Is it a sin for Catholics to vote for former altar boy John Kerry? That’s the line Colorado Springs Bishop Michael Sheridan began pushing in early May, when he penned a pastoral letter to his 125,000 parishioners titled, “On the Duties of Catholic Politicians and Voters.” “Any Catholic politicians who advocate for abortion, for illicit stem-cell research or for any form of euthanasia ipso facto place themselves outside full communion with the Church and so jeopardize their salvation,” Sheridan wrote. “Any Catholics who vote for candidates who stand for abortion, illicit stem-cell research or euthanasia suffer the same fateful consequences.”

By raising the specter of withholding Holy Communion from supporters of Kerry and other politicians who back abortion rights, Sheridan has waded deeper into the 2004 political debate than any other church leader. But not that much deeper. Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput has written that “real Catholics” should determine whether candidates are in tune with church teaching on abortion and “vote accordingly.” Bishop Raymond Burke of St. Louis has barred Kerry from accepting Communion, and bishops in Boston, New Orleans and Portland, Oregon, have suggested that it is inappropriate for Kerry and other Catholic candidates who support abortion and gay rights to partake in the central ritual of the church. Things have gotten so hot that Ono Ekeh, the former program coordinator for African-American Catholics at the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, says he was asked to resign after conservative Catholics complained that he had founded a Catholics For Kerry group and maintained a personal weblog that advanced the view that “being a Catholic and a Democrat are not mutually exclusive.”

Of course, millions of Catholics–including Kerry, Senate minority leader Tom Daschle and House minority leader Nancy Pelosi–are Democrats. Catholics, who make up roughly 26 percent of the voting-age population, favored Al Gore over George Bush by a 50-to-47 margin in 2000, according to exit polls. And strong support from Catholics in eastern Iowa helped Kerry resurrect his campaign this year with a big win in that state’s caucuses. But the charge that Kerry is a “bad Catholic” and that it is morally wrong to vote for him, or for other Democrats who are social liberals, could be a factor in battleground states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, New Mexico and Arizona, which have substantial Catholic populations. Thus, when bishops go after Kerry and other pro-choice Democrats, they are playing political hardball. Forty-eight Democratic members of Congress–all of them Catholics and several of them opponents of abortion–signed a letter to the head of a bishops’ task force that said threats to deny Communion to politicians who support abortion rights was “miring the Church in partisan politics.” Father Robert Drinan, a former Congressman from Massachusetts who now teaches law at Georgetown, was more blunt: “They think they’re Caesar. They want to tell people how to vote,” Drinan said of Sheridan and like-minded church leaders. “They’re really a minority among the bishops. They’re the extremists. But they get the publicity, and they are making it appear that the only thing Catholics care about is abortion.”

To be sure, the church hierarchy is against abortion. But it is, as well, critical of the doctrine of pre-emptive war, the nuclear arms race, capital punishment and the widening gap between rich and poor. Father Andrew Greeley, a sociologist and author who is one of the country’s most prominent Catholic thinkers, asks, “Are these bishops willing to deny the Eucharist to Catholic politicians who support the death penalty or the Iraq war? And if not, why not? Moreover, will they tell Catholics that it is a sin to support an unjust war and to vote for a candidate who is responsible for such a war? And again, if not, why not?” Similarly, Sister Joan Chittister, a past president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, argues that “Kerry has denounced the policies of unilateralism and pre-emptive war. He promises to renew US alliances around the world so we are seen as an international partner not a bully. Those are very Catholic positions.” And the independent National Catholic Reporter weighed in with the view, “Kerry might be a ‘bad Catholic’ (or a ‘good’ one for that matter) and still be an exemplary President; or a failed one. Personal piety and religious observance are not prerequisites of national leadership.”

Critics of Archbishop Chaput, Bishop Sheridan and other conservative Catholic leaders say that by focusing single-mindedly on abortion and neglecting issues of war and poverty, anti-Kerry churchmen fail not only to do justice to the whole body of church teaching but also abandon the principles enunciated by America’s only Catholic President, John Kennedy, who declared in 1960, “I believe in an America…where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace, or the public acts of its officials.” Indeed, Greeley suggests, the bishops appear to be “doing the Republican National Committee’s work for it.”