As many of us were still basking in the afterglow of Pope Benedict’s visit, the two Democratic contenders for their party’s presidential nomination squared off in a crucial Pennsylvania primary that has major ramifications for this summer’s national convention in Denver, for the presidency of the United States and for the cause of life.

What was especially interesting about the April 22 showdown was that Pennsylvania is an unusual state. Its Democrats tend to be much more traditional, Catholic and even pro-life than Democrats in other states. One can usually find a number of pro-life Democrats running for offices throughout the state.

This fact is crucial, given that both Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., and Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., are, by far, the most extreme advocates for legalized abortion ever to get this close to the presidency.

Both, too, were seeking the votes of millions of pro-life Catholics throughout Pennsylvania. Both candidates pushed hard to win over those voters.

Sadly, but predictably, pro-life Catholic politicians in the statewide Democratic Party did their part as well, stumping tirelessly for the two abortion extremists.

Obama, who as a member of the Illinois Legislature twice voted against and once blocked from the Senate floor bills that would require that unsuccessfully aborted babies receive medical care, was enthusiastically endorsed by Pennsylvania’s pro-life Catholic Sen. Bob Casey Jr.

Likewise, Clinton got a nice boost: an invitation from Mercyhurst College, a Catholic college in Erie.

Such gestures are troubling for the pro-life cause. They are symptomatic of what is happening all over the country, as pro-life Catholics like former Boston Mayor Ray Flynn (a Clinton endorser) and Doug Kmiec (an Obama endorser) — to name only two — line up to throw their support behind these candidates, and as Catholic colleges host their political rallies. Here, I would like to focus on the college situation — namely, Mercyhurst — a real problem that continues to persist.

The controversy began when Mercyhurst sent invitations to all the presidential candidates to speak at the school, with Clinton quickly responding and accepting for April 1.

Just as quickly, moral equivalency reared its head as campus proponents began justifying Clinton’s appearance.

Mercyhurst’s president said that the college looked forward “to engaging in conversations about the most authentic way for Mercyhurst to meet both its religious and its educational obligations.” The college’s vice president of student life stressed the need to “go beyond single-issue politics” — an ostensible plea to not obsess over Clinton’s views on abortion.

In that spirit, a sophomore English major, quoted in the Erie Times, proclaimed that “the top three issues [in this election] are economics, international policy and the environment.”

Just as the Mercyhurst invitation scoffed at Church policy — the “Catholics in Political Life” document approved by the American bishops states that public figures who violate Catholic principles “should not be given awards, honors or platforms” at Catholic colleges — so did this line of reasoning.

In the last year especially, the bishops have consistently addressed this twisted logic, admonishing the faithful against moral equivalency in their voting — i.e., equating issues like an increase in the minimum wage or carbon emissions with far more consequential, literal life-or-death issues like abortion.

The folks at Mercyhurst apparently don’t get it — a moral confusion that appears to filter into the classroom.

Someone who did get it was Erie Bishop Donald Trautman.

He issued a written statement, stating, among other things, that he will boycott this year’s graduation ceremony at the college, which he attends every year. The bishop has long been consistent — and certainly non-partisan — on this matter, a few years back objecting to (and rejecting) a speaking invitation by Gannon University, another Erie Catholic college, to Gov. Tom Ridge, a Republican.

Ridge was a native son, a local Erie boy who had done well in public life, but who was diametrically opposed to his Church on abortion. Bishop Trautman reminded Gannon of that fact and stood on principle.

As a member of the Erie Diocese myself, I can report that the reaction to the bishop’s decision ranged from ecstatic by pro-lifers — the Erie Times quoted an e-mailer as writing, “God bless you, Bishop Trautman!” — to angry disapproval by others.

How did Mercyhurst react?

The college president said in a written statement: “While we respect Bishop Trautman’s decision, we are saddened by it and will deeply miss his presence at graduation.”

This was a nice way of saying, essentially: We will do what we want, and if the bishop is unhappy with our decision, he can stay home.

When Pope Benedict XVI addressed Catholic universities on April 16, he stressed that this kind of response misses the point.

“Teachers and administrators, whether in universities or schools, have the duty and privilege to ensure that students receive instruction in Catholic doctrine and practice,” he said. “This requires that public witness to the way of Christ, as found in the Gospel and upheld by the Church’s magisterium, shapes all aspects of an institution’s life, both inside and outside the classroom. Divergence from this vision weakens Catholic identity and, far from advancing freedom, inevitably leads to confusion, whether moral, intellectual or spiritual.”

He should know. When he was going to school he also had to grapple with a political party that didn’t respect the right to life trying to co-opt his own education.

For her part, Clinton was thrilled. Trailing Obama in delegates, she desperately needed Mercyhurst’s Catholics in this political life-or-death swing state. Her campaign tried to mollify the bishop’s criticism, issuing a statement saying that Clinton “greatly respect[s] the bishop’s point of view on the subject.”

Alas, that is hard to believe. Clinton not only wants abortion to remain legal, she has put herself on the line to protect the barbaric practice of partial-birth abortion, which her predecessor, Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, called “infanticide.”

Last year, she criticized the Supreme Court for upholding the ban of the fatal procedure. If she’s elected president, she plans to force taxpayers to pay for abortion-on-demand at all stages of fetal development.

Clinton went to their campus to talk “social justice” in the hopes of wooing them for their votes despite her radical abortion agenda. She was not about to bring up abortion because it would cost her at the ballot box. She wished for a quiet compromise — silence on abortion — that best serves her bid for the White House.

If she makes it that far, Clinton will pay back Mercyhurst’s pro-life Catholics with at least two pro-choice Supreme Court judges that will ensure at least a few more decades of Roe v. Wade and at least one million elective abortions annually.

As she addressed a rally of 2,500 at the campus athletic center, Clinton must have grinned as she spoke of the economy, education, Iraq and “healthcare” — the latter of which, by her definition, includes taxpayer-funded abortions, though she certainly did not raise that point before the crowd.

No matter, Mercyhurst’s Catholics roared their approval: Clinton, after all, was talking “healthcare.”

The naiveté of this group was regrettable, in stark contrast to, say, the NARAL group in Jan. 2004, which had harbored no illusions; nor had the crowd that Clinton addressed in March 2004 at the March for Women’s Lives in Washington, D.C., where the attendees hoisted placards that lamented “The Pope’s Mother Had No Choice,” and “Pro-Life is to Christianity as Al Qaeda is to Islam.”

Clinton’s campaign was probably amazed — though pleasantly so — that she could somehow appeal to both young women in Washington who wished that Pope John Paul II’s mother had aborted him and young women in Erie who admired the late Pope. Hey, she’ll take it!

Unfortunately, none of this is new.

For Clinton, Mercyhurst is the latest Catholic college to provide her with a political rally on her way to the White House and in her crusade for unfettered abortion. Others in the past have included Canisius College in Buffalo (January 2005), Marymount Manhattan College (May 2005) and, more recently, St. Norbert College in De Pere, Wis. (February 2008) and St. Mary’s University in San Antonio (February 2008).

Clinton won the Catholic vote April 22, and gained ground on Obama. In so doing, she has continued to redefine the template: Let’s talk social justice — economics, the environment, and free “healthcare.”

As she does, more Catholics will keep rolling out the carpet, perhaps long enough to lead her all the way to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. She is more than happy to have their support as she seeks to expand abortion to new heights.

Paul Kengor is the author of God and Hillary Clinton (HarperCollins, 2007), and, most recently, The Judge: William P. Clark, Ronald Reagan’s Top Hand

(Ignatius Press, 2007).