Kerry & Religion

Can he reach 'persuadable' Catholics?

It was only a matter of time after Senator John Kerry (D-Mass.) declared his candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination that the question of whether he could reconcile his prochoice views with his Catholicism would become a campaign issue. Although the Kerry campaign seems not to have anticipated this eventuality, it need only to have looked to recent history to see the list of Catholic politicians who have dealt with similar challenges-and, at times, threats of sanction-from church leaders over their political views. At the same time, Kerry’s advisers might have glimpsed some trends indicating that this showdown may not end like all the others.

For me, the prospect of a Kerry candidacy brought forth memories of lessons learned from working on abortion policy for a Catholic Democratic senator in the mid-1990s. My eighteen years of Baptist Sunday school were, unsurprisingly, no match for the bishop with whom I exchanged letters on behalf of the senator. With great conviction, I sought to assure the bishop that the senator formed his political judgments only after searching his conscience-I had never heard of the possibility of an “erroneous conscience.” As a good Baptist, I believed “the church” was the building where I attended worship services and potluck suppers, not an institutional authority with a doctrinal tradition that was not optional for adherents. The idea that a church leader could withhold the Eucharist from a parishioner because of political differences offended my religious sensibilities, making me outraged on the senator’s behalf.

My efforts were, to say the least, not very effective. But my frustration led me to enter divinity school, where I spent several years thinking and writing about how church leaders can and should deal with religious matters in the political sphere and, yes, where I took several classes on Catholic social teaching in order to be better prepared for the next go-round.

The fact that the latest battle takes place in the context of a presidential campaign means that an issue that has been debated with little fanfare in the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) and that has previously been limited to selected localities and campaigns can now be found across the front pages of national newspapers, in the pages of newsmagazines, and on the evening news. Yet while this publicity puts Kerry under pressure to develop a compelling response, it may not lead to the hoped-for conclusion of some conservative Catholic leaders.

It is worth noting that only a few bishops and cardinals have promoted the idea of withholding the Eucharist to punish prochoice Catholic politicians. Some bishops in New Jersey appear to have barred Governor John McGreevey from the Communion line. Still, the pronouncement by St. Louis Archbishop Raymond Burke that he would deny Kerry Communion if he appeared at Mass in the archdiocese was notable for the guarded response on the part of most bishops that followed it. Although similar comments by Cardinal Francis Arinze of Nigeria were sloppily portrayed in headlines as “the Vatican” weighing in on the issue, Arinze’s remarks were immediately challenged by the incoming archbishop of Dublin, who said, “The Eucharist must not become a political battleground.”

Washington’s Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, who is leading the USCCB’s task force examining whether the church should sanction politicians who dissent from church teaching, shares this position and has stated publicly that he does not believe the Eucharist should be used as a weapon to punish politicians. In a private meeting with Kerry in mid-April, McCarrick assured the senator that the task force would not release recommendations before the November election and that it was not inclined to support denial of Communion.

Any public challenge to Kerry’s Catholicism also runs the risk of politicizing the church, converting what some might see as a legitimate debate within the Catholic community into an election-year gambit. The most oft-quoted critic of Kerry’s decision to continue taking Communion is Deal Hudson, publisher of the conservative Crisis magazine and frequent adviser to the Bush White House on religious matters, whose involvement with this issue may not be entirely motivated by religious fervor. The fact that many Republicans appear to pick and choose whom to challenge over the issue of abortion also raises some eyebrows. Although as governor, Tom Ridge-the current head of the Department of Homeland Security and a Catholic Republican-was sanctioned by a Pennsylvania bishop because of his prochoice views, there has been nary a peep about his “dissent” in recent years. As Peter Steinfels has pointed out, the Catholic senator Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) managed to set aside his vociferous opposition to abortion long enough to stump for the candidacy of his prochoice colleague, Senator Arlen Specter (R-Pa.).

