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 Washington Notebook

October 21, 2004
Vol. 1, No. 38

Joe Feuerherd, NCR Washington correspondent


"The authority [of the letter] is very minimal. [Catholics are] free to think the whole thing is baloney."

Fr. Basil Cole,
a Washington Dominican who wrote a letter to Marc Balestrieri


Kerry Excommunicated! (Not)

By Joe Feuerherd

Newsflash: John Kerry has not, repeat not, been excommunicated.

Nor, it seems, has he excommunicated himself, though those who have been reading the New York Times, viewing the Eternal Word Television Network, or visiting any number of Catholic Internet sites over the last several days are forgiven for thinking otherwise.

At the center of the strange situation is Marc Balestrieri, a Los Angeles canon lawyer who is seeking to have Kerry declared a "heretic" for his pro-abortion-rights views. Balestrieri heads De Fide (Latin for "Of the Faith") an "International Non-Profit Association" (though one suspects the operation is "international" in the same way that small east coast airports with flights to Canada claim the moniker.)

Among his other claims, Balestrieri says he was, until July 1 of this year, a "Defender of the Bond, Associate Judge, and Advocate for his home Tribunal" in Los Angeles.

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But, according to the archdiocese, Balestrieri is inflating his resume.

"In order to be a defender of the bond you have to have a decree written by the archbishop," archdiocesan spokesperson Todd Tamberg told NCR. "He does not have those documents because he never had the position he claims to have had." Repeated Tamberg: "He was not in a canonical position that required any type of decree by the archdiocese."

It is true, said Tamberg, that Balestrieri did some freelance work for the tribunal, assignments that were discontinued approximately a year ago. "Doing a little part-time freelance work does not make [Balestrieri] what he claims to be," said Tamberg.

"That is wholly untrue," countered Balestrieri to the charge that he overstated his credentials. As the archdiocesan defender of the bond he wrote "dozens and dozens" of opinions and, just prior to his heresy petition becoming public in July, "the tribunal of Los Angeles asked me to act as an associate judge." Balestrieri said he possesses pay stubs from as recently as July that demonstrate the work he did.

So, from the get-go, it's a strange tale.

But in a story where who said what to whom is very much in question, here's what can be deciphered.

In an August visit to Rome, Balestrieri sought to put some questions on the finer points of heresy to Fr. Augustine DiNoia, an American Dominican who serves as undersecretary to the congregation. No luck. Instead, he met with a lower ranking cleric, Fr. Diaz Pedro Miguel Funes.

"I went to Rome in person to submit two critical questions to the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith," said Balestrieri. "The first: Whether or not the Church's teaching condemning any direct abortion is a dogma of Divine and Catholic Faith, with the denial or doubt of that dogma constituting heresy. The second: Whether or not the Church's teaching condemning every right to abortion is a dogma of Divine and Catholic Faith, with the opposite error to that dogma heresy."

What Balestrieri didn't tell Fr. Funes was that he had previously filed his Kerry excommunication claim with church officials in the senator's home diocese of Boston. Instead, recounted Balestrieri, "I explained that I was a Canon lawyer submitting these [questions] strictly seeking a theoretical clarification of the two issues concerned, and confirmation of the conclusions of my research. No names were ever mentioned in the conversation."

Theoretical clarification? Hmm.

CDF officials thought he was a student seeking to answer some academic questions. They decided to help him with his homework -- which goes to show that, even in the Vatican, no good deed goes unpunished.

Balestrieri's questions were referred to Fr. Basil Cole, a Dominican in Washington and a friend of DiNoia's. Given the volume of requests made of CDF, it's apparently a common way to treat questions of students looking for guidance on term papers and the like.

"I received a request from … the undersecretary of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith to respond unofficially to your [questions] submitted in writing to the Congregation on August 30, 2004," Cole said in his Sept. 11 letter to Balestrieri.

Unofficially. Hmm.

