Abortion Issue Pushes Kerry’s Faith to Fore
A cardinal’s stance against Communion for Catholic officials who back abortion rights sets off a political and religious furor.
Sen. John F. Kerry saw his Catholic faith pushed to the center of the nation’s political stage Friday as he expressed unabashed support for abortion rights, even as a top Vatican official issued a statement saying priests must deny Communion to Catholic politicians who take that stance.
The statement from Cardinal Francis Arinze, who is frequently mentioned as a possible successor to Pope John Paul II, set off a tempest among church activists across the U.S., where Kerry stands on the verge of becoming the first Catholic presidential nominee in 44 years.
It underscored the fissure between Catholic politicians and the Roman Catholic Church over the issue of how closely office-holders should hew to church doctrine.
And if Friday’s reaction to Arinze’s comment was any indication, many Catholic politicians were not budging from their insistence that politics and religion should not mix.
“Abortion should be rare, but it should be safe and legal, and the government should stay out of the bedroom,” Kerry, the presumptive Democratic nominee, said to chants and whoops of approval during an abortion-rights rally.
Kerry, a senator from Massachusetts, made his remarks Friday as he accepted the endorsement of one of the nation’s largest abortion-rights organizations, the Planned Parenthood Action Fund.
He told a crowd outside the City Museum that he would stake out a position on the issue much like that of former President Bill Clinton.
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), Rep. Nick Lampson (D-Texas) and other Catholic lawmakers around the country said they had no intention of changing their views — or their identity as Catholics — now that a cardinal from Rome had suggested that their support for legalized abortion should preclude them from Communion.
“This is an opinion by one member in the Vatican circle … but he’s not speaking for the pope,” Kennedy said in a statement. “That’s a major difference.”
Still, the comments from Rome on Friday are likely to intensify scrutiny of Kerry and his Catholic beliefs.
The furor erupted when Arinze issued a document directing a clampdown on lay people giving sermons, non-Catholics taking Communion and the rites of other religions being introduced into church services.
In a news conference, Arinze was pressed about whether “unambiguously pro-abortion” Catholic politicians should receive Communion.
Arinze stopped short of saying Kerry should be specifically denied Communion, but when asked about Catholic politicians who supported abortion rights, he responded that such a politician “is not fit” to receive Communion.
Kerry has said that he personally opposes abortion but supports a woman’s legal right to get one.
Some Catholics argued that Kerry must live to the letter of church law, in public and in private, supporting the prohibition on abortion — or lose the right to Communion and other church privileges. Others accused church leaders of taking too narrow a view of Christian values, saying Kerry proves his faith in other ways, including his support for the poor.
The emotional debate promised to stay in the forefront in the coming days, as organizers prepared for a mass march in Washington this Sunday in support of abortion rights.
Network, a liberal Catholic organization, is leading the call for a broader measure of Catholic politicians’ adherence to their faith.
The group has given Kerry near-perfect scores when assessing “social justice” issues such as public housing, support for the poor, and healthcare.
Two Catholic Democrats in the House of Representatives — Rosa L. DeLauro of Connecticut and Lampson of Texas — recently released a paper on how Catholics in the House voted on a range of positions taken by the American bishops.
But the Catholic hierarchy, both in the U.S. and in the Vatican, has insisted on a sharp conformity to its pronouncements and not a so-called “cafeteria Catholicism” — only following rules as an individual sees fit.
The Catholic League, representing conservative Catholics, said the debate should not center just on Kerry’s abortion stance, but also on the fact that there was “no evidence that John Kerry and [wife] Teresa Heinz were ever married in the Catholic Church.”
“To say this raises serious issues — especially given his willingness to present himself for Communion — would be a gross understatement,” Catholic League President William Donohue recently said.
Frances Kissling, president of Catholics for a Free Choice, said most church members did not want their leaders meddling in such matters.
“The majority of the bishops, left to their own devices, have no desire to deny John Kerry communion. That means there are 71 members of the U.S. legislature they have to deny Communion to,” Kissling said this week. “Do you think the bishops want to tell [Sen.] Barbara Mikulski she can’t receive communion or [Sen.] Patrick Leahy or Ted Kennedy or [U.S. Rep] Dennis Kucinich?”
Last year, the U.S. Conference of Bishops began exploring what penalties they might impose on politicians who ignored church doctrine. But, thus far, the bishops’ task force has left those decisions to local archbishops.
In St. Louis, Bishop Raymond Burke has said he would refuse to give Kerry communion. Kerry’s own archbishop, Sean O’Malley of Boston, has said politicians who don’t follow church doctrine should refrain from participating in the sacrament, which honors the sacrifice of Jesus and is reserved for those in good standing.
