A Catholic president?

This eightieth anniversary issue of Commonweal goes to press a week before Election Day. Many of our subscribers will know the result of the 2004 presidential race-if there is a clear-cut result-before they receive this special double issue in the mail. We will not be doing any prognosticating in this space; and, as a nonprofit enterprise, we cannot endorse a candidate for political office. Certainly we share the view of many Americans that the choice voters must make between George W. Bush and John Kerry is likely to be a momentous one. In that regard, perhaps it is appropriate to alert readers to the unsuspected, some might say ironic, influence this magazine has had on this year’s election. As it happens, some of the ideas you have heard invoked in this campaign originally appeared in Commonweal.

As is well known, John Kerry is the first Catholic nominated for president by a major political party since John F. Kennedy. One notorious hurdle Kennedy had to overcome was the deep suspicion Protestants had that a Catholic could not be faithful to both his religion and the Constitution’s strict separation of church and state. Kerry, of course, faces a very different political problem, one concerning his loyalty to the church more than his responsiveness to the electorate at large. Among the Senate’s most dogmatic supporters of abortion rights, Kerry appears to be defying the church’s unambiguous moral teaching. In one sense, Kerry’s politics show how anomalous the old canard about the dual allegiances of Catholics has become. What is especially interesting, however, is that in defending his abortion stance Kerry relies on Kennedy’s views about church-state relations, views given implicit approval by the bishops at the time.

Kerry has said that as president his first moral duty would be to uphold the Constitution, and especially the separation of church and state. He argues that he cannot impose his personal, Catholic beliefs about the evils of abortion on those who do not share his faith. On a similar, if less portentous, issue Kennedy vociferously opposed federal aid to parochial schools, hoping to burnish his credentials as someone who would not let his religion influence his political decisions.
The most complete articulation Kennedy gave of the church-state question was at the Houston Ministerial Association in 1960, where he said that if a conflict arose between his duties as president and his religion, he would resign. He went on to say that he could not imagine such a conflict ever arising. For many Catholics and others, just such a conflict has arisen with regard to abortion, because the Constitution-as interpreted by a succession of Supreme Court decisions-sanctions what the church considers to be the taking of innocent human life.

Kennedy’s performance in Houston was widely judged a great success. One of the key figures coaching Kennedy for his Houston appearance was former Commonweal executive editor and longtime columnist John Cogley. In his memoir, A Canterbury Tale (1976), Cogley tells the story of his involvement with the Kennedy campaign. Kennedy had written an article in Look magazine in 1959 in which he had first enunciated the view that for an “officeholder no moral obligation transcends the duty to live up to the Constitution.” A firestorm of protest erupted in the Protestant as well as the Catholic press. Didn’t Kennedy know that as a Christian he had an obligation to uphold God’s law before man’s? Responding to this criticism in his Commonweal column, Cogley defended Kennedy, insisting that an “officeholder’s” first duty was indeed to the Constitution. If a conflict arose between Catholic morality and the Constitution, a Catholic officeholder should resign, Cogley wrote.

Kennedy read Cogley’s column, and asked him to join his campaign staff. “I don’t think this way of putting it had ever dawned on him...he saw a way out of the bind he had gotten himself into,” Cogley later wrote. Traveling with the future president to Houston, Cogley was charged with putting him through some “instant theological training.” Cogley thought that one remark Kennedy made during their time together was especially revealing: “It is hard for a Harvard man to answer questions in theology. My answers tonight will probably cause heartburn at Fordham and BC.”

Kerry’s answers to questions about abortion have been similarly revealing, causing plenty of heartburn among Catholics who think legalized abortion is a much more serious dilemma than the question of tax aid to religious schools. It is impossible to speculate on where John Cogley would come down in the battle over abortion. He described himself as a nonsectarian Catholic, someone who welcomed the demise of the ethnic ghetto, championed the assimilation of Catholics, and was enthusiastic about the progressive promise of Vatican II. History suggests that Cogley mistook the veneer of Kennedy’s Catholicism for depth, and similarly underestimated the challenge a powerful secularizing culture would present to the coherence and vitality of a church no longer rooted in a separate Catholic subculture. Still, Cogley was right in thinking that a fundamental shift was taking place in the relationship between Catholics and America. The institutions and ecclesiastical habits that had helped Catholics triumph over Protestant prejudice, while lifting a largely immigrant population out of ignorance and poverty in the first half of the last century, could no longer command the allegiance of a highly educated, affluent, and assimilated Catholic laity.

