WASHINGTON – Pope Benedict XVI's agreement that Roman Catholic politicians in Mexico City who voted to legalize abortion should be denied the rite of Communion could have an effect on the 2008 presidential race in the United States.
The pontiff's comments put five of seven Catholic candidates at odds with their church.
Reporters aboard the pope's flight to Mexico City on Wednesday asked if he supported the decision by bishops there to excommunicate politicians who had voted to legalize abortion in the first trimester.
The pope responded that excommunication for those promoting abortion is "nothing new, it's normal, it wasn't arbitrary. It is what is foreseen by the Church's doctrine."
His comments later were clarified by the papal press office to say that neither the pope nor the Mexican bishops had declared the politicians excommunicated.
The press office director explained that the Church teaches that the promotion of abortion is not compatible with receiving the rite of Communion, one of seven Catholic "sacraments," or major holy rites.
U.S. Catholic officials say that position is nothing new, and U.S. politicians generally are free to participate in the sacrament regardless of their abortion beliefs, although individual church leaders can decide not to allow the practice.
It is longstanding tradition that any Catholic who supports, believes in, or approves of abortions should not present themselves for Communion without first going to confession, another of the Catholic sacraments, said Susan Gibbs, spokeswoman for the Catholic Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., where a standing Catholic president would practice his or her faith.
"There's nothing new here," Gibbs said. "We'll see if there's anything new as we go forward."
"This is basically restating policy," said Sister Mary Ann Walsh, communications director for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the organization that represents the 195 U.S. archdioceses.
Abortion politics is an issue that is playing heavily lately in the presidential race, and it is an issue high on many Catholics' agenda.
Rudy Giuliani is the only Republican candidate who has established himself as an abortion-rights candidate. Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback and former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson, the other Catholic GOP contenders, are firm anti-abortion advocates.
All four Catholic Democratic contenders — Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware, Sen. Christopher Dodd of Connecticut, Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio, and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson — support abortion rights.
William Donohue, president of the private, non-profit Catholic League, said the pope's comments will have the biggest impact on Giuliani.
The pope's comments "will now complicate his life that much further. He not only has to deal with pro-life Republicans. ... He has to deal with where he wants to have communion," Donohue said.
During last week's debate, Giuliani sent mixed messages about his feelings on overturning Roe v. Wade, the landmark decision that established the legal right to have an abortion. News reports surfaced this week that he and his ex-wife donated to Planned Parenthood, which advocates abortion rights, as well as runs clinics that provide them.
“Ultimately, there has to be a right to chose," Giuliani said Wednesday in Alabama. Asked by reporters if Republicans will accept that position, he added: “I guess we are going to find out."
Donohue said that Pope Benedict, before becoming the leader of the Catholic Church, issued a letter during the 2004 presidential campaign that said bishops have the right to withhold communion from candidates who say they support abortion. The letter was nonbinding, and it is up to the leaders of the individual archdioceses across the country to enforce the Church's position.
Donohue, who said the Planned Parenthood donations soured his feelings toward Giuliani, noted that Giuliani could be denied Communion, for instance, at the more conservative archdiocese in St. Louis, although the New York archdiocese likely would not deny Giuliani Communion.
While the pope's focus on abortion politics is likely hurting Giuliani the most -- and probably helping GOP opponent Ariz. Sen. John McCain the most -- it might not matter so much when it comes to next year's primary elections, said Christopher Hull, an adjunct assistant government professor at Georgetown University.
Hull has studied primary voter behavior, focusing on the Iowa caucuses, over the past 30 years. He said that while the more conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats tend to turn out in the primaries, Iowans tend to vote more for people they think can win general elections, as opposed to people who mirror their own beliefs.
"Primary voters trade off ideology for electability," Hull said. "Sophisticated primary voters are willing to sacrifice ideology on the alter of winning the White House, to some extent," Hull said.
"Something akin to that could be happening in the abortion debate ... where Republicans are saying, 'anything but Hillary.' [Even] if it means we have to have a pro-choice candidate."
But as far as the religion is concerned, Walsh said that while it is general teaching for any Catholics who commit a serious sin — including taking the side of abortion rights — to remove themselves from Communion, it is also a deep moral issue that is personal and should be worked out between the individual and his or her pastor.
"These are complicated moral decisions in many cases, which is why it's a pastoral matter," Walsh said.
She also said the pope's words could remind candidates the importance of the abortion issue, adding that it's not just a personal decision.
"Their actions are not just in isolation, that they have to consider the ramifications for them personally if not publicly, and maybe one would hope — on the significance of abortion, they may remember it," Walsh said.
"Abortion is a most serious issue. There is nobody who questions that."