A new definition of sin in Austin

Shades of John Kennedy and John Kerry.

In 1960, wary non-Catholics feared that a President Kennedy would be a puppet of the Pope. So candidate Kennedy told a gathering of Protestant ministers that a president's religious views should be "his own private affair" and that prelates should neither tell him how to govern nor tell their church members how to vote.

In 2004, some bishops were telling Catholic voters they'd be sinning by voting for Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry because, even though he's Catholic, his politics didn't embrace the Church's opposition to abortion rights and embryonic stem cell research.

Now, in 2011, a retired bishop from Corpus Christi is warning Texas legislators they'd be harming their immortal souls by supporting San Antonio Rep. Joe Straus for another term as House speaker because he didn't make sure a bill allowing "Choose Life" on specialty license plates got a vote in 2009.

And Straus isn't even Catholic.

I would say "good God," but that would offend the Second Commandment.

Amid all the vicious skirmishing over whether Straus is conservative enough for supposed Republican purists, Texas Right to Life posted a blog entry from Corpus Christi Bishop Emeritus Rene Henry Gracida -- and the Texas Freedom Network has used it to rile up Straus supporters.

I believe that people of faith should put it into action, in public or private life. I also believe that in good conscience I have to tell the truth about the bishop's rant: It's inaccurate. It's misleading. Plus, it's incomplete and probably inconsistent.

The untrue part starts with the bishop's claim that in 2009 Straus allowed a sonogram bill and the "Choose Life" bill to die by not bringing them to a vote.

Many bills died in the waning days of last session during the standoff over a voter ID bill. And Texans for Life Coalition President Kyleen Wright wrote in a November letter supporting Straus that Republican infighting also delayed the sonogram bill and that it's "categorically false" to say the speaker killed it.

Gracida also claims that in 2007 Straus co-authored "House Bill 2707," saying it would have allowed creation of human embryos and required their destruction. In fact, the bill was HB 2704, it was a bipartisan effort to ban human cloning while allowing some stem cell research to remain legal, and Straus was among 63 co-authors. The bill never got out of committee.

The misleading part is the bishop's flawed analogy to Washington politics: "ObamaCare, the bailouts, the deficit spending, all the damage done to the United States in the past two years could not have been done without the exercise of raw power by Speaker Nancy Pelosi," Gracida wrote.

Whatever your view of the former U.S. House speaker, the bailouts -- as well as deficit spending on two wars -- started during George W. Bush's presidency and weren't initiated by Pelosi, who, incidentally, is a lifetime Catholic.

And whether the Affordable Care Act constitutes "damage" is a matter of debate among Catholics. The National Conference of Catholic Bishops supported expansion of affordable healthcare but ultimately opposed the legislation over a provision the bishops argued would allow federal subsidies for insurance plans that cover abortion. However, groups representing thousands of American nuns and hundreds of Catholic hospitals supported the new law's enactment.

Then there's the suggestion that this is all about respecting life. Gracida insists that Straus is beholden to Planned Parenthood of Texas because of a $1,000 campaign donation, which is a stretch.

Has Gracida ever said it would be a sin to vote for Rick Perry because he isn't anti-death penalty even though the Catholic Church considers capital punishment an affront to respect for life?

Was it a sin to vote for Bush because he invaded Iraq, an action that Pope John Paul II opposed?

Gracida claims that Straus' re-election as speaker would "be a legislative and moral disaster for Texas" and that any Catholic legislator voting for him "would be committing a serious sin."

But the bishops conference has said, "We do not tell Catholics how to vote. The responsibility to make political choices rests with each person and his or her properly formed conscience."

Gracida's certainly entitled to his say. But partisan politics disguised as a religious argument lacks moral force and shouldn't sway the choice of Texas House speaker.

Linda P. Campbell is a Star-Telegram editorial writer.