Catholic leaders and political activists said yesterday that a Bethesda monsignor's decision to discipline a politician parishioner who favors abortion rights does not appear to represent a new offensive by the Church hierarchy in the Washington region.
However, abortion-rights advocates said that such disciplinary moves create renewed anxiety among Catholic officeholders and politicians, providing a pointed warning that they too could be denied full participation in church activities if they fail to adhere to the Catholic Church's antiabortion stance.
"We haven't heard of anything like this happening to other candidates in Maryland, but it could be the start of things around the state," said Karyn Strickler, executive director of the Maryland-National Abortion Rights Action League.
But Richard J. Dowling, legislative lobbyist for the Maryland Catholic Conference, which includes the Archdiocese of Washington, the Archdiocese of Baltimore and the Diocese of Wilmington, Del., said the hierarchy has not begun urging priests to discipline Catholic politicians who hold abortion views contrary to those of the Church.
John A. Hurson, a candidate for the Maryland House of Delegates from District 18 in Montgomery County, was told last week by Monsignor William F. O'Donnell that he must resign from the parish advisory council at Our Lady of Lourdes Church in Bethesda. O'Donnell was upset over Hurson campaign literature that listed both his position at the church and his abortion-rights political stance.
At a news conference yesterday, Hurson said he has refused to resign, in part, because it would have a "chilling effect" on all Catholics who seek to become involved in public affairs.
O'Donnell said Hurson had "taken himself out of the ballgame" by holding a leadership position while espousing a view on abortion that is opposite to that of the Church.
A spokesman for Cardinal James A. Hickey said the Washington Archdiocese had not become involved in the Hurson case before or after O'Donnell used his authority as a pastor to oust Hurson from the panel.
Hurson said yesterday that he thinks O'Donnell was influenced by last month's statements by Cardinal John O'Connor, archbishop of New York, that Roman Catholic officeholders who support abortion rights could be excommunicated.
"I think he just decided after O'Connor's statements . . . that it was the right time to do this," said Hurson, one of nine Democrats in the 18th District, the setting of one of several state Senate races considered showdowns over the abortion issue.
O'Donnell did not return telephone calls yesterday afternoon seeking a response to Hurson's statements.
Abortion has become one of the most sensitive of topics in this year's legislative races, and both sides say that continued access to abortions in Maryland hangs on the outcome of a few campaigns. The General Assembly, whose membership is nearly 40 percent Catholic, refused to change abortion laws this year after a wrenching Senate filibuster.