The nation's Roman Catholic bishops, under election-year pressure to take a stand on whether Catholic politicians who support abortion rights should be denied Holy Communion, said yesterday that it is up to each local bishop to decide.

The issue had intensified after several bishops said that Sen. John F. Kerry, the Democratic presidential candidate, should be barred from receiving his church's sacrament because he supports abortion rights.

The controversy went as far as the Vatican, and Kerry met privately with two U.S. cardinals. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops was also forced to take up the issue yesterday during what was supposed to have been a spiritual retreat in Englewood, Colo.

In the end, the U.S. bishops, on a vote of 183 to 6, reaffirmed existing Catholic governance, which leaves such decisions up to the local bishop.

Bishops said there could be any number of reasons and a "wide range of circumstances" that a local bishop would have to take into consideration. "Bishops can legitimately make different judgments on the most prudent course of pastoral action," they said.

Church scholars and theologians said that the bishops' choosing not to speak out more forcefully, as some conservative prelates had hoped, pointed to division in their ranks.

Nonetheless, the bishops underscored the church's view that "the killing of an unborn child is always intrinsically evil and can never be justified."

Bishops also served notice that lawmakers have "an obligation in conscience to work toward correcting morally defective laws, lest they be guilty of cooperating in evil and in sinning against the common good."

In February, Archbishop Raymond Burke of St. Louis said he would refuse to give Communion to Kerry because of the senator's stance. Kerry's own archbishop, the Most Rev. Sean P. O'Malley of Boston, said such politicians should voluntarily refrain from receiving the sacrament.

In April, a ranking Vatican cardinal said priests must deny Communion to Catholic politicians who support abortion. Later, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the Vatican's doctrinal watchdog, cautioned U.S. bishops not to allow Holy Communion to become embroiled in election-year politics.

Last month, Bishop Michael Sheridan of Colorado Springs escalated the public controversy when he said that Catholics who vote for politicians who support abortion rights, euthanasia, same-sex marriages and stem cell research involving human embryos should be denied Communion.

In the midst of the controversy, Kerry met privately with Cardinal Roger M. Mahony in Los Angeles and Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick in Washington. Neither prelate would say what was discussed.

Mahony said yesterday that in the Los Angeles Archdiocese, the nation's largest, he and his priests would not deny Communion to a Catholic politician who supports abortion rights.

He said the church teaches that it is the duty of Catholics to examine their conscience as to their worthiness to receive Communion.

"That is not the role of the person distributing the body and blood of Christ," Mahony said.