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A Curious Kind of Catholic

A look inside John Kerry's preferred place of worship, the Paulist Center. It's where people who hate the Church go to church.

2:55 PM, Jul 25, 2004 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
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Boston

CATHOLICS ARE USED TO having people protest outside their churches. Because Catholics are one of the last socially acceptable objects of bigotry, it seems as though activist groups are always showing up at their churches. Gay and women's rights groups make up the usual crowd, although these days it's common to find hecklers there to beat up on Catholics for the priest sex-abuse scandals. However, today may mark the first time a Catholic church has been picketed by anti-abortion protesters.

Dozens of such protesters were gathered on Park Street in front of the Paulist Center an hour before Sunday's 10:00 a.m. Mass. They strummed guitars, sang hymns, drew slogans on the sidewalk in chalk, and carried placards saying "Stop Killing My Generation" and "You CAN'T be Catholic & Pro-Abortion." Some of the protesters hailed from Operation Rescue, other were from the American Life League. All of them were respectful and cheery as they stood in the morning sunshine, down the block from the Massachusetts statehouse.

The reason for their protest is that the Paulist Center is John Kerry's home church.

KERRY'S CATHOLICISM has put him in a bizarre position. Kerry is Catholic. As such, he is, by his own proclamation, personally opposed to abortion. He does not allow this opposition to get in the way of supporting abortion rights as a matter of public policy. Nor do his personal convictions prevent him from vigorously courting the support of explicitly pro-abortion groups. "Abortion should be rare, but it should be safe and legal, and the government should stay out of the bedroom," Kerry said recently as he accepted the Planned Parenthood Action Fund's endorsement. According the Los Angeles Times, the assembled Planned Parenthood Crowd "whooped" and "chanted" their approval. The eagerness with which Kerry stumps for abortion suggests that putting aside his "personal" convictions does not cause him a heavy heart.

In response, the Catholic Church very nearly decided to take a stand. A small group of American bishops posited that public officials who enthusiastically flout Church teachings should be sanctioned. The proposed sanction was the denial of the Eucharist. After much soul-searching, the bishops decided, nearly unanimously, against a formal sanction, and left each diocese to decide for itself.

In Boston, Archbishop Sean O'Malley refused to single Kerry out, but instead put him on the honor system, saying that politicians who work against the teachings of the Church "shouldn't dare come to communion." So warned last spring, John Kerry came to the Paulist Center for Mass and took communion.

IF KERRY SEEMS UNTROUBLED by his decision to work against the teachings of the Church, the Paulist Center seems equally unperturbed about being put in the position of having to look the other way while he does it. The Paulist Center is a curious kind of Catholic church.

Built in 1970, the Paulist Center of Boston is as much a community center as a church. Founded by the Paulists (a religious order, like the Jesuits), it operates with the permission of the local bishop, but is financially independent from the Church. As such, the Paulist Center differs from traditional Catholic churches in both superficial and serious ways. (For instance, the Center is permitted to celebrate Mass, but may not perform marriages.)

The church itself is spare, consisting of a medium-sized auditorium built in the Federalist tradition. The ceiling is high and there are pews both on the ground floor and in the balcony. The altar in the front is tiny. Hanging in the space above it is the only artwork of note: a large, abstract sculpture of Christ, behind which hangs a tree trunk, in roughly the space of a cross.

There are no kneelers in the church and the atmosphere is decidedly casual. (Of the hundred or so people at Mass on Sunday morning, only two men wore coat and tie.) At times the Mass departs from the Catholic text. During the Nicene Creed, for example, the sections on believing in only "one Lord" ("We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God . . .") and only "one holy Catholic and apostolic Church" are excised from the prayer.

On the back of the Sunday bulletin, the Paulist Center carries ads, like all Catholic churches do. Where most Churches have ads from local florists, funeral homes, hotels, and restaurants, the Paulist Center carries ads for the Animal Rescue League and "Yoga of the Future." The biggest block of ads is from psychotherapists. More than a fifth of the ads in the Paulist Center bulletin are from "Jungian psychoanalysts" who offer counseling, "body psychotherapy," and even "dream interpretation."

THE JUNGIAN PSYCHOTHERAPISTS may be fishing in the right pond. The people who come to the Paulist Center aren't your typical Catholics. "The congregation is not geographical, but ideological, drawing people from as far as away as New Hampshire," Drew Deskur, the center's music director, recently told to the Associated Press.

The ideology which brings people to the Paulist Center is best explained by the Center's Mission Statement which declares, "Attentive to the Holy Spirit, we are a Catholic community that welcomes all, liberates the voice of each and goes forth to live the Gospel of Jesus Christ." (Before Mass, this Mission Statement is projected, in large type, onto the wall above the altar, on either side of the statue of Christ.) In their Vision Statement, the Center goes on to explain that they aspire to serve "those persons searching for a spiritual home and those who have been alienated from the Catholic Church."

The subtext here--with talk of liberating voices and welcoming people alienated from those other mean Catholic churches--is that the Paulist Center is Catholic, but not really: more Episcopal lite; or orthodox Unitarian.

The practical consequence of this attitude is that if John Kerry isn't the least bit conflicted about stumping for abortion and taking communion, the people at the Paulist Center are even less conflicted about giving him the Host.

Towards the end of Mass on Sunday, Father John Ardis (who will be giving the consecration at the Democratic convention on Thursday) made an announcement about the anti-abortion protesters on his front steps. Defiantly, he read the Center's Mission Statement. The parishioners burst into applause.

Which explains why John Kerry feels so comfortable at the Paulist Center. His fellow parishioners aren't gritting their teeth and looking away while he fights for abortion and defies the Catholic Church. They're cheering him on.

Jonathan V. Last is online editor of The Weekly Standard.