Kerry's Catholic Conundrum

There are some 25-30 million eligible Catholic voters and they usually turn out at the polls in large numbers. Once Catholics overwhelmingly voted for Democrats, but now some 40 percent are unaffiliated. Political operatives from both parties are targeting at least six or seven swing states -- Ohio, Michigan, New Jersey, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Florida and Missouri -- where the Catholic vote could play a significant role in the outcome of the presidential race.

Catholic voters make up a significantly larger proportion of the vote in these swing states -- about 23 percent in Michigan, 29 percent in Pennsylvania and nearly 32 percent in Wisconsin. If longtime journalist Doug Ireland is correct in his analysis that culture war issues matter to Midwestern voters in general, and Catholic voters in particular, Senator John Kerry's chances could be adversely affected by the recent formation of a Bishops task force aimed at holding Catholic politicians accountable for their political positions.

For years, conservative lay Catholics have been huffing about pro-choice and pro-gay Catholic elected officials. This somewhat latent crusade has been headed by mostly fringe and far-right Catholic organizations most Americans have never heard of and would have little to do with even if they had. Their fury has been vented in small gatherings, on the pages of conservative Catholic publications, and on a number of right-wing Web sites.

Late last year, however, conservative Catholic anti-abortion and anti-gay advocates received encouraging news from the mainstream U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. At its November annual meeting the Bishops announced the formation of a task force that "will produce guidelines on how to deal with recalcitrant politicians," the Washington Times' Julia Duin reported.

The Bishops' task force, headed by Washington Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick, Chairman of the Domestic Policy Committee of the Conference of Catholic Bishops, puts an American footprint on a January 2003 doctrinal note issued by the Vatican. The 17-page document titled "DOCTRINAL NOTE on some questions regarding The Participation of Catholics in Political Life" was prepared by the Vatican's orthodoxy watchdog, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. It warns politicians "who are directly involved in lawmaking bodies [that they] have a grave and clear obligation to oppose any law that attacks human life. For them, as for every Catholic, it is impossible to promote such laws or to vote for them."

When it was issued the Associated Press reported that the Doctrinal Note "reminded them [politicians] to heed the church's 'nonnegotiable' teachings on abortion, euthanasia, same-sex marriage and other issues when making public policy."

The Bishops task force has essentially joined forces in a campaign against progressive Catholic politicians spearheaded by Judie Brown, the head of the American Life League (ALL). Often called "the grandmother of the modern anti-choice movement," for 25 years, Brown, according to People for the American Way, has been drumming up support for the organization's uncompromising anti-abortion position, which opposes "all forms of abortion without any exceptions made for the health and life of the mother, rape or incest."

Will this unusual alliance make Senator John Kerry, the assumed Democratic Party nominee for president, its first major target?

While thousands of anti-abortion supporters were gathering in Washington, D.C., on January 22 -- the 31st anniversary of the Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade decision -- ALL called a press conference to unveil a full-page advertisement headlined "The Way of La Crosse," which appeared in the Rev. Sun Myung Moon-owned Washington Times, the latest effort in its "Crusade for the Defense of our Catholic Church" campaign. The ad paid tribute to Bishop Raymond Burke of La Crosse, Wis., "who recently issued a formal decree that stated that Catholic politicians who openly support abortion could no longer receive Holy Communion until they publicly recant their sinful stance."

Earlier this year, prior to a scheduled ALL-sponsored demonstration against Senator Kerry at a Northern Virginia rally on the campus of George Mason University, the group issued a press release claiming that the Senator's "comments to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and other media outlets show that he knows it is wrong for Catholics to support abortion. Catholic Church teaching on this point is non-negotiable," the press release went on. "Supporting abortion can place a Catholic in a state of mortal sin. For Kerry to openly support abortion causes grave scandal among the faithful. No matter how he tries to spin it, with the tired old mantra that he is 'personally pro-life, but publicly for choice,' it does not change the simple fact that you cannot be a Catholic in good standing and pro-abortion."

According to the Associated Press, Kerry, a Catholic who was divorced, remarried and sought a church annulment of his first marriage, recently stated that he believed "in the church and I care about it enormously. But I think that it's important to not have the church instructing politicians. That is an inappropriate crossing of the line in America."

Major conservative Catholics have already spoken out against Kerry's brand of Catholicism. "A professed Roman Catholic, Kerry's stands on abortion and same-sex unions are at odds with the church," said Keith Peters in a recent issue of Focus on the Family's online news service, Family News in Focus. "Specifically, Kerry supports the 'right' to an abortion, and...opposes gay 'marriage,' while supporting civil unions."

"When people openly and persistently say, 'Well, I don't intend to be a faithful Catholic' on matters X, Y, or Z, then the bishop and the parish pastor and every priest has to say, 'You've got a spiritual problem,'" The Rev. Richard John Neuhaus, editor-in-chief of the journal First Things, told Family News in Focus.

Deal Hudson, publisher of a conservative Catholic magazine Crisis, calls the current situation a turning point for the Catholic Church in America. "Will individual bishops continue to publicly challenge pro-abortion politicians and will they be willing to challenge Sen. Kerry directly?" Hudson asked. "Will they allow the church's symbols to be associated with a candidate who has gone to some length to portray himself as the most pro-abortion candidate?"

Hudson, a longtime supporter of President Bush, was involved in last year's campaign which accused Catholic, and non-Catholic Senators opposed to President Bush's far right judicial appointments of anti-Catholic bias. In a four-page fundraising letter, Hudson wrote: "We have a plan for exposing these so-called pro-choice 'Catholic' politicians for the hucksters they are."

The convening of the Bishops' task force takes on added significance because this year, as it was in 2000, the Catholic vote will be up for grabs. The results of a recent poll released by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that Catholic voters, once considered to be loyal Democrats, are now more evenly divided politically. In the late 1980s, 41 percent of Catholics identified themselves as Democrats and 24 percent as Republicans, but today the gap has closed significantly, with 31 percent claiming to support Democrats and 29 percent Republicans.

An October 2002 report by Catholics for Free Choice claimed that Catholic voters, who make up nearly 25% of the electorate, "are most concerned about bread-and-butter issues of personal economic security [and] [t]hey are influenced more by what the candidates will do about preserving Social Security and Medicare, improving health care and education, and fighting crime, than by church-defined issues of morality."

Even before he clinched the nomination, the right began mounting attacks on Kerry: A dubious story claiming Kerry had an extra-marital affair was trucked out by Internet rumor-czar Matt Drudge; and, a doctored photo of Kerry standing next to Jane Fonda at an anti-war rally appeared on an anti-Kerry Web site. With well over $100 million in the bank, the Bush re-election team will be more than able to keep Kerry in its crosshairs and on the defensive. If the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops hops on board, the Democratic nominee will be in for a bumpy ride.

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