Roman Catholic bishops advised the nation's 53 million Catholics to let their church's stance on moral issues, from abortion to nuclear armaments, guide their choices in next year's political elections.
But they emphasized that they "specifically do not seek the formation of a religious voting bloc" and they pledged not to endorse or oppose particular candidates.
In a 23-page statement approved last month by the administrative committee of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops and released Wednesday, the bishops asserted "a right and a responsibility as teachers to analyze the moral dimensions of the major issues of our day."
The limits of the role of religious leaders, whether Roman Catholic or fundamentalist Protestant, in the election process has become a bone of contention in recent years.
In 1984, Cardinal John O'Connor of New York, in condemning public officials who supported abortion rights, challenged such Catholic politicians as New York Gov. Mario Cuomo and Democratic vice presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro.
The bishops stated that "the religious communities are inevitably drawn more deeply into the public life of the nation" today "precisely because the moral content of public choices is so central."
In discussing the church's stance on specific issues, the bishops' document, entitled "Political Responsibility: Choices for the Future," said, "We are convinced that a consistent ethic of life should be the moral framework from which we address all issues in the political arena. In this consistent ethic we address a spectrum of issues, seeking to protect human life and promote human dignity from the inception of life to its final moment."
The "consistent ethic of life" concept, originated by Cardinal Joseph L. Bernardin of Chicago, includes issues as diverse as nuclear warfare, poverty and abortion as threats to life. Conservatives in the church have charged that it blunts the church's battle against abortion by linking it with such other issues.
In addition to a call for legislation to turn back the 1973 Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion, the bishops' statement opposes capital punishment. It calls for a higher minimum wage and programs to create jobs and combat poverty, efforts for a comprehensive nuclear test ban treaty, and renewed efforts against "discrimination based on sex, race, ethnicity or age."
On Central America, where it says the U.S. government is "the dominant external actor," the bishops called for renewed effort toward a negotiated settlement, adding, "Military aid to irregular forces in the area cannot be justified under any forseeable circumstances."
The statement also cites food and agricultural policy, family life, health, housing, human rights and immigration and refugee policy as issues involving critical moral issues.