The three Catholics in the Democratic presidential primary quickly fired off statements supporting the Massachusetts high court ruling last week that same-sex couples have the right to marry.
Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich of Ohio and retired Gen. Wesley K. Clark made the announcements despite two Vatican directives this year to Roman Catholic officeholders to never promote laws that endorse gay marriage.
Politicians' practices -- known as "cafeteria Catholicism" -- led U.S. bishops this month to begin exploring possible penalties for officeholders who ignore church doctrine. It would be the first time the U.S. church threatened to discipline individual politicians.
"This is a miracle," said Judie Brown, president of the American Life League, a Catholic-influenced antiabortion group based in Virginia. "It takes seriously the problem of pro-choice Catholic politicians."
Punishments could range from bans on speaking appearances at Catholic institutions to excommunication.
Politicians under fire from orthodox factions of the church include Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), Republican Gov. George E. Pataki of New York and some of California's most visible officeholders, including Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), the House minority leader. All support abortion rights.
"I get tired of hearing Catholic politicians say, 'I am personally opposed to abortion,' or whatever, 'but I can't impose my moral standards on everybody else,' " said Bishop Joseph A. Galante of Dallas at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Washington, D.C., this month. "That's a weaseling-out."
But some clerics and laity wonder whether the bishops' desire to sanction certain politicians is politically or theologically sound.
"People worry about Catholic politicians scandalizing the community," said Father George O'Brien, who has served Communion to former Gov. Gray Davis many times. "I think a greater scandal is for the church to be arrogant in judging others."
Voters and many fellow Catholics haven't been bothered by the inconsistencies, electing to state and federal offices 412 politicians who identify themselves as Catholic and supportive of abortion rights, according to the American Life League.
Politicians, were they to remain faithful to key Catholic teachings, would have to oppose abortion, capital punishment, birth control, the war in Iraq and gay marriage.
A few of America's 195 dioceses, including Dallas and Philadelphia, bar abortion-rights politicians from speaking at Catholic churches and schools. In April, news leaked that Bishop Robert Carlson of Sioux Falls, S.D., had sent a letter asking the state's Democratic Sen. Tom Daschle to stop calling himself a Catholic.
But the bishops and the Vatican haven't agreed on a disciplinary policy, and no politicians are being denied Communion.
"The bishops and pope have decided not to excommunicate people on their views on abortion," said Frances Kissling, president of the Catholics for a Free Choice, an abortion-rights group. "If they started, they would have to excommunicate a lot of people they don't want to excommunicate."
Kissling said the bishops valued their relationships with the more liberal Catholic politicians who support abortion rights, such as Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) and Kennedy, who help advance the church's mission to help the poor.
Antiabortion advocates say there is another reason why bishops are afraid of angering liberal Catholics: money.
"They are afraid of alienating pro-choice Catholics and suffering the consequences of that alienation, including loss in donations and loss in federal funding dependent" on Catholic abortion-rights politicians in Congress, said Deal Hudson, editor of Crisis, a conservative Catholic magazine.
President Kennedy set the tone for Catholic politicians. As a presidential candidate in 1960, he told a group of Protestant ministers in Houston that his Catholic faith would be kept private and not interfere with his public policy.
Kerry used Kennedy's speech in his response to Pope John Paul II's efforts in January to get American politicians in line with church doctrine.
"As a Catholic, I have enormous respect for the words and teachings of the Vatican," Kerry said. "But as a public servant, I've never forgotten the lasting legacy of President Kennedy, who made clear that in accordance with the separation of church and state no elected official should be 'limited or conditioned by any religious oath, ritual or obligation.' "
Kucinich said this month that he has tried to carry out his Catholic faith as best as he could and that he believed the prelates have too.
"I respect the bishops' right to do what they feel is appropriate," Kucinich said. "I'm not trying in any way to suggest that my role in public life is to make church doctrine."
Kucinich is a recent convert to the abortion-rights movement and says he remains personally opposed to abortion.
Clark, who supports abortion rights, was born Jewish, raised Protestant and converted to Catholicism as an adult. He attends a Presbyterian church, but hasn't given up Catholicism. Clark describes himself as "pro-choice" and has said during the campaign that "homosexuality is not a sin."
Though the three candidates support the Massachusetts court decision, they give more nuanced statements about their individual views on gay marriages. Kucinich is for them. Kerry is against them, though he supports giving the same legal rights accorded married couples to homosexual partners. Clark believes in guaranteeing equal rights for gay couples but says legalized marriage should be a decision of each state.
Abortion-rights politicians in recent years have benefited from the breakup of what once was considered the Catholic voting bloc. Today, moral beliefs of U.S. Catholics closely match those held by all Americans.
According to a recent ABC News-Washington Post poll, 88% of Catholics believe that it is morally acceptable to use birth control, and 67% believe that it is acceptable to have premarital sex. In addition, 62% believe that invoking the death penalty was morally acceptable. Homosexual relations are morally acceptable for 48% of Catholics, and having the right to abortion was acceptable to 30% of those polled.
"Very few American Catholics strictly follow all of the Vatican's positions, and these persons are quite willing to excuse Catholic-identifying politicians for doing the same," said Mark J. Rozell, chairman of the political science department at Catholic University of America in Washington.
In California, controversy over Catholic politicians whose positions on abortion run counter to church teachings has repeatedly surfaced.
Last December, Msgr. Edward Kavanagh, pastor of St. Rose Church in Sacramento, barred Davis from visiting an orphanage he directs because of the governor's abortion policies.
The furor widened when Sacramento Bishop William K. Weigand in January called on Davis and other Catholics who support abortion rights to abstain from receiving Communion. Anyone "who thinks it is acceptable for a Catholic to be pro-abortion is in very great error, puts his or her soul at risk," Weigand said.
Davis responded by saying he is "a practicing Catholic and believes in the separation of church and state," a spokesman said.
Sean Walsh, a spokesman for Schwarzenegger, said the new governor also made a distinction between private religious beliefs and public policies. Walsh declined to state whether Schwarzenegger was personally opposed to abortion.
Kavanagh said that unless the governor publicly opposed abortion, he should be excommunicated.