A Catholic president for the 21st century.

Religion, spirituality, and sacrilege.
March 11 2004 1:02 PM

By Their Fruits

How to be a Catholic president in the 21st century.

The last time a JFK from Massachusetts won the Democratic presidential nomination, many feared his religion would be a huge problem. Wouldn't a Catholic president end up taking orders from the Vatican?

John Forbes Kerry's Catholicism raises a different question: Will he end up taking orders from the Vatican too little?

His task is not as difficult as the first JFK's, but make no mistake about it: Kerry's religion will be a factor in the election. Why? Because he's the first Catholic nominee of a major party since Roe v. Wade.

When John Kennedy ran for president, he had to face noxious anti-Catholic bias. But there were no hot-button social issues on which he and the church disagreed. Abortion was not a presidential issue. The prerogative of states to regulate abortion was assumed, as no right to abortion had been declared. Homosexuality didn't come up in campaigns because gays were mostly closeted and not yet political. And, in general, Catholics were far more likely to follow the teachings of the church, which was part of why Kennedy had to declare his independence from church doctrine. "I do not speak for my church on public matters—and the church does not speak for me," Kennedy said in his address on Sept. 12, 1960, to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association. "Whatever issue may come before me as President—on birth control, divorce, censorship, gambling or any other subject—I will make my decision in accordance with these views, in accordance with what my conscience tells me to be the national interest, and without regard to outside religious pressures or dictates."

But 1973's Roe v. Wade decision and the 1989 Webster decision (which gave states more latitude to regulate abortion) forever changed the plight of the Catholic politician in America by making abortion a recurring electoral hurdle. Before 1973, neither political party had been particularly identified with one side or the other, but over time Democrats became the pro-choice party. Now a Catholic Democrat wanting to lead the party must go directly against the teachings of Catholicism on an issue that the pope views as a litmus test for faith.

This came up for Geraldine Ferraro and Mario Cuomo during the 1980s. Both were chastised by New York's Cardinal John O'Connor. "There is only one Catholic opinion on abortion," O'Connor said in response to Ferraro's comment that there was a diversity of opinion on the topic among Catholics. "Abortion is the taking of a life."

Ferraro and Cuomo had it easy compared to what Kerry is going to have to deal with. In January 2003, the Vatican issued a "doctrinal note" saying that Catholic politicians have a "grave and clear obligation to oppose any law that attacks human life."

Kerry is also at odds with the church on homosexuality. Last July the Vatican issued another document opposing legal recognition for gay unions and urging Catholic politicians to hew to that position. "To vote in favor of a law so harmful to the common good is gravely immoral," it said.

This prompted Kerry to directly criticize the Vatican. "I believe in the church and I care about it enormously," he said. "But I think that it's important to not have the church instructing politicians. That is an inappropriate crossing of the line in America."

Will America's Catholic bishops actually do anything about Kerry's disregard of key church teachings? At minimum, they'll complain, as will many conservative Catholic and pro-life groups. One of the biggest guns in their arsenal, spiritually speaking, is the refusal of communion. Most Catholics consider receiving the Eucharist to be at the heart of their faith and its most vivid expression. Pro-choice and pro-gay Catholics are still allowed to call themselves Catholic but, according to David Early, a spokesman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, being recommended not to take Communion means that the church believes "there is something defective about that person's practice of the Catholic faith."

St. Louis' new Archbishop Raymond Leo Burke addressed Kerry's liberal views shortly before the Missouri primary. "I would have to admonish him not to present himself for Communion," Burke said on a local TV news show. Kerry's hometown archbishop, Sean O'Malley of Boston, has in the past given Kerry Communion but recently said, "These politicians should know that if they're not voting correctly on these life issues that they shouldn't dare come to communion." 

The more political and therefore bigger threat for Kerry is if a public spat with the bishops made him seem lacking in conviction or genuine faith. Will he come off as someone who calls himself Catholic but doesn't act like one? Or will he just seem like many other American Catholics, defining his faith in a genuine and earnest way—just not the way the church itself does?

Politically speaking, what's his best approach? He could agree not to take communion, a confession of the "defective" nature of his faith, but a sign also that he's willing to play by the rules of the church and at the same time stick by his political scruples. But he would thereby insult, in effect, all other pro-choice Catholics who take communion on principle. He could attack the church's position, thrill liberal Catholics, and look like a man of honor. But that could spook moderate Catholics.

His best tack is probably to talk proactively about how his Catholic faith has affected other parts of his life, like his commitment to helping the poor, for example. It would show that he's a religious man who takes the Catholic faith seriously, even though he defines it in his own way like many American Catholics do. George Bush is already running ads asserting that he's a man of principle, a notion that seems plausible in part because of his widely publicized faith. Weirdly, the fact that after Kerry's first marriage broke up, he sought an annulment might show some Catholics that he cared enough about the rules of the church to go through the process—though it also gives an excuse for critics to probe the circumstances of the divorce and annulment. 

As far as the election goes, it's less important for Kerry to agree with the church's positions than it is that he be viewed as a person with strong religious convictions. Obviously having a Catholic-style marital flameout is probably not sufficient. He'll have to offer something a bit more Dororthy Day and a bit less Ted Kennedy. The more he rebuffs the church's theology, the more he'll have to highlight what makes him truly pious.

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