The statement, adopted in a 183-6 vote at the bishops' closed-doorretreat outside Denver, was significantly more moderate than the threats todeny Communion issued by a vocal minority of conservative bishops.
While noting that bishops can "legitimately make different judgments"about how to handle politicians, the bishops signaled that a softer approachthat seeks to "teach" and "persuade" may be more effective than publicthreats.
Instead, they suggested that politicians who support abortion be deniedspeaking platforms or honors at Catholic institutions, and promised to"maintain communication" with lawmakers. Still, the bishops left little doubt that church teaching that abortion is "always intrinsically evil" remains unchanged.
"Failing to protect the lives of innocent and defenseless members of thehuman race is a sin against justice," the bishops said in a two-pagestatement. "Those who formulate public law therefore have an obligation inconscience to work toward correcting morally defective laws, lest they beguilty of cooperating in evil and in sinning against the common good."
Fewer than half a dozen bishops, led by Archbishop Raymond Burke of St.Louis, have told Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry that hemay not receive Communion in their dioceses because of his support ofabortion rights.
On Thursday, Burke told the Rocky Mountain News that "there is adifference of opinion, I guess it would be fair to say," within the bishops'conference about how to handle the delicate election-year issue.
Sheridan's directive prompted a prominent Washington church-state groupto file a complaint with the Internal Revenue Service that the bishops wereturning churches into partisan operations.
On Friday, the bishops stated flatly, "As bishops, we do not endorse oroppose candidates." They lamented that "Catholic teaching and sacramentalpractice can be misused for political ends" in an election year.
A spokeswoman for the Kerry campaign did not immediately return callsfor comment.
Lay Catholics have chafed at the rebukes, with 75 percent of U.S.Catholics telling a recent Time magazine poll they disapprove of suchthreats, and 83 percent saying it won't affect their votes in November.
A task force headed by Washington Cardinal Theodore McCarrick presentedan interim report at the bishops' retreat. The panel's full report andrecommendations are not expected until after the presidential election.
McCarrick said the statement "reflects the bishop's role as teacher,pastor and center of unity. We address the moral issues that our societyfaces without endorsing parties or candidates."
Deal Hudson, editor of Crisis magazine and a close adviser to the BushWhite House, has been critical of Kerry and supported bishops who publiclyrebuked him. He said the bishops' statement is only the first step.
"I think that the fact there are a minority of bishops who would like tomake a stronger statement means that this is merely an interim policy andthat if these politicians don't start changing their positions or stopcalling themselves Catholic, stronger methods or statements may follow," hesaid.