New York -- Since 1984, when New York's Cardinal John O'Connor challenged Democratic vice presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro over her pro-abortion views, pro-life bishops and Catholic politicians who favor abortion have periodically butted heads over the role of faith in public life.
O'Connor conducted a running feud with pro-abortion Gov. Mario M. Cuomo, and in New Jersey, Camden Bishop James McHugh forced pro-abortion Gov. Jim Florio to resign from the Knights of Columbus, declaring that "No Catholic can hold a pro-choice position and claim to be in unity with the church."
Now, after a lengthy internal debate over how to present a united front on this sensitive issue, the nation's bishops are poised to enshrine their disapproval in a document the could make the lives of many Catholic candidates a lot more uncomfortable come the next election cycle.
At their annual meeting in Washington starting Monday, the country's 287 active bishops are expected to adopt a forceful policy statement that tells pro-abortion Catholic politicians that their actions "jeopardize their own salvation, erode the community of faith, and give scandal to the faithful."
"Catholic public officials who disregard Church teaching on the dignity of the human person indirectly collude in the taking of innocent life," the 28-page document continues, and it holds out the threat of unspecified penalities to leaders who persist in their views.
"As chief teachers in the Church, we must . . . explain, persuade, correct, and admonish and do whatever else may be pastorally required in regard to elected leaders who contradict the Gospel of life through their actions and policies," says the document, titled "Living the Gospel of Life: A Challenge to American Catholics."
While Catholic leaders like O'Connor have in the past said that Catholic officials who support abortion put themselves "at risk of excommunication," bishops in recent years have shied away from threatening such harsh sanctions.
"I think it has to be handled at the local level," said Camden's Bishop McHugh, an influential member of the bishops' Pro-Life Activities committee, which drafted the document. "It is extremely difficult to formulate a national policy on what to do in these cases."
Although he is an outspoken conservative, McHugh has ruled out excommunication as a sanction for pro-abortion Catholics like Florio. The hierarchy's main weapon has instead focused on measures that publicly register the church's disapproval.
In 1995, former Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jim McGreevey, then a state senator and mayor of Woodbridge, ran afoul of the church for his pro-abortion views and was barred from speaking at Catholic churches.
Last summer, the bishop of Orange County, Norman F. McFarland, chided pro-abortion Democratic congresswoman Loretta Sanchez for speaking at Catholic churches during her tough rematch with pro-life ex-Rep. Robert K. Dornan.
In 1989, in the harshest punishment ever meted out, San Diego Bishop Leo Maher announced that he would deny communion to Lucy Killea, a Democratic candidate for state senate who was pro-abortion. Killea won however.
Non-Catholics also have come under increasing pressure from Catholic leaders as the bishops have sought to raise their profile on the abortion issue. Just this week, Seton Hall University administrators decided to move a ceremony honoring pro-abortion Governor Christine Whitman, a Presbyterian, to an off-campus locale. The university cited Whitman's pro-abortion stand, which became especially galling to Catholic leaders last year when she lobbied hard against a ban on the partial-birth abortion procedure.
The bishops feel that their greatest clout -- and responsibility -- lies with Catholic politicians, and they say that with this new document they can finally present a united and consistent front in hallenging Catholic leaders.
"Two years ago a number of bishops expressed concern about a growing number of Catholic politicians who were taking pro-abortion positions with no apparent concern," said McHugh, who has pushed his fellow bishops to assume a higher profile in public policy debates. "We felt we had to call this to their attention," he added. "We also felt we had to do it consistently and not to think that we could assert our position once and then let it go."
With more than 60 million members, Catholics are the largest single denomination in the country, and the conflict between pro-abortion Catholic officials and bishops is common in states with large Catholic concentrations, like New Jersey, where 42 percent of the residents are Catholic.
Five of the New Jersey's 13 House members are Catholic -- three of them pro-abortion Democrats. For the most part, politicians have avoided fights with church leaders over the abortion issue, and several pro-abortion Democrats, including McGreevey, and Reps. Bill Pascrell and Robert Menendez either declined to comment on the draft document or didn't return calls seeking reaction.
With the exception of prelates like McHugh, bishops, too, tend to avoid public spats with individual candidates. But if the bishops' new document passes muster, pro-abortion Catholic candidates might have less wiggle room.
In a famous 1984 address at Notre Dame, Cuomo set forth the argument, widely adopted by other pro-abortion Catholic officials, that he could be personally opposed to abortion yet should not impose his personal views on others. The draft document criticizes that reasoning as "seriously mistaken on several counts" and lambasts such a view as "thinly-disguised selfishness."
Still, it is unclear what political impact the document might have. Democrats have usually been the target of the bishops' critiques since Democrats tend to support abortion and there are more Catholic Democrats than Republicans.