NEW YORK -- America's Roman Catholic bishops said from a private retreat yesterday that Catholics should not honor or give awards to politicians who defy ''our fundamental moral principles" on abortion and other issues.
However, church leaders refrained from making a definitive statement on whether Holy Communion should be withheld from dissenting Catholic lawmakers. The bishops had entered the meeting badly divided over the issue and, after their closed-door discussion, affirmed that under church law each bishop can decide how to apply teachings in his own diocese.
''Bishops can legitimately make different judgments on the most prudent course of pastoral action. Nevertheless, we all share an unequivocal commitment to protect human life and dignity and to preach the Gospel in difficult times," the bishops said in the statement from their suburban Denver assembly, which ends today.
The prelates emphasized the importance of opposition to abortion from the earliest days of the church, and the obligation of Catholic lawmakers to uphold that teaching. They said all Catholics must ''examine their consciences" before deciding whether they are worthy to take Communion.
''Those who formulate law . . . have an obligation in conscience to work toward correcting morally defective laws, lest they be guilty of cooperating in evil and in sinning against the common good," the bishops said.
''The Catholic community and Catholic institutions should not honor those who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles. They should not be given awards, honors or platforms which would suggest support for their actions."
Archbishop Raymond Burke of St. Louis sparked a national debate over Communion and politics in January by saying he would deny the sacrament to Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry, a Catholic whose support for abortion rights and positions on other issues are against church teaching.
Over the next several months, more bishops weighed in, revealing their vast differences. Some said Communion should not be used as a public rebuke, while others urged Catholic lawmakers to abstain from taking the sacrament if they fail to uphold church teaching in their policy-making.
Bishop Michael Sheridan of Colorado Springs, Colo., went further -- saying those who vote for defiant Catholic politicians should refrain from taking Communion along with the lawmakers themselves.
Even officials in the Vatican noted the American discord.
They privately sent documents to the US bishops' assembly to guide their discussion. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican's orthodoxy watchdog, met with a group of US bishops visiting Rome this month and effectively discouraged them from using the sacrament as a sanction.
Deal Hudson, editor of Crisis magazine and a campaign adviser to President Bush, called the bishops ''bold" for condemning honors for public figures who support abortion rights. He also welcomed the statement on Communion.
''It leaves the opening for individual bishops to go further if they choose to," Hudson said.
Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahony reiterated after the meeting that he would not deny Communion to any Catholic. ''That is not the role of the person distributing the body and blood of Christ," Mahony said.
Kerry said this week he would not be pressured by religious appeals.
''I am not a spokesperson for the church and the church is not a spokesperson for the United States of America," he said. ''I'm running for president. And I'm running to uphold the Constitution of our country, which has a strict separation of the affairs of church and state."