NEW YORK-- Roman Catholics across the country are being asked to pray and fast -- even write their congressmen -- as cardinals and bishops accelerate their campaign to express "moral repugnance" at President Clinton's veto of a ban on partial-birth abortion.
At the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington and at churches in five surrounding Maryland counties, bells are expected to toll today in anticipation of a congressional attempt to override the president's veto of a bill that would criminalize the procedure, in which an infant's brain is sucked out through a tube when all but its head has been delivered through induced labor.
"Let this small sacrifice of our day of prayer and fasting move us to defend that child who is about to die," James A. Hickey, archbishop of Washington, said in a prepared statement.
After playing defense for much of the abortion debate, the church hierarchy is using a dramatic strategy to influence the nation's Catholic voters, deploying a deluge of an estimated 27 million postcards aimed at Congress, drawings that starkly depict late-term abortion, and an exhortation to priests across the nation to press the church's pro-life message from the pulpit.
Today's " Day of Prayer and Fasting" is the latest signal from the American Catholic bishops that President Clinton may have awakened a sleeping giant. In recent months, Mr. Clinton has vigorously courted the Catholic vote, an estimated 30 percent of the electorate, mindful that for the first time in history a majority of Catholics voted Republican in the 1994 midterm election. George Weigel a syndicated Catholic columnist, recently wrote that "Operation Catholic Seduction sets something of a record in campaign chutzpah."
But the courtship is over, and Mr. Clinton's April veto has drawn fire from Pope John Paul II and highlighted the chasm between the Catholic Church and state on moral issues. Mr. Clinton's position on partial-birth abortion has also changed the mind of more than one of the overwhelmingly Democratic American bishops who felt reassured by Mr. Clinton in private conversations with him.
"My God, there is absolutely no give here, no flexibility, not even a willingness to listen to an argument," said one source close to the bishops.
Late last month, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops rebuked Mr. Clinton for his action, equating it with infanticide. At stake for the president are the precious votes of Catholic Democrats in the industrial Northeast states, a traditional swing zone for both parties.
"In his typical way of serial sincerity, the president had reassured the bishops," said the Rev. Richard John Neuhaus, president of the Institute for Religion and Public Life, a Washington-based public policy organization. "Now there is an unprecedented confrontation."
Borrowing from 18th-century writer Samuel Johnson, he added: "You might say that of the prospect of being hanged in a fortnight, 'it has wonderfully concentrated the mind.' "
This concentration, a sharp shift into offense, is nowhere more apparent than in the Archdiocese of New York, where Cardinal John O'Connor has unleashed a 37-year-old priest to be point man in the abortion battle. The Rev. Frank Pavone, a short, slight man, preaches the pro-life gospel with the fervor of a crusader and oratorical skills that have begged comparison with the legendary Bishop Fulton J. Sheen of 1950s television fame.
One recent gray Sunday morning in an ornate wedding reception hall in Wood Ridge, N.J., Father Pavone celebrated Mass at a makeshift altar for a crowd of about 200 and then conducted a strategy session.
"Never let people forget that there is not one shred of, or one speck of, evidence that partial-birth abortion is ever necessary to preserve a woman's life or health. There is no such situation."
In an interview, he characterized the church's leadership style before the presidential veto as one that emphasized persuasion rather than thunderous public denunciations. Now, he said, there is a shift to church leaders speaking out more vigorously about exactly what abortion procedures entail and what the role of people in government is and should be.
The Clinton veto, as he and many others in the pro-life movement hold, may be a blessing in disguise, a unifying force for those Catholics who have thought of abortion only as an expression of a woman's right to assert her independence.
Father Pavone felt his "burning urgency" to stand up to abortion even before his ordination eight years ago. From a parish on Staten Island, he caught the eye of Cardinal O'Connor, who has made him the official attack dog on the abortion question. As national director of Priests for Life, the charismatic priest travels the country preaching, appearing on Mother Angelica's EWTN cable-television show and encouraging priests to take on the life question.
As he sees it, abortion, especially partial-birth abortion, will be the undoing of society. "It is like slavery. In the end, America knows what is right. If not, the government will not survive," he said.
As for his critics within the church, Father Pavone dismisses them as false prophets to whom he pays little attention.
The Rev. Robert Drinan, a Jesuit priest and former Democratic congressman from Massachusetts, made clear his support for the president's abortion stance in a recent article for the New York Times. Cardinal O'Connor blasted him in a written response that ran in the Archdiocesan newspaper, Catholic New York.
Father Drinan, who teaches law at Georgetown University, refused to comment beyond his article or the cardinal's return fire.
"I don't fault anyone with a moral point of view," he said, "like the environmentalists." Pressed on whether he also would include the pro-life movement, he said "Yes," although he added that he does not favor "decriminalizing" abortion.