The role of the Roman Catholic Church as a force in American politics is again the center of controversy. This time, the issue is a pastoral letter by Humberto Cardinal Medeiros, the primate of Boston, urging Roman Catholics to vote against political candidates favoring medicaid funding of abortions.
Cardinal Medeiros's adamant opposition to the practice of abortion is nothing new, nor is that of his church, but his letter puts the church squarely into the midst of a hotly contested Massachusetts primary contest in two districts where pro-abortion Democrats have been favored to defeat their anti-abortion rivals in balloting Sept. 16. What the Cardinal's stand does to the candidates' prospects of winning remains to be seen, but the contests are attracting far wider national attention as a result of the pastoral letter.
To many Protestants, and even some Roman Catholics, the Cardinal's much publicized letter appears a violation of the traditional, but often delicate, separation of church and state in the United States.
It also runs counter to the view of Cardinal Medeiros's predecessor, Richard Cardinal Cushing, who in 1965 took the Roman Catholic Church out of the controversy in Massachusetts over the legalization of birth control practices, arguing then that "it does not seem reasonable to me to forbid in civil law a practice that can be considered a matter of private morality."
That is how many Roman Catholics feel on the abortion issue. As a result, Cardinal Medeiros's pastoral letter, issued Sept. 12 just four days before primary voting, pits him against the more liberal views of such Roman Catholic politicians as Massachusetts Democratic Sen. Edward M. Kennedy and lameduck Rep. Robert F. Drinan.
It was Father Drinan's forced retirement from Congress that has made the Fourth Congressional District race for his old seat so important. Father Drinan , a Jesuit, was one of several Catholic priests who, upon papal order this year, are quitting politics.
But Father Drinan is actively campaigning for Massachuesetts state Rep. Barney Frank, a longtime aide, as his replacement. Mr. Frank is an advocate of medicaid funds for abortions and has long been a state leader in the struggle not only to legalize abortions, but also to make abortions as easy as possible for women desirous of terminating a pregnancy. Incumbent Democratic Congressman James Shannon in the Massachusetts Fifth Congressional District is also a supporter of federal funding for abortions.