Watch CBSN Live

John Kerry's Catholic Problem

This column from the Weekly Standard was written by Terry Eastland.

American Catholics now find themselves having to think about a question that concerns their church and the Democratic party's presumptive presidential nominee, John Kerry. The question is: Can Kerry be a good Catholic and yet take positions as a lawmaker that contradict the teachings of the church on "life issues," especially abortion and stem-cell research?

The question didn't arise only with Kerry, who hardly is the first Catholic politician to support abortion rights. Church leaders have been mulling for some time how to respond to politician-parishioners holding views at odds with the Church's. And John Paul II approved a "doctrinal note" two years ago advising Catholic politicians of their duty "to oppose any law that attacks human life." A task force now is developing guidelines for use by American bishops in their dealings with Catholic lawmakers.

At least one bishop already knows how he should deal with Kerry. Archbishop Raymond Burke of St. Louis warned the candidate when he campaigned earlier this year in Missouri "not to present himself for communion" at any church in his city. Such ostracism is reserved by canon law for "those who obstinately persist in manifest grave sin." Kerry, by the way, declined to cross the archbishop's unwelcome mat and instead attended a Baptist church.

Meanwhile, the head of Kerry's archdiocese, Archbishop Sean O'Malley, has said Catholic elected officials who favor abortion rights ought to abstain from communion. Archbishop O'Malley has yet to identify just who those officials might be, but the prospect of an Easter Sunday confrontation of Kerry in Boston was such that the press felt compelled to follow the candidate to see where he attended Mass. He chose the (liberal) Paulist Center, where he received communion.

Most church leaders don't appear ready to use the Eucharist as an instrument of sanction. Most seem of the same mind as Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the archbishop of Washington, who has made vague allusions to milder sanctions. But whatever sanctions might be used, for many leaders there is the matter of fair enforcement, for if Kerry is to be disciplined, they argue, there surely are others who also should be dealt with.

If you talk to Catholics who accept the church's teachings on the life issues, their argument with Kerry is that, while he professes the church's view on abortion as "an article of faith," he also says that as a lawmaker he has no right to impose that view on others. Those Catholics fairly contend that he misconstrues the church's teaching on abortion, since it holds that abortion is universally wrong. It leaves no room for being merely "personally opposed."

Moreover, they add, Kerry's ostensible personal opposition has led him to vote never for, but always against, measures that would protect human life, such as the recent legislation that makes it a crime to harm a fetus during an assault on a pregnant woman.

If you aren't Catholic (or if you are, for that matter), what perhaps is most interesting about The Church vs. John Kerry is how the senator has responded to the bishops' interest in his positions. He routinely invokes "the separation of church and state" to state his position. As he recently put it to Time magazine, "I don't tell church officials what to do, and church officials shouldn't tell American politicians what to do in the context of our public life." Yet the religious liberty protected by the Constitution leaves a church free to conduct its affairs as it wishes, including sanctioning politicians that it judges have departed from its teachings even as they profess to be true believers.

You can be sure that a sanction of Kerry would have political consequences, not all of them adverse to the candidate. Indeed, there are Democrats who think that a sanction would prove electorally helpful — that less observant Catholics who are loyal to neither party and hold more liberal social views might be attracted to his candidacy, as might non-Catholics upset by what they see as an intrusion into American politics.

In any case, the least likely turn in this continuing story is that Kerry will become a pro-life convert.

Terry Eastland is publisher of The Weekly Standard. This column originally appeared in the Dallas Morning News.

By Terry Eastland