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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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."