The Magazine

John Kerry, in the Catholic Tradition

From the April 26, 2004 issue: He's no Mario Cuomo.

Apr 26, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 31 • By JOSEPH BOTTUM
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MY GRANDMOTHER was a Catholic Republican--which is to say, she was an Irish woman who married an old-fashioned South Dakota lawyer, and since he became a Catholic for her sake, it seemed only fair that she become a Republican for his. But like many converts, she soon outstripped her sponsor in the new faith, and she would treat with scorn the least suggestion that, say, Hubert Humphrey might be only unconsciously an agent of the dark, satanic powers.

She once told me that she had voted for just one Democrat in her entire life: a man named John F. Kennedy, and the reason for that was, well, the triumph of the old faith over the new. South Dakota politics in those days didn't bring religion much into play. If you had a good Scandinavian Protestant name like Sigurd Anderson or Nils Boe, you ran for governor; if you didn't, you didn't. But Kennedy in 1960 was a national figure, and even on the distant prairies, his name was mentioned from the parish pulpits. Politics is all well and good, but in the confessional quiet of the polling booth that year, my Republican grandmother made an act of contrition and marked her ballot for her fellow Catholic.

Of course, other voters marked their share of ballots against Kennedy for his Catholicism, and his opponent Richard Nixon did better in the South, particularly Florida and Tennessee, than he would have without a dash of anti-Catholic bigotry. Back in 1928, Al Smith's Catholicism cost the Democrats badly, although it's hard to tell by exactly how much, since Herbert Hoover was set to demolish anyone who ran against him. But in 1960, Kennedy's net national gain from his faith is believed to have been around a million votes and may well have brought him the presidency.

Now, 44 years after Kennedy--76 years after Smith--the Democratic party has nominated its third Catholic for president. And it seems safe to bet the number of votes from people like my grandmother that John Kerry will receive solely for his Catholicism should equal just about zero. The number of votes he will lose should total around the same. Never was there a less Catholic moment in American politics.

Or maybe I mean a more Catholic moment in American politics--it's all so confusing. If you're a serious-enough Catholic to be tempted to vote in sectarian solidarity, then you're also a serious-enough Catholic to dislike the pro-abortion Kerry. And if you're a zealot who votes against anything with the least odor of Catholicism, then you probably don't have much choice except Kerry, the Catholic. For where anti-Catholic bigotry in 1960 came mainly from the Evangelical right, it comes overwhelmingly in 2004 from the pro-abortion left--who certainly aren't going to vote for Bush.

Kerry's incapacity to excite Catholic voters with his Catholicism was captured perfectly in the tirade about religion and politics with which he began Holy Week. Asked by a reporter about his Catholic opponents, Kerry replied, "Are they the same legislators who vote for the death penalty, which is in contravention of Catholic teaching? I'm not a church spokesman. I'm a legislator running for president. My oath is to uphold the Constitution of the United States in my public life. My oath privately between me and God was defined in the Catholic church by Pius XXIII and Pope Paul VI in the Vatican II, which allows for freedom of conscience for Catholics with respect to these choices, and that is exactly where I am. And it is separate. Our Constitution separates church and state, and they should be reminded of that."

The New York Times was kind enough to gloss this with the note: "Mr. Kerry apparently meant John XXIII, as there is no Pius XXIII." But it isn't just the candidate's papal fallibility that makes a Catholic cringe. There's also the tone-deafness of saying "the Vatican II" for Vatican II: Kerry's superfluous "the" is not exactly what you'd call an article of faith. In fact, Kerry's whole answer feels off, somehow--a farrago of dated and half-remembered tropes, the garbled talking points of ancient Democratic campaigns, a mishmash of 44 years' worth of answers from Catholic politicians to similar questions.

Kerry's pot-calling-the-kettle-black business about the death penalty, for instance, is a slightly confused recollection of a late-1970s claim that the "Seamless Garment of Life" required Catholics to vote for Democrats--since the left was wrong only about abortion, while the right was wrong about all the other key pro-life issues of the time: capital punishment, welfare reform, support for Latin American Marxists, and so on.

Meanwhile, there's Kerry's talk of being "exactly where I am. And it is separate." What he's trying to echo here is Kennedy's famous address to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association in 1960: "I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute; 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." Finally, when Kerry fumbles an account of religious freedom at the Second Vatican Council and describes his private oath, he's harking back to the stand on abortion--privately opposed, but publicly supportive--that Mario Cuomo laid out, most coherently, in "Religious Belief and Public Morality," the widely discussed talk he delivered at Notre Dame in 1984.

