Senate candidate and Missouri Gov. Mel Carnahan may have commuted a death sentence, but St. Louis-area Catholics won't be letting him off the hook on the abortion issue

Pity poor Mel Carnahan. The pope comes to town, asks for a favor. You're the governor, and you say, sure, why not? Pope John Paul II fills up the dome, gets the media all in a tizzy and asks that the next guy up on death row be spared. This is a big deal in Missouri, which trails only Texas, Virginia and Florida in the capital-punishment hit parade. But you're moved, or in a pinch, so you skip just this one lethal injection.

Because Mel is running for the U.S. Senate against incumbent John Ashcroft, there is a risk he'll be called soft on crime. But St. Louis is heavily Catholic (about 28 percent), so there might be some beneficial fallout from granting the pope's request. Not so, says Msgr. Sal Polizzi, pastor of St. Roch's Catholic Church. "That has nothing to do with the issue. What he granted the pope last January has nothing to do with our issue," Polizzi says.

The "issue," of course, is abortion. In Polizzi's eyes, it trumps other issues. Ashcroft wants it made illegal, Carnahan wants to keep it legal. Polizzi refers to the choices as "moral" and "immoral" but insists that when Catholic priests preach a "pro-life agenda," they aren't endorsing specific candidates or parties and that therefore they are within the directives of the Catholic hierarchy and within the confines of their 501c3 nonprofit status. Polizzi says blatant endorsements by churches are made frequently and should be stopped: "They all should have their 501c3s taken away from them, and it's never taken away from them. They preach it from the pulpit, and it's wrong."

Carnahan's unsuccessful veto of the "partial-birth-abortion" bill has reminded local anti-abortion clerics just where he stands on the issue. And with such a clear demarcation, clerics won't have to name names. An urging to support an anti-abortion agenda clearly is a statement that supports Ashcroft. If priests beat the drum loudly on this issue in the upcoming election year, it can't be good for Mel. And it looks as if they will. Still, Steve Mamanella, spokesman for the Archdiocese of St. Louis, contends that the Marquis of Queensberry rules apply: no names, no parties. "A priest from the pulpit might speak to these issues, but it wouldn't be appropriate to do it in such a way that it would seem to be telling someone they shouldn't vote for a particular candidate or with a political party," Mamanella says. "That's not what we're about."

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