In this sense, Senator Kerry’s biography and attitudes are emblematic of the porous boundaries and the fragile nature of ecclesiastical authority that mark the post-Vatican II church. He is in many ways a very typical American Catholic: personally attached to his faith, but unwilling to let traditional authority dictate answers to disputed moral questions. Like millions of other Catholics, he is determined not to wear his religion on his sleeve, yet claims to call on his Catholicism as a deep reservoir of solace and guidance.

Whether Kerry has made persuasive arguments explaining how he reconciles his Catholicism and his support for unrestricted abortion has been much contested in these pages. A small number of bishops have garnered headlines in the national press by warning Catholics that voting for a prochoice candidate is a sin. Some have said that they will refuse Communion to prochoice politicians. These statements have raised concerns that the Catholic hierarchy has lost sight of the delicate political and social equilibrium the separation of church and state has historically safeguarded. The actions of these bishops also seem to contradict the statement issued by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger in July, which acknowledged that Catholics might have legitimate proportionate reasons to vote for a prochoice candidate.

In sanctioning private killing, U.S. abortion law, the most permissive in the industrialized world, establishes a precedent that will not be easily contained. Still, there is little evidence, and not much logic, to suggest that the recriminalization of abortion is either possible or desirable. Nothing could be more reductionistic than the idea that the outcome of one presidential election will change abortion practice in this country. Some middle ground must be found, and confrontational tactics by bishops will not help.

Kerry hasn’t been very helpful either. His fitful attempts to explain his abortion stance have not been detailed or convincing. He has falsely characterized the church’s position on when life begins as “an article of faith,” one he cannot impose on non-Catholics. In fact, the church’s public argument is based on reason and science, not fideism. Kerry’s inflated and irresponsible remarks on the promise of stem-cell research show an equal disregard for the profound moral questions about the sanctity of human life raised by biotechnological research.

In simply echoing John F. Kennedy’s contention that the Constitution is the ultimate measure of an officeholder’s moral responsibilities, Kerry reveals that he hasn’t done enough serious thinking about what it means to be a Catholic who is active in the public square. That lack of engagement is a great disappointment to many Catholics, but it hardly disqualifies Kerry from being president. Abortion is but one issue in this campaign, and Kerry supporters are right to point out that the senator’s positions on a host of other issues are much more compatible with Catholic moral and social teaching than George W. Bush’s are. Moreover, should Kerry win, it is likely that the extreme partisanship of Republicans in Congress, and the fiscal and foreign-policy disasters left to him by Bush, will mark his presidency and our common life far more than the ongoing abortion debate.
President George W. Bush, a prolife evangelical Methodist, has been anointed by some as the “real” Catholic candidate in this election. Perhaps it was hearing this that prompted Bush in his June visit to Rome to ask the Vatican to get American bishops to speak out his behalf. One wonders if Bush also wants the bishops to speak out on his enthusiasm for the death penalty as governor of Texas.

However one judges the merits and success of President Bush’s domestic policies, or the wisdom and competence of his war on terror, there is one Bush failure that no one can honestly dispute. In running for office in 2000, the Texas governor repeatedly promised to be “a uniter, not a divider.” Four years later, the nation stands more divided than at any time since the Vietnam War. Achieving this sorry state of affairs was not easy. It was, in the president’s favorite phrase, “hard work.” In the aftermath of both 9/11 and a bitterly contested election, an opportunity existed to unite a nation whose faith in its physical security and its political institutions had been deeply shaken. Yet Bush has done little to bring the American people together; many argue he has cynically exploited the threats we face for his own political ends. Wherever the truth may lie, should he be reelected Bush will face no greater imperative than making good on that four-year-old promise. The dangers we face at home and abroad call for a president with the integrity and confidence to put the nation’s interests before those of his party and financial supporters. Sadly, little in George W. Bush’s tenure, and nothing in the way he has conducted his reelection campaign suggest he understands the moral urgency of that task.

For eighty years Commonweal has tried to map the intellectual, political, and existential terrain where man-made law and our fallible institutions encounter what Catholics understand to be God’s word and abiding presence. If the choices facing the American people on the eve of this election are any indication, the magazine’s work is as necessary as it has ever been.

October 26, 2004

Published in the 2004-11-05 issue: 
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