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Putting Kerry on ‘Wafer Watch’


A wafer watch?

One of the more unseemly stories of the Easter weekend hovered around the controversy over Kerry and Catholicism. The intra-church debates about whether a prochoice, pro-civil union Kerry could consider himself a good Catholic ratcheted up into a public spectacle about whether he would step up to the altar and whether a priest would offer him the sacrament.

The whole thing, fumed Frances Kissling of Catholics for a Free Choice, turned us into a nation of “eucharistic Peeping Toms”: “I hope the bishops are satisfied that the sacraments of the church are now the subject of a media frenzy.”

Of course, anyone who’s ever been to the Paulist Center on Beacon Hill where Kerry worships had little doubt he would be welcomed by a community that “expresses the good news of Jesus in a contemporary society.” But ever since the primaries, there has been a conservative rumble from parish to Web log about whether Kerry is a good enough Catholic to be president.

This has turned the whole debate about American Catholics and American politics totally upside down.

Kerry will be only the third Catholic nominated for president. The first, Al Smith, lost all but eight states in 1928. That was a campaign so full of anti-Catholic bigotry that opponents sent out postcards of the Holland Tunnel describing it as a secret passage to the Vatican.

The second was John Fitzgerald Kennedy, who addressed the anti-Catholic prejudice in a campaign speech in 1960 when he said famously, “I do not speak for my church on public matters, and the church does not speak for me.”

Back then, most Catholics were relieved to break down the stereotypes about them as people who followed orders from Rome and weren’t allowed to think for themselves. But in 2004, it turns out, the conservatives in the church are the ones demanding that politicians toe the line.

What happened between Kennedy and Kerry was Roe v. Wade. When the church took an absolutist stand against abortion, it took special umbrage at politicians who identify themselves as pro-choice Catholics.

Twenty years ago, the bishops were annoyed by Mario Cuomo and apoplectic at Geraldine Ferraro when she spoke as a Catholic, a vice presidential candidate, and a woman. “I’m a weekly communicant,” she says, remembering 1984. “But I have to tell you, every time I went up to the altar I was in a little bit of a panic about who might give you Communion and who might refuse.”

Since then, if anything, the church has hardened its stance against prochoice Catholic politicians and turned against those who favor gay unions. A “doctrinal note” from the Vatican last year warned politicians not to oppose “the fundamental contents of faith and morals.”

Now a church task force is working on guidelines for American bishops on relationships with Catholic politicians. Meanwhile there are scattered reports of one bishop who told Tom Daschle not to call himself a Catholic and two others who promised to refuse Communion to Kerry.

“What happens when the pope says you are obliged to vote against anything that supports homosexuality or abortion?” asks Kissling. “The church itself creates the climate in which prejudice can and will reemerge.”

Many theologians tell you that not even the pope can say a baptized Catholic is no longer a Catholic. Many believe it’s up to the individual to decide whether to take the sacraments.

But if the church sets up a litmus test for politicians, what about for Supreme Court justices? What about for lay people who dissent?

In polls, Catholic opinions on abortion are in line with the rest of the country. Among church goers are those who beg to differ on civil unions or married priests, over abortion or women in the priesthood.

“What do the bishops really want?” asks Kissling. “Would it be a good thing if John Kerry stopped going to Mass and Communion? Would it be a good thing if Catholics who disagree on abortion not go to church? The churches would be empty. What exactly are they looking for?”

By putting Kerry on wafer watch, conservatives in the church are running the Kennedy tape backward. Ferraro reminds them: “Kerry’s not running for pope. He’s running for president. There’s only one time when we find out if we’ve done this thing right that we call living. It’s when we meet our Maker.”

On that day, there will be no reporters on hand.

This article originally appeared in the 15 April 2004 edition of the Boston Globe.

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