Liberal Catholics profess their faith in Kerry.

Dispatches from Campaign 2004.
Oct. 26 2004 1:47 AM

What Would John Paul Do?

Liberal Catholics profess their faith in Kerry.

COLUMBUS, Ohio—Al Gore couldn't carry Tennessee. But will John Kerry lose his home faith? Among Catholic voters in this state, a recent poll done by Ohio University showed Kerry trailing Bush 50 percent to 44 percent, while the race among Protestants was closer, with 50 percent backing Kerry and 49 percent behind Bush. (Though both results are within the margin of error.) The question isn't just a matter of trivia: In Sunday's New York Times, Adam Nagourney raised the question of whether a Kerry defeat would "make it more difficult for another Catholic to capture the Democratic nomination any time soon." Kerry's opposition to Church teaching on abortion (at least in public policy) led to several controversies, including the one where some bishops announced they would not give Kerry Communion if he were in their congregations. Losing a bishop or two is one thing; if Kerry can't carry the Catholic vote comfortably in swing states, electability-driven primary voters may look more skeptically at future Catholic candidates.

Nationally, the polls have been mixed, and some recent polls have shown Kerry gaining ground among the flock. Last week's Zogby Poll showed Kerry leading among Catholics, and at Beliefnet, Slate's "Faith-Based" columnist Steven Waldman noted that undecided white Catholics broke for Kerry in two polls after the first debate. But despite that support, the debates over whether Kerry is a "real Catholic" have put liberal Catholics on the defensive and made them feel like an embattled minority. A convention of political journalism has added to the feeling: the unfortunate tendency to pronounce that "white men" or "married women with children" or "churchgoers" believe certain things, even when as many as 45 percent of the members of the demographic disagree. Journalism has no reservations about the tyranny of the majority.

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So, when several hundred Columbus-area Catholics, including a nun and several priests, gathered Sunday afternoon for a "Catholics for Kerry" rally, the event had the air of a coming-out party. The speakers on stage embraced each other as each one finished addressing the audience. "It feels good, doesn't it?" said Sen. Dick Durbin, a Democrat from Illinois. A member of the Columbus City Council, Maryellen O'Shaughnessy, sounded a we're-here-get-used-to-it note. "We won't be afraid to speak out on whom we support," she said. "We will not be cowed by some extremists who would have us be quiet."

At times, the speakers at the event seemed more interested in rebuking the leaders of the Church who have criticized Kerry than in praising the candidate himself. It wasn't a sober gathering filled with theological and canonical explanations of where Kerry's politics fit in with Church teaching. Too often, the rally was an angry, if understandable, rant. Father James Colopy read a letter written by his aunt to the New York Times and a local newspaper after the Republican convention. Her brother was burned to death in Vietnam, and she was outraged at the Purple Heart band-aids worn by delegates. The Purple Heart "should be honored as the flag is honored," she wrote. "And [Bush] calls himself a pro-life president," Colopy said. "Lies, all lies." Father Greg Jones agreed that Bush was not pro-life in the Catholic sense—because he prosecuted an unjust war, because he executed more than 150 people as Texas governor, because his abortion policy "is full of asterisks"—and alluded to the Church's pedophilia scandal when he said, "Tainted leadership has promoted the lie." The pope and the Catholic Church demand respect for all life, "from conception to natural death, not death in the Texas deathhouse," Jones said. "You see, life doesn't end at birth." And minority groups are alive, too, Jones said. You're supposed to nurture the lives of all of them, "not just one lesbian in the White House." (Jones did have a funny riff on Lynne Cheney's outrage over her daughter's "outing": "Hello? She's a professional lesbian," who worked for Coors doing gay outreach. "She actually traveled the country with Mr. International Leather. That's pretty lesbian.")

The speakers were smart men and women of faith, but they sometimes came across as imbued with the same self-righteousness as their political opponents. Eric McFadden, the man who organized the event through his Web site (and who was interviewed by Nightline beforehand), said he doesn't like it when the Bush campaign shows photos of the president with members of the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic organization. As a fourth degree Knight, "That's an affront to me, because he does not walk with Christ," McFadden said. Father John Ardis, Kerry's pastor from the Paulist Center in Boston, explained that Kerry's Catholic faith dictated his support for Democratic slogans like "closing the gun show loophole" and "extending the assault weapons ban."

The quieter, less political moments were more effective. "God is real in John and Teresa's lives," Ardis said. "While they could undoubtedly choose to sit back and enjoy lives of relaxed leisure, they do not." By the time Sen. Durbin mentioned the Gospel story of the self-righteous prayer of the Pharisee and the humble prayer of the tax collector, his question—"How can those on the other side be so convinced of their righteousness?"—came as a rebuke not just to the religious right but, unintentionally, to the assembled religious left.

On Monday, I went to McFadden's house to talk about the rally with him. He agreed that parts of the rally may have come across as self-righteous, but added, "What was said yesterday had to be said. My organization shouldn't have to exist." They started it, he said. "They drug my religion into it, my faith. We didn't ask for this." For example, the Bush campaign shows pictures of the president meeting with the pope. "At that meeting, Pope John Paul II scolded him and condemned his war." The pope supports a multilateral approach to fighting terrorism, he continued. "Pope John Paul hasn't said a word in these last two months about abortion. But Pope John Paul has condemned the war twice. … To me, the pope has endorsed the platform that John Kerry is running on with regards to the war on terror."

McFadden, who is anti-abortion, concedes that some of Kerry's positions, such as his support for federal funding for abortion, are "tough," but says Catholics shouldn't be single-issue voters. And rallies like the one here on Sunday make him feel better. "I kind of felt like I was alone at the beginning."

If John Kerry becomes president, the long-simmering divide between conservative and liberal Catholics will probably widen. But whether Kerry becomes president—and whether the Democrats wait four more decades before nominating another Catholic—may depend on just how not-alone McFadden is.

Chris Suellentrop is the deputy editor for blogs at Yahoo News and a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine. He has reviewed video games for Slate, Rolling Stone, and NewYorker.com. Follow him on Twitter.