"Weaseling out" is what one Catholic bishop calls it, referring to the way some politicians will try to have it both ways on abortion — personally taking a stand against it but voting for abortion rights anyway.

Earlier this month, at their national conference in Washington, D.C., the nation's bishops agreed to ask a task force to study whether the church should punish those Catholic politicians who vote contrary to church teachings on such issues as abortion, same-sex marriage and the death penalty.

The proposal raises questions about the relationship between religious belief and political stance, questions that always resonate in Utah, where the vast majority of politicians belong to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Should a church expect its members to vote a certain way on moral issues? Should a politician who votes against the moral teachings of his religion be allowed to call himself a Catholic or Mormon or Muslim? How often do religions already chastise their members who are politicians?

The bishops' task force on sanctions is a response to a Vatican document last winter outlining the responsibilities of Catholics who are actively engaged in politics. That document, in turn, was apparently the result of longtime frustrations over the abortion-rights stances of high-profile politicians such as Sen. Edward Kennedy and presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry.

The Vatican message, says Bishop George Niederauer of the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City, was meant to encourage Catholics to see their conscience not just as a "private compartment" but something that influences the conduct of every aspect of their lives, including the way they vote.

Politicians and voters need to "come to grips with that compartmentalizing," says Niederauer. "I don't think personal convictions are like raisins in a cake and you can just pick them out." So a politician shouldn't say, for example, "I'm personally opposed to abortion but I can't impose my moral judgment on others." All of the teachings of the Catholic Church, he says, spring from a common foundation of believing in "the precious value of every individual human life."

On the question of punishment for politicians who vote contrary to church teachings, however, Niederauer is more equivocal. "I think we are a church that is concerned with salvation of souls and the welfare of human kind. So we're not eager to drum people out." The church needs to be patient and caring, he says, in the same way that a parent would be, seeking a dialogue with those politicians. Actual punishment would have to be decided on an individual basis, he says.

Punishments discussed at the national bishops conference included refusing to allow errant politicians to speak at Catholic institutions, not allowing them to receive the Holy Eucharist, and excommunication. Niederauer notes that his predecessor in Salt Lake City, who later became bishop of Sacramento, Calif., encouraged then- Gov. Gray Davis to abstain from receiving communion because of his abortion-rights stance, and that the bishop of Sioux Falls, S.D., told Sen. Tom Daschle to remove from official paperwork any mention of his being Catholic.

But politics is always the art of compromise, says Niederauer, quoting Pope John Paul II. In order to get legislation passed against capital punishment, for example, Catholic politicians may have to compromise on specific provisions. That, too, has to be taken into account.

Former legislator and mayoral candidate Frank Pignanelli remembers voting against a 1991 bill to restrict abortions in Utah because he thought the bill was unconstitutional. A few days after the vote, Pignanelli went to Mass at the Cathedral of the Madeleine and discovered that his bishop and two priests were waiting for him. "The priests said they were severely and dramatically disappointed in me," remembers Pignanelli, who was House minority leader. Later, the bishop invited Pignanelli and other Catholic legislators over for lunch to again express his disappointment in them.

Utah legislators who are Catholic are in a tough position, Pignanelli says, because the Catholic Church's position on abortion is even more conservative than the LDS position, yet many Catholics are Democrats — who are often pro-choice — and Catholic women tend to seek abortions at high rates.

What about LDS politicians? Are they expected to vote in accordance with church teachings on such issues as abortion and same-sex marriage? What about other issues the church might have a stake in, such as the development of the Crossroads Mall? Are LDS politicians ever called on the carpet by church leaders?

"I think the leadership makes a distinction between policy and practice," says University of Utah political science professor Ted Wilson. So someone like Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who is LDS, can come out as an abortion-rights candidate, "as long as he doesn't personally get involved with an abortion situation," says Wilson.

Church members, on the other hand, "perceive it in a more hard-line fashion," he says. An issue like abortion becomes a litmus test for candidates, he says. "Those (Mormon politicians) who are pro-choice don't worry about the church punishing them, but they're scared silly of the voter."

Wilson says he has never heard of politicians being chastised by church leaders because of a political position. Ditto, says Farmington Mayor Dave Connors, who once voted to keep the town's swimming pool open on Sundays.

"I never felt any pressure one way or the other from any church source on that issue," says Connors, who is LDS.

In describing his position on the pool closure, Connors uses the very phrase that infuriates Catholic bishops: "I said I wouldn't be in the pool on Sunday, but it's not my right to tell someone else what they should do on Sunday."

Connors, who notes that he spent the first half of his life as a Catholic, says the intersection of conscience, religion and politics is "an interesting dilemma, not just for the Catholic Church and the Mormon Church but for all religious leaders." And for politicians who are religious, he adds.

Do LDS politicians in Utah mostly just vote the way their church wants them to?

"Most elected officials feel there should be a separation of church and state," Connors says. "At the same time we are who we are. I was raised a certain way. I have certain values. There's no way I could say that my background doesn't affect how I analyze issues. That's a part of the package when you elect someone. You elect a person, not a conduit to express the majority views." Religion, he says, "is one of the many factors you fall back on as you analyze an issue. But in my mind that doesn't dictate a resolve."

Former state legislator Dave Thomas, who is LDS, says he hopes the Catholic Church doesn't adopt sanctions against maverick politicians. "I believe the Constitution is a sacred document. It calls for some real separation between church and state."

Salt Lake City Council member Jill Remington Love agrees.

"As elected officials we should feel free to vote our conscience," says Love, who is LDS. She recently voted on a council matter that went against a business concern of her church — she voted to allow Nordstrom to move to The Gateway even though her church lobbied against the move — and says no church leader called her later to complain. "I would be surprised to hear that an elected official (in Utah) has been called in or called on the carpet because of a vote." She adds, however, that "I think they (church leaders) do a good job of articulating their position on the front end."

"My father reminded me of a JFK quote," says Love, paraphrasing the words of President John F. Kennedy that a politician is elected to serve the people who elected him, not the church he belongs to.

"Coming from a community where we do have the presence of one religion that's very strong," says Love, "I've always hoped churches would show restraint when it comes to political issues. It's OK for any church to take a stand on moral issues, but they should let elected officials do their job."

E-MAIL: jarvik@desnews.com