Assembly Majority Leader Paul A. Tokasz considers himself to be both a good Catholic and a good state legislator.
He's a staunch anti-abortion Democrat whose public stances in support of both the death penalty and embryonic stem cell research, however, run counter to prevailing church doctrine. It's a precarious balancing act shared by many Catholic legislators, Democratic and Republican alike, who must juggle their private beliefs along with their obligations to a broader public constituency.
Tokasz and Republican State Sen. Dale M. Volker both presented an insider's view of that conflict during a workshop Thursday on the role of Catholics in public life. It was sponsored by the St. Thomas More Guild at the Catholic Center on Main Street.
"I am unencumbered by law or theological degrees, but I am encumbered as a practicing Catholic and a lawmaker in a pluralistic society," Tokasz told an audience of about 20.
Joining Tokasz and Volker on the panel moderated by former Erie County Democratic Party chairman Joseph F. Crangle was the Rev. Gregory Faulhaber, vice rector of Christ the King Seminary in East Aurora and a professor of moral theology.
The law and morality exert influence over each other, said Faulhaber, but they are not synonymous.
"Everything that's legal is not necessarily moral," he said. "The world of morality seeks the best in us, what we should be doing . . . There's a tension between what we should be doing and what's practical, but it's still a healthy tension."
Both worlds are needed to challenge each other to move closer toward the ideal, added Faulhaber.
That tension is particularly resonant as this presidential election season draws to a heated finish. Some Catholic bishops have called for withholding Holy Communion from Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John F. Kerry, a Catholic who is pro-choice on abortion.
Volker, who like Tokasz is against abortion, said he disagreed with bishops who have recommended withholding communion from Kerry.
"These bishops have got to realize we live in this world to try to use the church as a tool," said Volker, who insisted the death penalty is a more divisive issue in the Catholic Church than abortion.
Volker, an ardent supporter of the death penalty, is also against abortion, but sees no contradiction in holding those two views. Neither does Tokasz, who explained his support of embryonic stem cell research as being justified on the basis that there may be a greater good to come out of such research.