PARKS, La. — Louisiana state Sen. Craig Romero, R-New Iberia, says he is pro-life and uses the teachings of the Catholic Church to guide how he votes.

“Anything I ever vote on, I never lose sight of my religion,” Romero said.

But several recent votes puzzled some of those who knew about his devotion to the Church.

Louisiana lawmakers have been debating several cloning proposals. Romero thought his views on cloning were pro-life because some medical research promised big dividends from cloning.

“I thought, ‘If I can help save a child's life, then my heart goes out to them,'” the father of seven children said.

The story of how Romero changed his mind and his vote is an example of how a small parish in a small town can make a difference in the lives of citizens.

Father Bryce Sibley is the pastor of St. Joseph's Church in Parks, La., a town of about 500 people in the senator's district. In May, a friend alerted Father Sibley to several bills up for consideration on cloning. The pastor contacted his senator and urged him to vote for a total ban on cloning and to vote against therapeutic cloning.

Romero didn't return the message — he said he hadn't gotten it because his staff was in transition in preparation for his run for the U.S. Congress. He voted against a total ban on cloning, leaving the door open for so-called therapeutic cloning.

This kind of cloning destroys an embryo in order to harvest stem cells — which some believe might one day be useful in medical treatments.

The Holy See's delegation to the United Nations has called for a total ban on human cloning worldwide. Archbishop Celestino Migliore, the Vatican's permanent observer to the United Nations, said last September that allowing therapeutic cloning would require “the production of millions of human embryos with the intention of destroying them as part of the process of using them for scientific research.”

He referred to the early human embryo as “a human individual, with a human life, and evolving as an autonomous organism toward its full development. Destroying this embryo results in a deliberate suppression of an innocent human life.”

‘God's Business’

After the vote, Father Sibley left Romero another message, saying he would tell his parishioners from the pulpit and in the bulletin of the senator's cloning votes and urge them to contact him.

During one of his sermons, Father Sibley told his parishioners: “We can't sit staring into heaven waiting for Jesus to come back. We need to be active.”

One parishioner, Delores Boudreaux, sent an e-mail to Romero.

“We have to be a civilization that protects all life, no matter how small it is,” said Boudreaux, 53, who added that she was grateful for Father Sibley alerting and educating the faithful on such important issues. “We shouldn't be messing around with creating. That's not our business. That's God's business. God is the only one who can create.”

In all, several dozen of Father Sibley's parishioners left the senator phone messages or e-mails, the priest said, adding that the majority of them are very pro-life. He also sent his bulletin announcement to other churches in the surrounding area in the Diocese of Lafayette; some of them printed the note.

In an interview, Romero said he first heard about Father Sibley's bulletin note when his aunt called on a Sunday to let him know that two friends of hers had stopped by, holding church bulletins.

They were upset, he said, and didn't know how the senator could go against the teachings of the Church.

In talking with Father Sibley, first over the phone and then during a 90-minute face-to-face conversation, Romero learned that therapeutic cloning creates a life and then destroys it.

Father Sibley said he was impressed with the senator's humility in listening to him explain the Church's position. Romero, meanwhile, said he respected what the medical experts had told him, but he trusted a priest “more than anything.”

After his talk with the priest, Romero had another chance to vote, and this time voted for a total ban on all cloning and a ban on therapeutic cloning. The latter measure passed by a margin of only two votes.

The pro-life victory did not last, though. Near the end of June, the 2004 legislative session ended with the House and Senate unable to reconcile several different bills on human cloning — which means the state was left without a ban.

Little Person

But Father Sibley was happy with the senator's change of heart and vote and happy that his some of his parishioners also got involved, once they understood what was at stake.

“Here you have the little person from the little town from the little parish — because they got involved, they made a big change,” Father Sibley said. “It made them realize how important it is to have your faith in action. You can make a change.”

Father Frank Pavone, executive director of Priests for Life, praised Father Sibley for privately speaking with the senator and for also publicly talking about the cloning issue to his parishioners. In his travels, Father Pavone said he meets many priests who are reaching out to their local Catholic legislators and informing them of Church teachings on various issues.

“But there could be a lot more of this activity done,” Father Pavone said. He's grateful for Romero changing his vote on the cloning issue, but he noted that the senator was protecting life, which is what he's supposed to do as a public servant.

Not everyone thought Romero's vote change was a good thing. Mac DeVaughn, executive director of Louisiana's Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, said he had spoken to “many” priests who said therapeutic cloning was not taking a life, but they couldn't say that publicly.

DeVaughn, who is Catholic, believes therapeutic cloning could help prevent needless suffering and has lobbied in favor of it. He said Jesus lived by Jewish traditions and laws, and he pointed out that, according to Jewish theology, life begins when the child is actually born.

“That kind of gives me pause to think I don't think any of us would be presumptuous enough to say that we would know what Jesus would do if he were here,” he said. “There seems to be so much good for life that can come out of what is promising research.”

But Rabbi Yehuda Levin, who has long been a leader in the pro-life movement, called DeVaughn's interpretation “superficial and factually wrong.”

“Jewish tradition demands absolute respect for a pregnancy from the earliest stages,” Rabbi Levin said.

Carlos Briceño writes from Seminole, Florida.