Defending a Catholic politician’s access to the Eucharist (see “Communion Politics,” May 21) is not the same thing as defending his or her support for unrestricted access to abortion. Sad to say, Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry’s position on the legal status of abortion is extreme. Senator Kerry voted against the partial-birth abortion ban, a procedure that even staunch supporters of abortion rights such as fellow senators Tom Daschle and the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan disavowed. Kerry has opposed laws requiring that parents of minors seeking abortions be notified. Perhaps most disturbing, he would make support for Roe a litmus test for any justice he would nominate to the Supreme Court.

Kerry’s abortion stance would be highly suspect for any officeholder sworn to protect the sanctity of life, but it is especially so for a Catholic whose church has consistently defended the right to life of the unborn and prophetically warned of the dangers posed to the weak and vulnerable in a society where the logic used to justify abortion is easily extended to other forms of private killing. How best to reduce the incidence of abortion and how exactly the law should regulate or restrict access to the procedure are difficult prudential judgments that people of good will can disagree about. What prolife Catholics and others find so troubling about Kerry, however, is his refusal to criticize abortion practice, and his unwillingness to speak out, or take any steps, to reduce the number of abortions. So far, Kerry has failed in his attempts to explain how he reconciles his political stance with his church’s teaching.

Many Kerry supporters think that the surest way for the candidate to deflect the attacks of bishops and others is for him to reiterate the firm stance John F. Kennedy enunciated in 1960 before the Greater Houston Ministerial Association. “I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute,” Kennedy said, “where no Catholic prelate would tell the president (should he be Catholic) how to act and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote.”

Kennedy faced deeply entrenched Protestant fears of Rome’s opposition to religious freedom and hunger for temporal power. Given the church’s history, such fears were not entirely fanciful, although the Harvard-educated Kennedy was a most unlikely agent of Catholic subversion. In fact, some prominent Catholic intellectuals looked with great skepticism at Kennedy’s eagerness to embrace an “absolute” separation between religion and politics. In a controversial Look magazine article, Kennedy assured the American people that his religious duties would never conflict with his responsibility to uphold the U.S. Constitution. He was roundly criticized by Protestants as well as Catholics for not acknowledging that a Christian might have an obligation to uphold God’s law before man’s.

Kennedy wore his Catholicism as “unselfconsciously and elegantly as he wore his London clothes,” wrote Commonweal columnist and Kennedy adviser John Cogley. Historians now tell us that Kennedy’s Catholicism was perhaps not so much unselfconscious as it was unthinking. In any event, forty-four years later the potential conflict between a president’s duty both to uphold the Constitution and to abide by Catholic teaching is perhaps even more acute. This time the divide is not over issues like the constitutionality of tax support for religious schools but the much more fundamental question of what obligations the state has to protect fetal life. The social context has also changed. Kennedy was the charismatic symbol of Catholic material success and cultural assimilation, not Catholic distinctiveness. At the dawn of a new century, Catholics are asking if assimilation has not become simple co-optation, and they increasingly wonder what must be done to preserve any distinctive Catholic practice or identity.

John F. Kennedy had to overcome the legacy of the Catholic Church’s authoritarianism. That is manifestly not the legacy-or at least the only legacy-John F. Kerry confronts today. In opposing abortion the church is speaking out in defense of the defenseless, and witnessing to the dignity of every human life, not maneuvering for tax benefits or special privileges. Nor, contrary to much fashionable opinion, is the church trying to impose its religious views on others.

There is an irony here that is frequently ignored by those, on both the left and the right, who think the church never changes. In the great struggles for democracy and equal rights in the nineteenth century, the church was usually found in opposition. In combating slavery and the Nazi Holocaust, the church remained largely silent, looking with suspicion on the liberal principle of equal rights. But thanks in part to the experience of Catholics in America, the Second Vatican Council embraced religious pluralism, freedom of conscience, and democratic rights. As a consequence, a church that had long entered the political arena solely to advance Catholic interests or to protect the church’s prerogatives now defends the human rights and dignity of all-including the unborn.

Admittedly, abortion is an especially complex legal and political issue, in that it is impossible to separate the life of the pregnant woman from the life of her unborn child. In a liberal democracy, no end to abortion can simply be imposed on women. But the church is right to remind Kerry and others that abortion needlessly pits the interests of the mother against those of the unborn. We all know there are better answers to the tragedy of unwanted pregnancy. It is the moral duty of every American, even a Catholic president, to say so.

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Published in the 2004-06-18 issue: View Contents
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