For practicing Roman Catholics, to be denied communion is the most grievous punishment possible short of excommunication from the church.
The readiness of a handful of US bishops to deny that central sacrament to presidential candidate John Kerry and other politicians who support abortion rights has stirred consternation among the faithful. Some accuse the hierarchy of inappropriately injecting itself into partisan politics, and in a way that could arouse anti-Catholic sentiment. To others, it just doesn't make sense as a way to treat believers.
"We haven't had situations in my lifetime where people have been identified as public sinners - presumably we've come some distance from the Middle Ages, when they used to do that," says Terry Carden, a doctor who is head of the Voice of the Faithful chapter in Tucson, Ariz. "And it's unbelievable that people are being [singled out] on the basis of their political positions, not on active behaviors of their own."
But others say the bishops' insistence that Catholic politicians hew to church teaching on abortion and other related issues is overdue.
"It's a longstanding scandal that most of the bishops in years past tried to finesse or evade their responsibility in calling Catholics to account," says the Rev. Richard John Neuhaus, editor of First Things, a journal on religion and public life. "That's the job of bishops - to be concerned about the spiritual welfare and make sure the church's teaching isn't fudged or compromised in public."
The issue came to the fore as Senator Kerry - a longstanding supporter of a woman's right to choose abortion - emerged as the presumptive Democratic nominee and first Catholic major-party candidate for president in 40 years. Church officials had long been distressed by the large number of Catholic officials who support abortion rights, and last year Pope John Paul II issued a document on the responsibilities of Catholics in political life. He also made it clear that bishops should take some action.
American bishops set up a task force, headed by Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington, D.C., to consider sanctions for public officials who go astray.
The task force doesn't plan to make recommendations until after the 2004 election. That leaves the door open for prelates to take steps in accord with their individual views in the meantime.
Several conservative bishops, starting with Arch- bishop Raymond Burke in St. Louis, have declared that any politician who backs abortion rights can't receive communion. Bishop Michael Sheridan of Colorado Springs, Colo., added to the list any Catholics who vote for politicians who support abortion rights, stem-cell research, euthanasia, or gay marriage.
But other bishops have taken a softer stance, including Cardinal McCarrick. In the archdiocese newspaper he wrote that he did not favor making the Eucharist a point of confrontation, and that on his recent trip to Rome, it was clear that "many of the highest authorities in the church are in agreement with my position."
The warnings of the few, however, stung many Catholic Democrats in Congress, including some who oppose abortion. Earlier this month, 48 legislators sent a letter to McCarrick asking to meet with the task force. They called the bishops' statements "deeply hurtful" and "miring the church in partisan politics."
Some Catholics saw a sign of partisanship in the omission of the death penalty from the bishops' list - an issue on which Republicans might be out of sync with church teaching. Church leaders have often emphasized the "seamless garment" of the sanctity of life - from birth to death - including opposition to capital punishment.
Conservatives, however, insist not all issues are equal. "Nothing else in the catalog of issues has anywhere near the authoritative status of the teaching on abortion," says Father Neuhaus.
The church opposes the death penalty, but the pope "has left open at least the theoretical possibility there might be times in which it is justified," says Russell Shaw, a writer and former spokesman for the US Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Once predominantly Democratic, many Catholic voters are now considered up for grabs. President Bush is scheduled to visit the pope on June 4, in what some consider a prime photo op for the campaign. Relations between the Vatican and administration have been strained over the Iraq war, but Rome appreciates that it has a good friend in the White House on abortion and other conservative issues.
"Many Catholics, particularly the hierarchy, can almost taste [the possibility of] overturning Roe v. Wade," suggests Chester Gillis, chairman of the theology department at Georgetown University. "They have a strong ally in the White House, and why not put a full-court press on Catholics and politicians on this issue?"
Mr. Shaw rejects the idea of any political aim. "Everybody knows the bishops don't have that much influence on how Catholics of any persuasion vote any more, so it's absurd to suggest what they say might influence the election," he says.
The bishops are simply doing their job, he insists. "They aren't saying this to affect people's voting, whether as citizens or legislators, but because it's their responsibility to remind Catholics of what is intrinsically required for living in communion with their church."
At the same time, many Catholics have emphasized that candidates take stands and people vote on the basis of many issues. "Catholics should take into account what the church teaches, but the majority are going to consider several factors and make up their own mind," Dr. Gillis says.
That the bishops hold diverse views on how best to make their case on abortion could lessen the impact of those who've taken the tough line.
In the meantime, in Dr. Carden's view, "People need a pastoral approach as opposed to a condemnatory approach."