'Bad' Catholics

Will the efforts to besmirch John Kerry's Catholic credentials work with voters in the pews?

| Fri Jul. 2, 2004 3:00 AM EDT

When John F. Kennedy ran for president in 1960, he took pains to assure voters he would not let the Pope influence American politics. Forty-four years later, another Catholic JFK is seeking the White House, but this time, his opponents are trying everything they can to get the church leadership involved.

From President Bush seeking the Vatican's help on social issues to the decision by some Catholic bishops to deny communion to pro-choice (but not pro-war or pro-death penalty) politicians and their supporters, some on the right are actively trying to portray John Kerry and others on the left as "bad Catholics." But such attempts could well backfire, as it appears the majority of Catholic voters dislike the selective and political co-opting of their faith.

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The most recent attack against Kerry comes from Marc Balestrieri, a canon lawyer and assistant judge of an ecclesiastical court in Los Angeles. He is filing "heresy" charges against Kerry with the Archdiocese of Boston, on the grounds of Kerry’s pro-choice position. Balestrieri says his goal is Kerry’s "repentance, not excommunication," but the latter could happen if the Archdiocese chose to press charges.

That’s highly unlikely, considering Kerry’s hometown Archdiocese has already gone on record that it will not publicly deny communion to anyone for political reasons. But this is just another in a string of attempts to try attacking former altar boy Kerry’s Catholic credentials.

The statements of a few bishops that pro-choice politicians should be denied communion created no shortage of controversy, and led to a policy statement by the American Catholic Bishops that left the decision in the hands of individual churches. Some church leaders, like Archbishop Raymond Burke of St. Louis, have aggressively stepped over the lines keeping churches from engaging in politics. Burke now says Catholics who simply vote for a pro-choice candidate must confess before receiving communion:

"We always have to remember that it's objectively wrong to vote for a pro-choice politician. People could be in ignorance of how serious this is. But once they understand and know this and then willingly do it, vote for a pro-choice candidate, then they need to confess that."

Kerry isn’t the only pro-choice Catholic singled out by activist bishops. As Time reported last week (subscription), the priest of Sen. Dick Durbin’s hometown church announced he would not allow the senator to take communion. Durbin told Time he had to decline giving a friend’s eulogy because of possible friction while sharing the altar with said priest:

"It's one of the most painful experiences I've had in public life. You can't really put into words how tough this is to deal with."

However, as a poll of Catholic voters in the same Time article points out, these heavy-handed attempts to divide Catholics may very well backfire. The poll found 70 percent of Catholics think the church should not try to influence the way they vote or tell Catholic candidates what stances to take. Seventy-three percent said Kerry should not be denied communion, and 83 percent said the bishops’ stance will not change how they vote.

The poll also found an unforeseen advantage of the communion controversy for Kerry – more than a third of voters now know he’s Catholic, a higher percentage than know Bush’s denomination.

The clearly partisan nature of the communion debate can also backfire on Bush and Co., as pro-choice Republican Catholics like Rudy Giuliani and Arnold Schwarzenegger haven’t been named, but prominent Democrats like Kerry, Durbin and Nancy Pelosi are singled out. As Tom Teepen of Cox Newspapers writes:

Interestingly, the same bishops have not singled out other Catholic politicians who hold to the same positions. The focus on Kerry looks to be part of a campaign aimed specifically at defeating Kerry, not a church-wide purge of Catholic officeholders who support lawful abortion.

As such, it is a piece of a broader, mostly Republican push to realign American politics along religious lines, with conservative Christians of all denominations in a distinctly ahistorical tandem against the election of live-and-let-live Christians.

And, of course, it’s foolish to judge all politicians on the abortion issue alone. Kerry supports the Catholic position on a number of issues where Bush is at odds with the leadership, such as the war in Iraq, the death penalty and the fight against poverty. Durbin recently released a "scorecard" of Senate Catholics, and found Kerry agreeing with the church more than 60 percent of the time (the highest score on the card). As Catholic priest and syndicated columnistRev. Andrew Greeley pointed out:

The Pope and the national hierarchy also have condemned the death penalty and the war in Iraq. Are these bishops willing to deny the Eucharist to Catholic politicians who support the death penalty or the Iraq war? And if not, why not? Moreover, will they tell Catholics that it is a sin to support an unjust war and to vote for a candidate who is responsible for such a war? And, again, if not, why not?...It is curious, to say the least, that 30 years after Roe vs. Wade, the issue of denying the sacraments would be raised during this election year.

It only adds to the irony and outrage that George Bush urged Vatican officials to push American bishops on the president’s domestic agenda after ignoring the pope’s stance on the war. Writing in the Raleigh News & Observer law professor Gene Nichol might have said it best:

As an American, I have long opposed this pope's efforts to interfere with my government by religious decree. As a Catholic, I'm equally angered by this president's attempts to interfere with my religion by political horse trade.

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