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SAO PAULO (Reuters) - Pope Benedict's mere utterance of the E-word, excommunication, when talking about Roman Catholic politicians who support abortion has caused a stir in the Church and could strengthen the hand of conservatives.
The Pope gave his backing on Wednesday to Mexican Church leaders who have threatened to excommunicate Catholic lawmakers for voting to legalise abortion on demand in Mexico City.
He said "this excommunication" was not an arbitrary decision but one foreseen by the Church. "The killing of an innocent human baby is incompatible with being in communion with the body of Christ," the Pope said in a news conference aboard the plane taking him to Brazil for a five-day visit.
The Vatican spokesman later tried to downplay the remarks, saying the Mexican bishops had not excommunicated anyone and neither was the Pope doing so nor threatening to.
But experts said the Pope may have seized the opportunity to send a message.
"What seems to be clear is that the Pope personally thinks that Catholic politicians who support abortion rights should not receive communion," John Allen, author of several books on the Catholic Church, said on Thursday.
"This clearly emboldens bishops who have taken a hard line against Catholic pro-choice politicians but it remains to be seen if there will be a disciplinary follow-through or whether individual bishops still decide who can receive communion," Allen said.
The Church teaches that life begins at the moment of conception and that abortion is killing.
Church law says excommunication is self-inflicted by anyone who "procures" an abortion. While this has traditionally been interpreted to mean the woman and the person performing the abortion, there has been recent debate on whether this should be extended to those who help her or legalised it.
During the 2004 presidential election, the U.S. Catholic community was split over whether to support Democratic candidate John Kerry, a Catholic who backed abortion rights.
Some Catholics say they would not have an abortion but feel obliged to support a woman's right to choose.
The same issue now haunts the campaign of former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, a pro-choice Catholic, in his bid to be a Republican presidential candidate.
Conservative Catholics were thrilled to see the Pope simply use the word excommunication.
"Catholic politicians who think they can remain part of the Church after supporting abortion are putting a lie on top of the original offence against justice," said George Weigel, senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington and a leading American Catholic theologian.
The Vatican's official transcript of the Pope's comments did not fully correspond to his original words. It eliminated the "yes" in his initial response to whether he supported the excommunication threats as well as references to the Mexican bishops. Other changes were also made.
Spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said it was customary for the Vatican's Secretariat of State to "review and clean up" the Pope's unprepared remarks ahead of publication.