Deadly Sins?

For the first time in four decades, the presidential election features the “Catholic question.”


For the first time in four decades, the presidential election features the “Catholic question.” When John F. Kennedy ran for president in 1960, the worry, for some, was that if elected he would be some kind of Vatican stooge. (He said he wouldn’t be — and he wasn’t.) Today, the question focused on another Boston Catholic, John Kerry, is not how his Catholic faith might influence his leadership, but whether his liberal politics render him unfit, in the eyes of his church, to practice his faith. The Vatican’s conservative agenda truly does seem to be interfering with U.S. politics this time — as it did not with Kennedy.

Prominent Catholic leaders are snubbing Kerry for being pro-choice, declaring him unfit to receive Holy Communion — the central Catholic sacrament — because he disobeys the church’s rigid pro-life doctrine.

The U.S. Conference on Catholic Bishops urges:

No public official, especially one claiming to be a faithful and serious Catholic, can responsibly advocate for or actively support direct attacks on innocent human life.

Kerry, who worships at the progressive Paulist Center in Boston, voted against the ban on “partial birth” abortions and the Unborn Victims of Violence Act. Talk of ex-communication is even in the air for the former altar boy–who also opposes Bush’s ban on stem cell research and backs civil unions for gay people, church teachings to the contrary notwithstanding.

One in four U.S. voters is Catholic, as are the majority of people in two-thirds of the key swing states. And while the Catholic leadership isn’t happy with Kerry, rank-and-file congregants are divided. Members of the faith are as evenly split as “Red” and “Blue” America, a Catholic research center poll at Georgetown University found last month. Among Catholics, Kerry enjoys a slight lead over Bush — 46 percent supporting him versus 41 percent for the incumbent.

The cover of America (subscription), a weekly Catholic magazine that recently ran Kerry’s face on the cover, now asks, “Is There a Catholic Vote?” Unlike the early 1960s, in an America split along the Protestant-Catholic divide, the Democratic candidate’s church affiliation today isn’t enough motivation for fellow congregants to back him. Bush strategists are already trying to capitalize on this lack of loyalty.

Now mainstreamed among the middle and upper-middle classes, Catholics are more likely to vote conservative and pro-business than in the Kennedy era. Many have turned Republican in recent decades, and Latino immigration is changing the face of a once-majority-Irish group. Bush has had success in the past with this both conservative Christians and Latinos, but can he easily win them over this fall?

The president–who opposes abortion and wants a constitutional ban on gay marriage–is hoping to appeal to the conservative streaks of undecided voters. Two-thirds of swing state voters cite religion as “very important” in their lives, according to Republican pollsters.

This week Bush stumped in Dubuque, Iowa–home to a two-thirds Catholic population–where he outspent Kerry on TV ads. That’s not to say he can count on winning Catholics over. After all, he is the same man who unself-consciously campaigned at the anti-Catholic, hyper-evangelical Bob Jones University in 2000. Some Catholics might like his pro-life policies but view his push for war in Iraq–which the Vatican denounced–as unholy and murderous. And Catholic charities might like Bush’s release of federal funds to faith-based groups, but find his brand of crony capitalism uncompatible with their calling to help the poor. Expect the energetic courting of Catholics to continue.

Ahead of a June meeting of Catholic leaders in Colorado, Kerry has consulted in private with two cardinals in the past month, including liberal Los Angeles Cardinal Roger M. Mahony. Kerry is apparently seeking input for strategies to attract more of his fellow worshippers.

Kerry’s politically moderate stance on abortion — keeping it legal while morally condemning it — is becoming harder to maintain quietly. He recently opted for a Baptist service in St. Louis after that city’s Archbishop Raymond Burke ordered Catholic churches to deny him communion. Burke and others accuse the senator of being a “cafeteria Catholic” who chooses to adhere to only the most convenient religious rules.

Due to a renewed focus on such dictates, New Jersey Governor James McGreevey decided last week to keep attending Catholic services, without communion. Bernard Kenny, a New Jersey state senator, left the church altogether this week rather than give up the sacrament because his views on gay marriage, stem cell research and the death penalty conflicted with current Catholic teachings.

And not all of the church higher-ups advocate cutting off ties with dissenters. Bishop Wilton D. Gregory of Belleville, Ill. recently told the Catholic News Service, “In the nature of the church, the imposition of sanctions is always the final response, not the first response, nor the second nor maybe even the 10th.”

Are Catholic leaders raising the issue to make the campaign a referendum on Kerry? After all, the church is silent about its Republican pro-choice members including former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Homeland Security czar Tom Ridge. However, in the past the church vocally opposed the pro-choice views of New York Governor Mario Cuomo and Geraldine Ferrarro, a vice-presidential candidate in 1984.

Terry Golway in The New York Observer calls Catholic leaders on the double standard:

Until the twice-divorced Mr. Giuliani or other pro-choice Catholic Republicans are singled out for sanction just as Mr. Kerry and Mr. McGreevey have been, many fellow believers will see the Communion-denial issue as nothing more than clerical interference in partisan politics.

In the real world — as opposed to the world in which most of the principals in this debate live — Catholics with and without Roman collars will struggle mightily with moral and ethical issues before casting their votes in November. Some will take guidance not from any living bishops, but from the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin’s notion of a seamless garment of life issues, ranging from abortion to euthanasia to capital punishment, from issues of war and peace to issues of social and economic justice. Millions of Catholics will vote for Mr. Kerry in spite of his position on abortion, because they believe he better understands the vast array of life issues. They may also believe that leaders who tell lies to justify invasions can hardly be described as “pro-life.”

Shall these Catholics be denied the sacraments, too? Or will it no longer matter once the election is over?

The Guardian‘s religion reporter Stephen Bates outlines the conflict:

As old voting solidarities have declined and the church’s moral authority has evaporated in the wake of horrendous sex abuse scandals, so, paradoxically, has its assertiveness and authoritarianism grown.

In an election where the Republicans are accusing him of changing his mind over the issues, the Catholic hierarchy, on the other hand, would like him to do just that, by altering his stance on issues of private morality.

He may be the first Catholic candidate in history not to get the tacit endorsement of a church, doing for the first time what its opponents have always accused it of doing in the past: meddling in a US election. Whether that will benefit Kerry or not is a matter for speculation. But it is certainly an irony that will dog him all the way to the elections.

A recent column in the National Catholic Reporter by Sister Joan Chittister railed against the “selective coercion” practiced by Catholic leaders criticizing Kerry:

Catholic politicians have one of two choices. They can either relinquish the political arena to the rest of the body politic or they can defy the church. Surely each position is untenable, illogical and destructive of both the church and the place of the Catholic vision of life in the public arena.

Put in this kind of situation, Catholic politicians — 150 Catholics now serve in Congress and 415 in state legislatures — will have to go to their respective houses and senates with their minds already made up on current topics. They will have to refuse to consider alternate arguments about how to approach complex issues — even though many churches are engaged in moral analysis of these same issues, as once they were on the very issue of separation of church and state.