In addition, the church leadership may have a difficult time convincing the faithful that the criminalization of abortion-above all other concerns-should be the one and only litmus test for Catholic politicians. Shaun Casey, a professor of Christian ethics at Wesley Theological Seminary who is writing a book on the role of religion in the 1960 election, notes that “there is no Catholic politician in America today who can enter into politics in a truly Catholic way in terms of being right on the issue of the war and on abortion and stem-cell research and the death penalty. There is no one who is right on all of those issues.” A majority of American Catholics support the use of birth control and the legalization of abortion-making Kerry simply the most visible, and therefore easiest to target, of those Catholics who disagree with the church’s teaching. It is on this point-whether lay Catholics will side with Kerry or with the church leadership-that some liberal Catholic politicians now sense an opportunity.

Last fall, a Zogby poll of American Catholics found that the percentage who say that their religion is very important to them had dropped by ten points in just two years. On the heels of a few very difficult years for the U.S. Catholic Church, the willingness of ordinary Catholics to trust and obey their leaders is as low as it has ever been. At the same time, prochoice Catholics in both the House and the Senate have reached their tipping point. Fed up with being targeted as heretics by groups like the American Life League, tired of being told that they’re not good Catholics because they support abortion rights, these politicians have begun to fight back.

“This has just got to stop,” one Catholic senator told me at a conference in late March. “We’re good people, good Christians.” Last summer, incensed by a lecture from a Judiciary Committee colleague on what it meant to be a Catholic (the pontificating senator was a Methodist), Senators Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) responded with impassioned speeches about their Catholicism. This year, Catholic Democrats in the House-led by Representatives Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) and Nicholas Lampson (D-Tex.) have sorted voting records by issues on which the USCCB has taken positions. The result, they claim, is that on matters of importance in Christian doctrine and church teaching, Democratic Catholics are much more likely to be in the right than their Republican counterparts.

That may not convince Catholics for whom abortion trumps all other issues. But, as ethicist Casey points out, what Kerry and the others need to do is convince “persuadable Catholic voters. Those people wouldn’t be on the fence if they thought the wrong of legalized abortion was a black-and-white issue. They’re much more pragmatic-economic and foreign-policy themes are more likely to sway them.”

Before he can start persuading anybody, however, Kerry needs to significantly rework his stock answer when questioned about his faith. Like John Kennedy before him, Kerry clings to the principle of separation of church and state, even though that argument was historically only a salve for Protestant ears, not an effective response to concerned Catholic leaders. Additionally, Kerry’s fellow Democrats have so misused the phrase “separation of church and state” over the years that many religious Americans consider its invocation code for “I’m not really religious and I don’t want to talk about it, so let’s just assert that it has no place in politics and move on to another topic.” It is indeed essential to protect the separation of church and state, but Kerry will have to find a way to talk about it while also taking ownership of his Catholicism. If the measure of what it means to be a Catholic is more than where one stands on the legalization of abortion, he must bring that into relief, articulating how his faith has influenced him. In the last days of the 1992 presidential race, even Bill Clinton talked to an audience at the University of Notre Dame about the impact of Catholic social teaching on his political views. If a Southern Baptist can make those connections, a lifelong Catholic can do no less. If Kerry fails to do so, the issue will not go away. He will simply have forfeited the ability to engage it on his own terms.

The candidacy of George W. Bush guarantees that religion will be an issue in this campaign. But it does not have to be a political tool used by candidates to pander to constituencies or add flavor to the moral biography of a candidate. If the conversation some Democratic Catholic politicians have started gains steam, voters will benefit from the opportunity to hear how their candidates’ religious beliefs translate into political decisions instead of enduring endless-and often meaningless-platitudes about the Almighty. 

Published in the 2004-06-04 issue: 

Amy Sullivan is a doctoral candidate in sociology at Princeton and a frequent contributor to the Washington Monthly.

Also by this author
The Religion Gap

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Must Reads

Religion
Culture
Culture
Books