Virginia's Catholic politicians weigh in on papal conclave

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Local,Virginia,Steve Contorno

The Vatican conclave that on Tuesday begins the work of picking a new pope is expected to pit those who advocate for traditional values against those eager to embrace change. And to some local Catholics, that sounds all too familiar.

"It sounds like the same debate going on in political parties," joked Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell of Virginia.

Some of Virginia's most prominent leaders on both sides of the aisle are practicing Catholics who eagerly anticipate the pageantry and importance of choosing a new leader. The group includes McDonnell, Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., both gubernatorial candidates and two Democratic congressmen. Across the Potomac, Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley is Catholic, as well.

And just as in politics, there's a division among them on the direction that the Vatican should take during this transitional period.

McDonnell joins conservative Catholics, who believe the church must modernize without changing its values, which have included a strict interpretation of biblical opposition to homosexuality and contraceptives.

"The mission isn't to adapt the teachings of Jesus so they're more relevant," McDonnell said. "It's the other way around: You take the teachings of Jesus and show how they are relevant in a modern world."

Others, like Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., see an opportunity for a cultural shift similar to what the church experienced in the 1960s under the Vatican II.

"I'm a Catholic who believes the church should welcome everybody and needs to be tolerant and open and gays ought to be welcomed in the church, and I don't think they should feel the stinger of harsh judgment," said Connolly, who as a youth studied to become a priest.

Religion is a dodgy topic for some politicians. Republican Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli and Democrat Terry McAuliffe, the two candidates running for governor in Virginia, both declined requests for interviews.

Catholic politicians are often at odds with a powerful and influential Vatican. McDonnell said he has personally struggled with his support of the death penalty, which the church is firmly against. On the campaign trail, Kaine said he was personally against abortion, though he also opposed placing any restrictions on women's access to the procedure. Kaine also advocated for legal equality for same-sex couples and recently signed on to a court brief challenging the federal Defense of Marriage Act but would not say if he supports gay marriage.

That balancing act between values and appreciating a changing world is the same quagmire the church is struggling with, said Connolly said.

"The church needs to be a welcoming presence in the world," said Connolly. "A moral voice but also a welcoming voice, and the next pontiff needs to figure out what that balance is."

scontorno@washingtonexaminer.com

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