving Holy Communion."
The Vatican's Cardinal Francis Arinze, Archbishop Alfred Hughes of New Orleans and Archbishop John Myers of Newark, N.J., have since said the same without naming names, as has Kerry's own archbishop, Sean O'Malley of Boston.
But such statements effectively let individuals decide whether to receive Communion, and Archbishop O'Malley has specifically said he wouldn't refuse the sacrament to Kerry.
St. Louis Archbishop Raymond Burke, however, said just before the Missouri primary that he would not serve Communion if Kerry came to him at the altar.
"Catholic bishops have the right to deny John Kerry Communion," McGreevy acknowledges, but it's a "terrible mistake" to do so because Catholic politicians face such complex decisions.
The Rev. Thomas Reese of America magazine says Communion bans could make abortion seem a matter of Catholic doctrine rather than general human rights. And author-columnist Peter Steinfels warns that a hard line could make American Catholics imitate Europeans' "nonchalant anticlericalism, that just brushes off church teachings in public affairs."
Without raising the Communion issue, other bishops have denounced pro-choice Catholic politicians, either in general or by name (Indiana Gov. Joe Kernan, New Jersey Gov. James McGreevey). And Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle's bishop asked him to remove mention of Catholic membership in campaign literature.
Democrats and liberals note that George W. Bush's policies violate bishops' pronouncements on many matters. But Catholicism's aversion to abortion is more absolute and the issues more clear-cut than with foreign or economic policies.
To a conservative like Deal Hudson, editor of Crisis magazine and a Bush campaign adviser, it would be "disastrous" if Kerry, "with such aggressive pro-abortion policies," becomes the world's most prominent Catholic politician."
"He thinks bishops should stress their nonpartisanship, but denounce Kerry's abortion dissent in letters read from every pulpit in the land.
With few exceptions, he complains, "pro-abortion Democrats have had a free ride from the hierarchy for 30 years."
Other militants want abortion-rights supporters barred from campaigning at Catholic institutions. In 2000, Bishop James Timlin of Scranton, Pa., disinvited Al Gore from a hospital and thereafter the candidate was barely seen in Catholic venues.Comment on this story
But the Rev. Reese says that's difficult with Catholic colleges, which are mostly controlled by religious orders, not bishops, and favor open forums. The Rev. Reese says the strongest protests erupt when Catholic campuses give honorary degrees to Catholics who support abortion rights.
A special panel of the U.S. hierarchy, led by Cardinal Theodore McCarrick who isn't comfortable denying Communion is sorting through what sanctions to impose on politicians. But it's not clear that action will come before Election Day.