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 Washington Notebook

May 5, 2004
Vol. 1, No. 17

Joe Feuerherd, NCR Washington correspondent

Washington 
Correspondent
jfeuerherd@natcath.org
 

"All Catholics, that includes myself, must examine themselves extremely carefully before they approach the Eucharist. Our Catholics are adults. We can't treat them like children."

Bishop Carl Mengeling of Lansing, Mich.
speaking to his hometown newspaper

 

Kerry-as-Catholic story stays alive

By Joe Feuerherd

As late as February of this year, a major daily paper in this country noted that John Kerry's Catholicism had barely arisen as an issue in the presidential campaign.

Ah, the good ole days.

Now it's hard to pick up a paper without seeing some reference to Kerry, his religion, and his pro-choice position on abortion.

Does the John-Kerry-as-bad-Catholic story have legs? Will it be, in newspaper terms, above-the-fold until November's election?

Those questions were put to me earlier this week by a former member of Congress. I don't know the answer, though I do know that despite other major news (torture of Iraqis by members of the U.S. military and private contractors, Kerry's military record, the announcement that 135,000 U.S. troops will remain in Iraq through 2005, a still sluggish economy), it's an issue that has yet to disappear.

Members of the media, to be sure, keep it alive.

"The pro-choice politicians seem to be winning the first round, but one priest familiar with how the church operates told me that more and more American bishops, influenced by John Paul II, will deny communions and "'finally 'out' liberal Catholics for what they are at heart, Protestants,'" conservative columnist and Catholic convert Robert Novak wrote in a May 3 column.

There's a "distinction between support for the morality of abortion and reluctant support for a woman's right to choose such a moral wrong," responded New Republic Senior Editor Andrew Sullivan in a May 4 piece. "It should be possible, if difficult, for a Catholic politician to affirm the evil of abortion but to defer to the political freedoms inherent in a liberal polity -- specifically control over one's own body -- in most cases."

NCR Publisher Tom Fox, writing in the April 29 USA Today, warned that "some Catholic bishops and conservatives now fail to distinguish moral from civil law, the ideal from the real. Blurring the two could ensure that few Catholics would be able to achieve public office, or it could rekindle fears that Catholic elected officials answer to the church and not voters."

Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne, in a May 4 column, advises that "the bishops should be wary of allowing the church to be torn up by this year's rancid electoral campaign. And both parties need to ponder the cost of imposing rigid litmus tests on abortion. Most Americans see abortion as a morally difficult question that deserves more searching treatment than what's usually permitted in 30-second campaign commercials."

And the New York Times' Peter Steinfels, in a May 1 column, points to pro-life champion Rick Santorum's endorsement of pro-choice stalwart Arlen Specter (Washington Notebook, April 28) to make the point that "religion, morality and politics can be a complex business, full of ambiguities.

The liberal American Prospect, meanwhile, applauded NCR for its recent editorial on Catholics and Kerry.

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The bishops continue to engage.

In a May 5 statement, Newark, N.J., Archbishop John Myers says "our times demand honesty." Writes Myers: "One should not permit unjust killing any more than one should permit slave-holding, racist actions, or other grave injustices. From the perspective of justice, to say 'I am personally opposed to abortion butů' is like saying 'I personally am against slavery, but I can not impose my personal beliefs on my neighbor.' Obviously, recognizing the grave injustice of slavery requires one to ensure that no one suffers such degradation. Similarly recognizing that abortion is unjust killing requires one -- in love and justice -- to work to overcome the injustice."

Other bishops take a softer tone. Vermont Bishop Kenneth Angell, for example, says he wants to "establish and maintain open lines of communication" with pro-choice Catholic politicians, like that state's senior senator, Patrick Leahy.

Lansing, Mich., Bishop Carl Mengeling told his hometown paper that he will not be denying communion to pro-choice Catholics. "All Catholics, that includes myself, must examine themselves extremely carefully before they approach the Eucharist," said Mengeling. "Our Catholics are adults. We can't treat them like children."

The New York media, meanwhile, is questioning whether Kerry will be welcome at October's annual Al Smith Dinner. Traditionally, during presidential election years, the two-major party candidates appear at the Catholic Charities fundraiser. Will Cardinal Edward Egan ban Kerry? We'll see.

Finally, at least one major U.S. prelate seems to have had enough of the discussion. Asked for the umpteenth time whether he would favor withholding Communion from pro-choice Catholic politicians (he's expressed reluctance to do so) Chicago's Cardinal Francis George deadpanned, "I've been asked that question so often lately that I have considered a policy of denying Communion to reporters."

Let's not go there.

The e-mail address for Joe Feuerherd is jfeuerherd@natcath.org

 
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