updated 11/11/2008 12:38:12 PM ET 2008-11-11T17:38:12

U.S. Roman Catholic bishops, meeting a week after the election, are re-examining how they explain church teaching after President-elect Barack Obama, who supports abortion rights, won a majority of Catholic votes.

During the campaign, many bishops had spoken out on abortion more forcefully than they had in 2004, telling Catholic politicians and voters that abortion should be the most important consideration in setting policy and deciding which candidate to back.

Yet, according to exit polls, 54 percent of Catholics chose Obama, who is Protestant, and Vice President-elect Joe Biden, who is Catholic. Biden also thinks abortion should be legal.

Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio, of New York City, said that chairmen of the bishops' national committees met privately Monday morning to begin looking at the issue. A public discussion was set for Tuesday afternoon, the final open session of the bishops' fall meeting.

DiMarzio oversaw drafting of the bishops' presidential election-year guide, "Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship." The statement explained Catholic views on poverty, health care and other social issues, but also said that fighting abortion should be paramount.

Bishops posted the document on Web sites and circulated it in parishes. Church staff produced "Faithful Citizenship" podcasts and, for the first time, leaders wrote special election-eve prayers that touched on abortion and other issues.

Still, many church leaders were angered to see several prominent Catholics back Obama, citing a Democratic commitment to reduce abortion.

'Moral choices'
DiMarzio said many Catholics misinterpreted or misused "Faithful Citizenship."

"We spoke in very clear but difficult language about moral choices," said DiMarzio. He said just aiming to reduce abortion, instead of ending it, was morally unacceptable. "Would it be OK if we just tried to reduce slavery?" he said.

Church leaders have been struggling for decades to persuade an often uninvolved flock to incorporate Catholic teaching in their daily lives. This year, as the economy sank, the prelates faced an even greater challenge gaining voters' attention.

"People vote for lots of reasons. As we're hearing, the overriding issue is the economy," said Archbishop Donald Wuerl of Washington, D.C.

The bishops' frustration is compounded by their task ahead: working with other religious leaders to fight what they expect will be Obama's policies on some key issues.

John Podesta, Obama's transition chief, has said the president-elect is considering reversing President Bush's limit on federal spending for embryonic stem cell research.

Catholic leaders are among those who consider destroying embryos akin to killing a fetus. Obama, along with many moderate Republicans, has supported the research in an effort to find cures for diseases such as Alzheimer's.

Debate over communion
While the bishops agree on the goal of ending abortion, they differ on how they should persuade lawmakers — of Catholic and other faiths — to agree.

A few bishops have said Biden should not receive Holy Communion.

But Bishop W. Francis Malooly of Wilmington, Delaware, Biden's home diocese, said the Democrat had called him in September, the night before Malooly was installed as bishop.

Malooly said the two agreed they would meet when scheduling allows to discuss Catholic teaching. The bishop said he did not advise Biden to refrain from Communion.

"I won't politicize the Eucharist," Malooly said. "I don't want to alienate people. I want to change their hearts and minds."

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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