SILVER SPRING -- In raising funds during Mass for Maryland's anti-abortion campaign, the Catholic Church has turned a "sacred religious event" into "a political rally and fund-raising campaign," a group of abortion-rights Catholics charged yesterday.
"We believe that the Mass is a sacred event," Frances Kissling, president of Catholics for a Free Choice, said at a press conference attended by three Catholic legislators. "We don't believe it is the place for politicking."
Last weekend, most Catholic parishes in Maryland passed a special basket to benefit the Vote kNOw Coalition, which is leading the campaign against a new abortion law up for referendum in November. Priests also appealed for citizens to vote against the law, which was designed to keep most abortions legal here even if the U.S. Supreme Court should overturn its Roe vs. Wade decision of 1973.
The Catholic Church has traditionally preached against abortion and supported anti-abortion counseling and education. But last week's collection, Ms. Kissling said, brought a political campaign into the church, undermining trust in the church and its clergy.
"It's a very fine line between offering moral guidance and politicking," said Montgomery County Democratic Sen. Mary H. Boergers, a Catholic who supports the abortion-rights law.
Ms. Kissling said parishioners attending church last weekend found themselves "in a coercively political situation."
Catholic leaders disagree. The church's anti-abortion campaign is simply another effort to fight injustice, said Dick Dowling, executive director of the Maryland Catholic Conference.
"I see what Catholics for a Free Choice and disaffected Catholic legislators are trying to do as an attempt to silence the bishops as moral leaders in the public arena," Mr. Dowling said yesterday.
"The bishops and the Catholic clergy will not keep quiet. They would not be silenced on civil rights or on economic justice or on world peace, and they will not be silenced on the rights of the unborn," Mr. Dowling said.
Ms. Boergers said priests last Sunday were "duped" by diocesan leaders into distorting the impact the law would have on abortion in Maryland. She said Mr. Dowling, who lobbied against the measure when it was before the General Assembly, misled the clergy.
"He should be fired," she said.
"This is outrageous," said Baltimore County Democratic Sen. Janet Piccinini. "What they are saying [from the pulpit] is not the truth."
Ms. Boergers said the new law would not allow a dentist to perform an abortion -- as she said some constituents were told. "Only physicians who are licensed" will be allowed to perform abortions under the law, she said.
Ms. Piccinini, former president of the Maryland State Teachers Association, said some priests told their parishioners that high school guidance counselors could accept kickbacks from clinics for referring students for abortions.
Accepting referral fees is already illegal under Maryland health laws, Ms. Piccinini said.
"Any guidance counselor who would accept a fee would lose their job, just as a doctor would," she added.
Prince George's County Democratic Del. Beatrice P. Tignor said that, contrary to the church's contentions, the new law will not allow unrestricted abortion in the third trimester.
"The fact of the matter is, there has never been unrestricted abortion in this state," Ms. Tignor said. After the time in pregnancy when the fetus might be viable, abortion would be available only to save a woman's life or health, or in cases of fetal deformity.