Some wonder if the pope's trip to the US is aimed at increasing the church's political influence in the elections. In Europe, the church is influential on moral issues but has little impact on election outcomes.
American cardinals may have a difficult time deciding who to support in the US election
On Tuesday April 15, Pope Benedict XVI headed for the United States on his first official visit, where he met with President George W. Bush and will address the United Nations General Assembly.
While Catholic leaders in the US hope the pontiff's visit will revitalize Americans' views of the church, which has been plagued with pedophilia scandals, political observers wonder about the visit's repercussions on November's presidential election.
But before former German Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger -- or any other clergy member -- can give even a tacit endorsement in the US election, he'd have to decide which candidate to support.
None of the three contenders for US presidency is an ideal fit for the church, said Sandro Magister, a veteran Vatican watcher who writes for the Italian newsweekly L'Espresso.
While Republican nominee John McCain's support of the Iraq War puts him at odds with the Vatican, the pro-choice convictions of the two Democratic candidates -- Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama -- conflict with long-standing church policy, Magister said.
Pope Benedict XVI has often reiterated the church doctrine of his predecessor John Paul II on the sanctity of human life that begins at the moment of conception and ends with a natural death. It makes not only abortion and euthanasia, but also the war in Iraq -- which the Holy See opposes -- mortal sins.
Not all of McCain's view gel with church teachings
Reelected in spite of bishops' protest
Back in Europe, the clergy has traditionally had an easier time deciding where to offer its support. The Catholic Church played a significant role in this year's Spanish election, even though the incumbent prime minister, Socialist Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapertero, won a second term in March.
Early in his first term, Zapatero had introduced legislation that was anathema to the Catholic Church, such as permitting gay couples to marry and adopt children, as well as easing restrictions on divorce and embryonic stem cell research. Spanish bishops had even organized a huge rally dubbed "Christian Family Day" a few months before the election. But most voters were more concerned about pocketbook issues than social agendas.
A cardinal's fierce campaign
In Italy, though, some say the church had a hand in bringing down Romano Prodi's center-left government in January, thereby forcing new elections on April 13-14. The poll resulted in a victory for center-right media mogul Silvio Berlusconi, who is serving as Italy's premier for the third time now.
The left-leaning US weekly The Nation had singled out Cardinal Camillo Ruini, the pope's vicar general of Rome for conducting a "fierce campaign" against Prodi's social policy, which included civil unions for gay couples and liberalizing laws on stem cell research and artificial insemination.
The Nation's Rome correspondent called Ruini a "discreet force moving behind the scenes" in the collapse of Prodi's government and predicted that Pope Benedict XVI would launch a campaign on church doctrine in the United States.
Maciej Golubiewski, an EU strategist at the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute, a non-partisan social policy group in Washington DC, said the campaign to protest Prodi's platform on gay unions as well as abortion and euthanasia, was sanctioned by Ruini. However, he said, it was organized and staged by lay social movements within the church, not by the clergy.
Enough influence to tip the scales
He added that in very close elections, the marginal power of a well-organized, politicized group that adheres strictly to religious doctrine can make a difference.
"Ruini is outspoken, and could have tipped the balance a bit in favor of Berlusconi by energizing the debate on moral issues that a core group of devout church-going Italian Catholics care about," said Golubiewski.
The church may have been a deciding factor in the fall of Prodi's government
"The bishops in Italy would never openly endorse a candidate or tell their congregations who to vote for, but they might weigh in on a particular issue and say this is an issue that is important to Catholics, so vote according to your conscience," Golubiewski said.
Abortion issues less influential in Italy
In America, abortion has been a hot button issue for both the church and politicians ever since the US Supreme Court's landmark decision to legalize abortion was passed in 1973. Presidential candidates' stances on the issue make a big difference for many voters.
This is much less the case in Europe. Berlusconi had won a clear victory over his center-left rival Walter Veltroni in the polls, with social issues having little impact on the elections, according to Vatican observers. Voters in Italy were also focused more on other issues, such as the economy, rather than legitimizing gay unions.
Fringe candidate draws attention to abortion
However, in the run up to the Italian elections, Giuliano Ferrara, a Berlusconi associate who ran for parliament on a single platform, called for a universal moratorium on abortion, and wound up drawing media attention to an issue that had been buried three decades ago. Italy's law, which is in line with most EU states, allows abortion on demand for the first three months of pregnancy, but the Vatican has generally left the legality of the issue alone.
Although Ferrara's anti-abortion campaign drew church supporters such as Cardinal Ruini, it hardly had an impact on the Italian elections at all, said Father Eberhard von Gemmingen, a Jesuit priest who is head of Vatican Radio's German section and is close to Pope Benedict XVI.
Sandro Magister pointed out that the church had used the publicity generated by Ferrara to open up a debate on reducing the number of abortions. "The Vatican has no intention of using its clout to revoke Italy's liberal laws," he said.
A fringe candidate in the Italian elections had made abortion a campaign issue
"But there are women who choose to end a pregnancy for reasons of poverty, so the church is saying financial help could do something about reducing the 'need' for abortion," said Magister.
Religiosity regardless of party affiliation
In the US, devout, church-going Christians for whom social issues are very important tend to vote Republican and can carry enough clout to affect election outcomes, according to Golubiewski.
Four years ago, when John Kerry, a Democrat and a Catholic, ran for president and declared himself to be pro-choice, several American bishops said they would deny him communion, and he lost some Christian votes for his abortion stance.
But in Italy, Magister pointed out, Romano Prodi, a devout Catholic, was not adversely affected by taking stances in opposition to those of the church. Berlusconi, on the other hand, who has not shown himself to be religious, is closer to the official church position on social issues.
Father von Gemmingen made the distinction between Prodi's private beliefs and his public duty as prime minister. "It is possible to be personally opposed to abortion in keeping with Catholic doctrine, but we cannot expect politicians to apply that article of faith to everyone else," he said.