JOHNSTOWN, Pa. (AP) June 12, 2000-- Tom Ridge, a one-time altar boy, a churchgoing Roman Catholic and the staunchly Republican governor of Pennsylvania, is at odds with both his church and his party on the emotional issue of abortion.

Ridge, mentioned often as a possible vice presidential running mate for George W. Bush, defends his position as "where I want to be." But he adds that it can make his public life awkward.

"I understand my party is the pro-life party,'' Ridge said recently as a state plane whisked him from Harrisburg to events at new high-tech plants in this western Pennsylvania city. "One day I hope that this pro-life party will ... just be a little bit more tolerant of people with different points of view."

Ridge supports abortion rights.

He also supports Pennsylvania's laws regarding the procedure, which are among the most restrictive in the nation, and that has kept some abortion-rights groups at arm's length. But it is his refusal to embrace his church's anti-abortion doctrine that is causing him the worst headaches, both in his religious and political life.

"It's obviously pretty difficult for me because it puts me at odds with my faith community," said Ridge, 54. But he added, "`I realize the church hasn't created the problem. I have, because I've parted company with my church on this."

By order of the bishop in his home city of Erie, Ridge -- like other Catholic politicians whose views on abortion conflict with the church -- is barred from speaking at Catholic events in northwestern Pennsylvania. He is free to participate in church functions, however, and regularly attends Sunday Mass with his wife and two children at Harrisburg's St. Catherine Laboure Church.

Erie Bishop Donald Trautman, who remains a personal friend of Ridge, said his directive was not aimed at the governor. However, he said, "I have to fulfill my role as the shepherd of the diocese."

"I think we have to point out that there is a higher law, which is the law of God, and no human law can contradict the commandment 'Thou shall not kill,'" said Trautman, Erie's bishop for the past decade.

Although the abortion issue did not seriously impede either of Ridge's successful campaigns for governor, he was embarrassed when 900 anti-abortion activists protested his appearance at a Catholic fund-raiser in Altoona in May 1998. Ridge was permitted to speak, but he soon began turning down invitations to speak at church-sponsored events.

Watching Ridge's current situation with some sympathy is Democratic former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo, a fellow Catholic who has spoken at times about a conflict between church doctrine and contemporary American politics.

Both Cuomo and Geraldine Ferraro, the 1984 Democratic vice presidential nominee, had run-ins with the late New York Cardinal John O'Connor about their views that women have the right to choose abortion.

Cuomo says the church demands unreasonably that Catholics who hold elective offices not only follow Catholic teachings but impose their religious principles on a society of diverse beliefs.

In a telephone interview from his New York City office, Cuomo said, "You can't push the Catholic position in this country. It just won't sell politically."

Ridge's position also clashes with the Republican Party's platform and Bush's anti-abortion stance, although Bush has said he will consider his friend as a running mate.

Ridge told Fox News that as vice president "it'd be my responsibility to back him up even though I think people would know we disagree with that." Some analysts say Ridge's presence could drive Catholics and other social conservatives from the GOP ticket in November. Others counter he could draw women and moderate Republicans.

Ridge was re-elected governor two years ago with 57 percent of the vote, drawing support from both self-described conservatives and liberals. By the standards of contemporary politics, his abortion stance is strictly middle-of-the-road.

Although he wants to keep the procedure legal, he supports Pennsylvania laws that require women seeking to terminate their pregnancies to receive counseling about the procedure and the alternatives, and to wait at least 24 hours before having an abortion. Girls younger than 18 require the consent of at least one parent unless they go to court and persuade a judge to grant them an exemption.

National groups on opposite sides of the abortion debate dislike Ridge's position.

"He is for legal abortion on demand," said David O'Steen of the National Right to Life Committee.

Alice Germond, executive vice president of the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League said Ridge also fails to qualify for a NARAL endorsement.

"A true pro-choice governor, or even a moderate pro-choice governor" would do more "to make the process a little more open and a little more fair," Germond said.

Ridge shrugged.

"They can decide where I should be, but I'm where I want to be, which probably means I'm not where either one of these groups want me to be," he said.

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