President Bush's strategy of building support among Roman Catholic voters by crafting appeals to the conservative church hierarchy is sharply constraining his ability to find an acceptable compromise in the debate over federal funding of embryonic stem cell research.
In effect, the divergence of opinion between the church leadership, which vehemently opposes stem cell research, and the majority of Catholic voters, as well as substantial numbers of moderate Republican officials and voters, who favor it, has posed a significant political complication for the president.
In his efforts to attract support among Catholics, Bush has cultivated the church's more conservative wing, particularly the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Echoing the stance of Pope John Paul II, the conference opposes embryonic stem cell research.
As a result, if the president decides to permit even limited and restricted use of existing embryos for research, he would risk alienating his base in the church, as well as his base in the leadership of the Protestant Christian right.
"The disappointment with a change in position would be especially acute," said Richard M. Doerflinger, who runs antiabortion activities for the Catholic bishops' conference. Doerflinger noted that Bush announced his opposition to embryonic stem cell research to the bishops during last year's campaign.
On the other hand, however, if Bush maintains his campaign promise and decides to bar federal funding, he would risk losing support among many Catholic voters. A recent poll said that 61 percent of Catholics support embryonic stem cell research.
"There are wide gradations of Catholic opinion," said David Leege, a political scientist at Notre Dame.
Leege said that to the majority of Catholics, Bush could make a strong "compassionate conservative" case that using embryonic stem cells, which would otherwise be discarded, for research into new disease therapies is consistent with church thinking that "human lives that are technically lost could, on the other hand, save many human lives."
But, Leege added, Bush has made "it very difficult to extricate himself from opposition to embryonic stem cell research" because of his strong ties to the church hierarchy.
Bush courted the bishops' conference during last year's campaign and has continued his efforts since taking office, meeting with individual bishops in city after city. The Republican Party's Catholic outreach program is dominated by conservative Catholics closely aligned with the conference's thinking on stem cells and other doctrinal issues.
Catholic voters are a key administration target in preparing for the 2004 election.
Bush's dilemma was evident earlier this month, when it looked as if a window had opened that would allow Bush to appease research supporters without alienating conservative Catholics.
On July 8, the Los Angeles Times reported that three of Bush's top Catholic advisers -- Deal Hudson, publisher of Crisis Magazine; Robert P. George, a professor at Princeton University; and the Rev. Robert A. Sirico, head of the Acton Institute -- were "open to a plan that would allow the government to fund certain medical experiments that use stem cells from human embryos."
All three are participants in a weekly White House conference call designed to maintain lines of communication between the administration and leading conservative Catholic intellectuals and activists. Highly respected among conservatives and liberals in the church, their support of a compromise on stem cells would make it easier politically for Bush if he allowed federal funding.
"I can imagine circumstances in which this would not only be politically acceptable but could be a morally justified policy," George told the newspaper. "I am open to it," Hudson was quoted as volunteering.
Within hours of the publication of the story, however, the three men issued a statement declaring they did not support a compromise "that would include authorization of federal money for research on existing cell lines." They did say, however, that "it is possible, as an abstract matter, to imagine circumstances and conditions under which research on existing cell lines could be acceptable."
The next day, the three men issued another, more adamant, statement in which all reference to the acceptability of compromise, even in the abstract, was eliminated. "Our position on stem cell research is clear and adheres to the fullness of Catholic teaching regarding the sanctity of human life at every stage of development," it said. "This teaching holds that the destruction of human embryos for scientific research and medical treatment is intrinsically evil."
In response via e-mail to questions from The Washington Post, George said the discussion of compromise was based on the abstract "question of ethical principles controlling decisions whether to accept benefits resulting, not from one's own wrongdoing, but from the (past or continuing) wrongdoing of others."
As a hypothetical example, George wrote: "Imagine that U.S. soldiers are fighting their way into Nazi death camps and taking heavy casualties in their efforts to save surviving prisoners. Upon liberating the camp, they find -- to their horror -- organs taken from people the Nazis had murdered. . . . As it happens, one or more of the gravely wounded U.S. soldiers could be saved by using some of these organs for transplants." While still problematic, George said, use of the organs could be justified.
He and Sirico said the soldiers' dilemma is whether to benefit from an "evil" already committed by others, while federal funding of embryonic stem cell research would make taxpayers complicit in the destruction of the em- bryos.
The abrupt closure of the three Catholic advisers' seeming willingness to discuss compromise illustrated the political constraints on the choices available to Bush, underscoring the difficulty that anyone closely aligned to the church hierarchy has in proposing any kind of compromise on stem cell research.
Opinion among mainstream Catholic voters on embryonic stem cell research closely mirrors the electorate at large. A Harris Poll released July 25 showed that 68 percent of all respondents were familiar with the stem cell issue. Among those with some knowledge of the debate, 62 percent favored research and 22 percent opposed it. Sixty-one percent of Catholics questioned in the poll supported stem cell research, compared with 50 percent of born-again Christians and 49 percent of Republicans.