FLEXING THE MAGISTERIAL MUSCLE. Any politician in nearly any corner of the United States will tell you that, in the world of secular politics, the Roman Catholic Church is a force to be reckoned with. But in Missouri, that's an understatement.

Appearing as a sidebar to today's New York Times story on state efforts to fund stem-cell research is a nugget on letters sent to candidates in Missouri by the Missouri Catholic Conference, the public policy arm of the Roman church in the Show-Me State. In his letter to State Representative Jim Guest (R), Missouri Catholic Conference Executive Director Lawrence Weber, according to the Times, urged Guest to return a contribution from Supporters of Health Research, a stem-cell research advocacy group, or risk a Conference campaign against him. From Stephanie Strom in today's New York Times:

�The Missouri Catholic Conference is committed to informing Missouri voters about campaign contributions promoting human cloning and embryonic stem cell research,� Mr. Weber wrote, �and will report to Missouri voters regarding candidates who choose to associate themselves with this and similar organizations that promote such unethical practices.�

He added that if candidates returned contributions from Supporters of Health Research, the conference would report that to diocesan newspapers so long as documentation was provided.

The irony is that in his last two elections, Guest won endorsements from the Missouri Right to Life Political Action Committee, which many see as a virtual arm of the Roman Catholic Church. In fact, by the time of his 2004 primary race, Guest had moved up from his 2002 rating of "Pro-life" -- meaning that he almost always votes positions deemed by the group to be "pro-life" -- to a stellar "100% Perfect pro-life voting record."

Guest told The Times, �I�m not sure if extortion is the right word, but they basically threatened me if I didn�t return the money, and that�s certainly stepping across the line.�

The candidate has declined to return the money, and Washington attorney Marcus S. Owens has filed a complaint with the IRS regarding what he says is interference in electoral politics by the Missouri Catholic Conference.

Missouri's politically ambitious Catholic hierarchy last came to my attention in 1999, when its then-executive director Louis DeFeo penned an anti-abortion bill that arguably would have made the killing of an abortion provider a defensible homicide. The bill passed both houses of Missouri's state government, and when then Governor Mel Carnahan refused to sign it, he was tarred by his opponent in the U.S. Senate race, John Ashcroft, as a supporter of "partial-birth abortion." Carnahan died during the campaign when his private plane crashed; Ashcroft went on to become the attorney general of the United States. The so-called Infant's Protection Act never became law because of court action.

--Adele M. Stan