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At the crossroads of private faith and public judgment, a storm is brewing in the Roman Catholic Church with potentially profound implications for the wrenching national debate over abortion.

When New York Cardinal John J. O'Connor suggested earlier this month that Catholic politicians who support abortion rights may ultimately face excommunication, he dramatically underscored the rising tension between the church and some of its most famous members over the divisive issue.At the same time, some analysts maintain, he may have inadvertently reignited questions about the Catholic Church's role in politics that appeared to have been settled forever by John F. Kennedy's presidential campaign in 1960.

Kennedy dispelled the lingering fear that Catholic politicians owed their ultimate loyalty to the church by declaring that he would neither seek nor accept direction from church leaders on public policy.

But now, as part of an intensified campaign against abortion, some members of the Catholic hierarchy itself are aggressively challenging politicians who echo Kennedy's insistence that church doctrine cannot be their sole guide on such sensitive policy questions.

O'Connor quickly backed away from his warning about excommunication, and other bishops have indicated clear discomfort at attempting to control politicians through church teachings. Nevertheless, recent months have seen persistent church pressure against a number of Catholic officeholders who have voted in support of abortion rights while asserting personal opposition to the practice.

Many Catholic conservatives argue that by chastising politicians who support abortion rights, the bishops are not interfering in politics but merely reminding all parishioners that church discipline will be enforced.