Kerry has generally said little about his faith on the campaign trail, and he declined to comment Friday directly on the Vatican cardinal’s comments.
Last week, he met with the Washington archbishop heading the church task force looking into the question of sanctions against nonconforming politicians.
Spokesman David Wade said the candidate’s faith was very important to him, as was the taking of Communion, a central element of the Catholic liturgy.
The onetime altar boy tries to attend Mass weekly, Wade said. Kerry, 60, once considered entering seminary.
“His faith has played a very important part in his life and helped him through tough times as a soldier, as a father and as a human being,” Wade said.
Kerry typically attends Mass at the Paulist Center on Beacon Hill in Boston, a liberal church where parishioners tend to stand, rather than kneel, in prayer.
The nations’ 63.4 million Catholics are far from a monolithic group, and polls show that they are as split on the issue of abortion as America itself.
A November 2003 Los Angeles Times poll found that Catholics’ views on abortion were as fractured along similar lines as those of the nation at large. Of all those surveyed, 29% believed abortion should always be legal; 30% of Catholics shared the same view. More than 40% of respondents thought abortion should be illegal with rare exceptions; 43% of Catholics agreed.
Another survey, conducted by Catholics for a Free Choice, found that Catholic voters “are not taking their cues from the Catholic bishops” on how to vote in political contests, with 70% saying the views of church officials were not important on such issues. The survey was conducted before the 2000 election.
Majorities of Catholic voters also disagreed with the church hierarchy on other hot-button issues — with 80% supporting the death penalty and 56% backing the practice of allowing doctors to assist in the suicide of terminally ill patients.
Deal Hudson, publisher of Crisis magazine, a conservative publication, and an advisor to the Bush campaign on outreach to Catholic voters, said a Kerry presidency “would be worse for the church” than for the country.
“It would mean that the leading Catholic in the country, the most prominent Catholic, is someone who ignores the most important moral teaching of the church, the one teaching that is to be followed without exception,” Hudson said.
“Abortion is the key vote for Catholics,” he said. “It is the position that qualifies the candidate for our support.”
In his speech to women’s groups Friday, Kerry said that he viewed the abortion-rights fight as akin to other civil rights struggles in America.
“I believe the right of privacy is a Constitutional right,” he said. “The right to privacy is not pro-abortion, it is pro-choice…. pro the rights of women. Protecting the right to privacy is protecting the full measure of rights of women in this country.
“We need a president who understands that women’s rights are just that,” Kerry said. “They are rights, and not political weapons to be used.”
Kerry isn’t the first Catholic politician to come under fire from the Catholic Church for supporting abortion rights.
Two Catholic Democrats, former vice presidential candidate Geraldine A. Ferraro and former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo, were blasted in 1984 by the late Cardinal John J. O’Connor for their support of legalized abortion.
Ferraro, an observant Catholic who is personally opposed to abortion but supports abortion rights, was forced to publicly defend her views in the face of criticism from church leaders.
“I don’t see how a Catholic in good conscience can vote for a candidate who explicitly supports abortion,” said O’Connor, then the archbishop of New York, in a televised news conference in June 1984.
O’Connor accused Ferraro of misrepresenting the church’s views on abortion when she signed a letter in support of Catholics for a Free Choice; the two eventually spoke on the phone but did not reconcile their different viewpoints.
The abortion issue flared up again in 1989, when a San Diego bishop denied state Assemblywoman Lucy Killea Communion because of her belief in abortion rights. The bishop’s decision was the first incident of its kind.
On Friday, Ferraro angrily denounced the cardinal’s comments about Catholic politicians who support abortion rights. She said she doubted that criticism of Kerry from the church would cause the candidate any political harm, contending that most Catholics support abortion rights.
She said in an interview that the Vatican should deal with its own problems — for example, the recent sex scandal involving priests who have molested children — “before they start beating up on politicians because of their support for the separation of church and state.”
“This is so political that I am really outraged,” she said.
Ferraro contended that a closer analysis of Kerry’s record would find that he was in agreement with the church on most issues.
Church attendance can be a reliable indicator of political preference, as exit polls from the 2000 presidential election showed: More than half of those who go to weekly religious services voted for President Bush, while 41% of regular churchgoers chose Al Gore.
And a February 2004 poll of Catholics by Le Moyne College in Syracuse, N.Y., and Zogby International found that those who attended Mass regularly were more likely to support Bush.
Times staff writers Matea Gold, Susannah Rosenblatt and Richard Simon contributed to this story.
This article originally appeared in the 26 April 2004 edition of the Los Angeles Times.