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The "Catholic issue" in an election year February 16, 2004

Count on it: It's an election year, so US politicians will soon be heavily engaged in debates about theology.

Every four years, American presidential candidates appeal to the religious sensibilities of voters, and American secularists howl with protest about the influence of religion in government.

(In the years between elections, it is difficult to detect much evidence of that influence. It is especially difficult to find evidence that the "Religious Right," so often cited by liberal editorialists as a threat to democracy, holds much power in Washington. Has abortion been outlawed? Has prayer been brought back into the public schools? Have laws against sodomy been enforced? No. In fact, far from amassing power, religious conservatives are fighting a desperate rear-guard battle to prevent further damage to American culture But that is a separate point.)

This year, since John Kerry is a leading Democratic contender for the White House, the Senator's Catholic faith is sure to be an issue in the presidential campaign. And that issue-- specifically, Kerry's public stance in favor of legalized abortion-- came into sharp focus when Archbishop Raymond Burke announced that he could not, in conscience, give Holy Communion to Kerry.

Predictably enough, the archbishop's statement drew a fresh round of protests from liberals-- including liberal Catholics. Proponents of legal abortion repeated their frequent complaint that the Catholic Church is seeking to dictate public policy. Editorial writers suggested that the relationship between Catholic bishops and Catholic politicians should have been settled forever by the argument laid out by President John F. Kennedy in 1960, in his famous address to Protestant ministers in Houston.

Since we are destined to hear many references to that Houston speech, let's take a close look at JFK's reasoning. After taking a few slaps at political initiatives offered by Catholic leaders-- he expressed his firm opposition to diplomatic ties with the Vatican, and condemned "unconstitutional" aid to parochial schools-- Kennedy went to the heart of the matter:

Whatever issue may come before me as President--on birth control, divorce, censorship, gambling or any other subject--I will make my decision in accordance with these views, in accordance with what my conscience tells me to be the national interest, and without regard to outside religious pressures or dictates.

Notice, here, that President Kennedy went far beyond the assertion that he would not allow bishops to control his political decisions. In fact, he promised that he would not allow his Catholic faith to influence his political decisions! The Houston speech was the first clear case in which an American Catholic politician signaled that he would be willing to violate Church teachings for the sake of political expediency.

By now, of course, dozens of Catholic politicians have followed that same path, claiming that they are "personally opposed" to abortion, for example, but refusing to take any action to stop the slaughter of the unborn.

Still, immediately after he distanced himself from his Catholic heritage, President Kennedy indicated that there were limits. In the next paragraph of the Houston speech, he said:

But if the time should ever come-- and I do not concede any conflict to be even remotely possible-- when my office would require me to either violate my conscience or violate the national interest, then I would resign the office; and I hope any conscientious public servant would do the same.

The time has come when a responsible Catholic politician faces the sort of moral choice that Kennedy, back in 1960, could scarcely imagine. If he truly sees no way to oppose abortion without violating his oath of office, and if he truly accepts the logic of JFK's argument, then Senator Kerry should resign, rather than violate his conscience.

Unfortunately Kerry, like many other prominent Catholic politicians, is unlikely to take JFK's implicit advice. Apparently Kerry and his liberal Catholic cohort either do not accept the teachings of the Church, or do not believe that those teachings are authoritative.

So how should Catholic bishops respond, when prominent Catholic laymen flout the teachings of their own faith? How can they drive home the point that these Catholic politicians are creating a public scandal, and endangering their own souls? That will be the topic of my next contribution to this Forum.