"No one in his right theological mind would claim that this truth concerning the sin of abortion … is a probable opinion, or non-infallible. It is definitive, certain, indubitable and infallible by the ordinary magesterium," wrote Cole.

Strong stuff.

He continued, "... if a Catholic publicly and obstinately supports the civil right of abortion, knowing that the church teaches officially against that legislation, he or she commits that heresy envisioned by [Canon 751]." He continued, "Provided that the presumptions of knowledge of the law and penalty…and imputability … are not rebutted in the external forum, one is automatically excommunicated … ."

Then, letter in hand, Balestrieri seemed to overplay his hand.

Speaking on EWTN, Balestrieri declared that he had the goods on Kerry. In an Oct. 18 press release he "revealed that he has received a written response prompted by the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, affirming that Catholic politicians who persist in supporting the right to abortion are 'automatically excommunicated.' "

The impression was firmly implanted that the Vatican -- not simply a Dominican priest in Northeast Washington, D.C., helping out an overtaxed church bureaucrat in Rome with a request from a grad student -- had declared Kerry excommunicated.

The letter he received, said Balestrieri, was a "formal" response to his inquiry and was "drafted under the auspices of the official Vatican Congregation with competency to decide doctrinal questions. …"

In fact, Balestrieri continued, Cole's response "holds that the dogmatic force of the two propositions is 'manifest,' a term not lightly used by any theologian. This means that one is dealing here not with a matter of a theologian's personal opinion, but with two core non-negotiable Articles of Faith. The Response, therefore, is 'official' and binding in that it simply restates infallible teachings of the Ordinary and Universal Magisterium…."

Unfortunately for Balestrieri, nobody had informed Cole of his own infallibility.

"The authority [of the letter] is very minimal," Cole told NCR. Catholics, said Cole, are "free to think the whole thing is baloney" promulgated by a "small-time theologian." Said Cole: "It's very simple: It's a very private letter to one person. I don't represent the Vatican. I am not a member of the congregation, nor am I a consulter. I don't really talk about politicians. It's just a simple response to a couple of simple questions. I'm not coming down on anybody, per se. That particular letter was used by somebody else to give it their swing, their interpretation."

In a statement, Cole explained further.

"Neither Fr. DiNoia nor I had any knowledge that he was going to 'go after' Kerry or any other Catholic figure for their public stance concerning the evil of abortion. So, in my letter to Marc Balestrieri, I began by mentioning that my letter is a personal and private opinion to him about anyone who would publicly and persistently teach that abortion is not morally prohibited. It is in no way authoritative from the Congregation nor was I representing the Congregation. Its only weight is that of a priest and a theologian who appeals to sacred sources. I was helping out Fr. DiNoia who asked me to do this for him."

In the meantime, the New York Times picked up the scent. "Letter Supports Anti-Kerry Bid Over Abortion," read the Oct. 19 headline. So empowered was he by the response he got from the Vatican, Balestrieri told the Times, that he was expanding his heresy complaint to include a host of other politicians, including senators Ted Kennedy, Tom Harkin, Susan Collins and former New York Governor Mario Cuomo. A Kerry spokesperson, noting that the senator attends Mass and takes Communion, denied that he had been excommunicated.

That same day a Vatican official was quoted by Catholic News Service. "No, Kerry is not a heretic," said the official.

By Wednesday, CDF had obviously had enough of the heretical high jinx.

"I thought I was advising a student who was working on a project. I referred him to a reliable theologian on the matter. I was acting in my capacity as a theologian trying to be helpful to a young person,'' DiNoia told Reuters, which headlined its story "Vatican Says Anti-Kerry Lawyer Hoodwinked Them."

``I had no idea his aim was actually to build a heresy case against John Kerry or against anyone else. I feel that we have been instrumentalized,'' DiNoia told Reuters.

Instrumentalized? That's one word for it.

The e-mail address for Joe Feuerherd is

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