The statement, adopted in a 183-6 vote at the bishops' closed-door retreat outside Denver, was significantly more moderate than the threats to deny 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 approach that seeks to "teach" and "persuade" may be more effective than public threats.
Instead, they suggested that politicians who support abortion be denied speaking 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 the human race is a sin against justice," the bishops said in a two-page statement. "Those who formulate public law therefore have an obligation in conscience to work toward correcting morally defective laws, lest they be guilty 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 he may not receive Communion in their dioceses because of his support of abortion rights.
On Thursday, Burke told the Rocky Mountain News that "there is a difference 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 group to file a complaint with the Internal Revenue Service that the bishops were turning churches into partisan operations.
On Friday, the bishops stated flatly, "As bishops, we do not endorse or oppose candidates." They lamented that "Catholic teaching and sacramental practice can be misused for political ends" in an election year.
A spokeswoman for the Kerry campaign did not immediately return calls for comment.
Lay Catholics have chafed at the rebukes, with 75 percent of U.S. Catholics telling a recent Time magazine poll they disapprove of such threats, and 83 percent saying it won't affect their votes in November.
A task force headed by Washington Cardinal Theodore McCarrick presented an interim report at the bishops' retreat. The panel's full report and recommendations 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 society faces without endorsing parties or candidates."
Deal Hudson, editor of Crisis magazine and a close adviser to the Bush White House, has been critical of Kerry and supported bishops who publicly rebuked 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 to make a stronger statement means that this is merely an interim policy and that if these politicians don't start changing their positions or stop calling themselves Catholic, stronger methods or statements may follow," he said.