ANNAPOLIS — The Catholic faith is front and center in the Maryland Senate race.

U.S. Rep. Ben Cardin, D-Md., is looking to move from the House to the Senate. The state’s Republican Lt. Gov. Michael Steele, a Catholic, is vying for the seat.

The race is one of several Senate contests involving Catholic candidates that the Register is examining in the run-up to this fall’s midterm elections. Other races in the series include John Spencer vs. Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y.; Robert Casey Jr. vs. Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa.; and U.S. Rep. Mark Kennedy, R-Minn., vs. Amy Klobuchar.

Steele said his Catholic faith guides his political career. “It puts it in perspective for me, and it gives me the ability, in a setting where policy is being developed and discussed, to at least argue a perspective that otherwise may not be on the table.”

His positions align with Catholic teaching on major issues.

“I support adult stem-cell research,” he told the Register. “But I have drawn a line, a moral line, at the use of embryonic stem cells that result in the destruction of life. And I cannot support, nor will I vote for, anything that will destroy a human life, because we need to be building a culture of life, not a culture of death, and that’s an important distinguishing point for me.”

There are two kinds of stem-cell research. Adult stem-cell research uses stem cells extracted from older patients without harming them. Embryonic stem-cell research kills human embryos to extract their stem cells.

The science of embryology teaches that human life begins at fertilization. Embryonic stem-cell research, which involves the destruction of a unique human being in an attempt to cure different diseases, has proven not only destructive and costly, but has not produced a cure. Adult stem-cell research, which utilizes cells from adult tissues or umbilical cords, does not require the destruction of human life. It has proven successful in treating different kinds of cancers and autoimmune diseases such as multiple sclerosis.

The Church teaches that all research using stem cells from human embryos “morally unacceptable.” In his 1995 encyclical  Evan­­­­gelium Vitae (The Value and Inviolability of Human Life), Pope John Paul II said, “This moral condemnation also regards procedures that exploit living human embryos and fetuses — sometimes ‘produced’ for this purpose by in vitro fertilization — either to be used as ‘biological material’ or as providers or organs or tissue for transplants in the treatment of certain diseases.

“The killing of innocent human creatures, even if carried out to help others, constitutes an absolutely unacceptable act.”

Steele’s opponent, Cardin, voted to override President Bush’s veto of a bill authorizing federal funding of human embryonic stem-cell research earlier this year.

 “Doctors right here in Maryland are leading the world in advances in stem-cell research,” said Cardin on Aug. 19, “bringing us closer to finding cures and treatments for so many chronic illnesses and debilitating injuries. We must open avenues of scientific research, not close doors.”

Maryland is home to the National Institutes of Health and other, private biomedical concerns, and a recent campaign ad by Steele said that, since the late 1980s, Cardin has taken campaign contributions from major pharmaceutical interests like Bristol-Myers Squibb and Pfizer.

While Steele said he has great respect for what comes out of the NIH, he believes that when it comes to making decisions regarding human life, science is not the final arbiter.

“If you’re looking at national polls on the pro-life issue, more and more people are beginning to appreciate the pro-life position,” Steele said.

“Why? Because science has provided education. Science is now saying the embryo can live outside the womb at an earlier stage in its development, which speaks to the independence of that life.” Therefore, he said, “We need to be guided by certain moral principles involving that question, and that’s what anchors me in this debate.”

Cardin has waged a tough campaign against Steele, even going so far as to attack him on his methods of courting Democrats.

When Michael Mfume, son of Kweisi Mfume, the former president of the NAACP and a Democrat who lost the nomination to Cardin in the primary, endorsed Steele at a Democrats for Steele rally in Baltimore, the Cardin campaign seemed taken aback. In an article published Sept. 24, Cardin’s spokesman Oren Shur told The Washington Post, “We expect Michael Steele to pretend to be a Democrat, but let’s get real.”

Shur later told the Register, “Michael Steele doesn’t want to talk about his opposition to stem-cell research” or other things, like his support for the president’s Medicare plan, or the Iraq war, because in Shur’s words, these things are “unpopular.”

Then why are so many Democrats suppporting Steele?

“I think that’s what’s so transitional about this election,” Steele told the Register, contending that the election is “changing the paradigm, or at least the understanding of the model we’ve grown accustomed to. My opponents are not running against me, they’re running against George Bush. They’re running against what people have perceived Republicans to be.”

While Shur told the Register that “George W. Bush recruited Michael Steele because he will be a reliable vote for the Bush agenda,” it seems Steele himself wants to break with any paradigms.

This summer, he called on the president to extend the Medicare Part D deadline and favors importing medications from Canada as a way to ease costs for cash-strapped senior citizens and others.

Although he supports U.S. efforts in Iraq, along with the No Child Left Behind Program, he has not hesitated to criticize the president on how his administration has handled these things, and in reference to his disagreement with Gov. Bob Ehrlich’s support of the death penalty, Steele said, “No politician, I don’t care who you are, from the president down to the sheriff, should ever feel that they’re above considering the ethical and moral consequences of their actions in public life.”

The Catholic Vote

Where will this leave the Catholic vote in Maryland on Nov. 7, considering some of the problems that occurred during the September primary, when machines froze up, cards failed and voter lists crashed? Will Catholics take a quiet, apparently disenfranchised stance in light of the fact that Maryland has been a traditionally liberal state?

Richard Dowling, executive director of the Maryland Catholic Conference, has written to Gov. Ehrlich, asking him to redress these issues. “I’m very concerned,” he told the Register. “Somewhere in the neighborhood of 50% of people who are eligible to vote in Maryland are even registered, and 10%, or even less, vote. That’s a real crisis of confidence in the democratic system.

“The government ought to do everything it can to ensure the fullest involvement,” he added. “Unless they do that, we’re going to have a poorer result at election time. The more aggressive organizations in the state that encourage their members to vote are organizations with entrenched interests. We’ve been working really hard to ensure that Catholics, at least those who attend church regularly, will be aware of the issues and the candidates’ positions on those issues.”

Whatever the outcome, the conference’s main concern is that of educating Catholic voters on the issues and on where each candidate stands. In order to accomplish this, Nov. 5, two days before the election, the conference will distribute voter guides to all parishes in Maryland in order to apprise Catholics of each of the candidates’ stances on some of the most vital issues that concern them: aid to non-public schools, human cloning and stem-cell research, assistance to the poor and abortion-related issues.

Dino D’Agata is based in

Washington, D.C.