Perhaps Kerry's pronouncements about Catholicism and America are merely the children of Cuomo's and the grandchildren of Kennedy's. But at least his forebears knew they were negotiating difficult territory. "Surely I can, if so inclined, demand some kind of law against abortion not because my bishops say it is wrong, but because I think that the whole community, regardless of its religious beliefs, should agree on the importance of protecting life--including life in the womb," Cuomo pointed out, although quickly adding that he wouldn't ever actually make that argument. But when Kerry claims that pro-life teaching is inherently sectarian--when he suggests it is, as George Weigel notes, "something analogous to the Catholic Church trying to force everyone in the United States to abstain from eating hot dogs on Fridays during Lent"--he has carried the separation of church and state into strange, new dimensions: The fact that the Catholic Church supports a position somehow becomes a reason a Catholic politician has to oppose it.

LAST YEAR, Bishop William Weigand of Sacramento rejected the claim of California's then-governor Gray Davis to be a "pro-choice Catholic"--and he was promptly attacked by Davis's spokesman for "telling the faithful how to practice their faith." Here's where Cuomoism always seems to end up these days: John F. Kennedy's promise that he would accept no orders from religious officials in the performance of his office has devolved into the idea that religious officials may not even instruct believers in the tenets of their faith. Indeed, it's not clear that Kerry has ever held even the Cuomoism of personal opposition to abortion; at a NARAL dinner in January 2003, he cited as proof of his credentials the fact that his maiden speech as a senator had been in support of Roe v. Wade. (He was wrong, as it happens, but that's another story.)

John Kerry is hardly the first politician to reject his church's teaching on abortion. Indeed, the question of what to say about public figures who claim to be "pro-choice Catholics" has been nagging at the church hierarchy for years. Since the Supreme Court made abortion a constitutional right in 1973, the bishops have been reluctant to impose any discipline on wayward Catholic politicians--for a variety of reasons, some pastorally admirable, and some not.

But time is clearly running out for all the figures, from Ted Kennedy to Tom Daschle, who have gone beyond Cuomoism into positive support for abortion. In January 2003, the Vatican issued a "Doctrinal Note on Some Questions Regarding the Participation of Catholics in Political Life." Declaring that Catholic politicians have "a duty to be morally coherent," the note insisted that "a well-formed Christian conscience does not permit one to vote for a political program or an individual law which contradicts the fundamental contents of faith and morals"--and it named abortion as the most pressing of the matters requiring moral coherence.

In the months since the Doctrinal Note, the center position among American bishops has shifted toward much more explicit statements. Last November, the bishops set up a task force, led by Washington's Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, to study the question. This February, St. Louis's Archbishop Raymond Burke announced that John Kerry could not receive Communion in his diocese during the Missouri primary. Boston's Archbishop Sean O'Malley didn't go so far as to name Kerry, but he did announce that public figures who publicly support abortion "shouldn't dare come to Communion."

Nothing is yet settled. "We've come a long way from John F. Kennedy, who merely locked his faith in the closet. Now we have Catholic senators who take pride in arguing for legislation that threatens and destroys life--and who then also take Communion," Denver's Archbishop Charles Chaput declared this week. But on Fox News, McCarrick explained about his task force, "I think there are many of us who would feel that there are certain restrictions that we might put on people. But I think many of us would not like to use the Eucharist as part of the sanctions." Still the sheer fact that a centrist, and generally ameliorist, figure like McCarrick would raise the issue is proof of how far things have shifted from the bishops' old acquiescence to the Cuomoist line.

Kerry has ducked potential discipline so far. Campaigning in Missouri, he attended only Protestant services at African-American churches, and, this Easter, he took Communion at what even the New York Times called "a kind of New Age church," a Paulist Center in Boston that describes itself as "a worship community of Christians in the Roman Catholic tradition." (In religion-speak, "in the tradition of" is code for "not exactly part of anymore.")

Should the bishops decide that this is finally the time to insist on a little more "moral coherence," it's likely that the relief of faithful Catholics would be surpassed only by the delight of the Kerry campaign. The New York Times and other news organs generally favorable to Kerry have been among the most diligent in pushing the story of the bishops and the Democratic candidate. If Kerry is seen to be oppressed by the Church hierarchy, many of his backers would consider it a merit badge. It would, for instance, ease the conscience of pro-abortion groups like NARAL in supporting a Catholic, however much he's publicly pro-abortion. Of course, his defeat would become a higher priority (if such is possible) among pro-lifers, many of whom are Catholics, and the pro-life forces have been equally active in publicizing Kerry's struggles with the bishops.

We have, in other words, a Catholic candidate for president who gains votes from anti-Catholics--and loses votes from Catholics--for the sake of his Catholicism. My grandmother, for one, would have thought his Catholicism makes him worse, not better, than Clinton or Gore, and she would have voted against him precisely because he claims to be a Catholic.

Also because he's a Democrat, of course.

Joseph Bottum is Books & Arts editor of The Weekly Standard.