Kerry and Communion: The Real Issue

The media's obsession with his churchgoing misses the point. At stake is an attempt to erode the church-state boundary

By Patricia O'Connell

The lines between politics, religion, and personal freedom just got a little blurrier. In a recent pastoral letter to his parishioners, Colorado Bishop Michael Sheridan declared that Roman Catholics who vote for politicians who support women's abortion rights, stem-cell research, euthanasia, and gay rights should not take Holy Communion.

That's just one bishop's opinion, of course -- individual Catholics and bishops in other dioceses might have different views. But it's disturbing nonetheless. Before Sheridan's pronouncement, the issue of pro-choice Catholics receiving Communion had been largely confined to politicians -- most specifically to Presidential candidate Senator John Kerry. Last year, the Vatican put forth a doctrinal note that Catholic lawmakers 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."

Since then, several bishops have informed Kerry that he won't be given Communion in their dioceses. And the media engaged in a shameless game of "will-he-or-won't-he" prior to Easter Sunday. (For the record, Kerry took Communion on Easter in his hometown of Boston, and he did likewise in Pittsburgh on Mother's Day.)


  What are Catholics -- and all Americans -- to make of this increasing clerical activism in trying to shape their political decisions? The bad news is it shows that the Church -- for centuries no stranger to abuse of power, muddled priorities, and interfering where it shouldn't -- seems to be at it again. The good news: Perhaps now the media will stop personalizing the matter vis-à-vis a Presidential candidate and be forced to frame the issue in its proper context: Where is the line that separates church and state?

The Church has long sought to exert a level of influence over its members that, to me, has involved demands and restrictions that have precious little to do with the teachings of Christ. I'm not alone, either. Millions of Catholics face the same choice. Bad enough that the Church wants to dictate what its people do in their bedrooms -- now it wants to tell them what to do in the voting booth? On Apr. 23, the Vatican issued guidelines for the giving and receiving of Communion. Among the reasons a priest can choose not to give a person Communion: If the Communicant is not "rightly disposed."

To make matters worse, the Church is attempting to influence not only the actions of politicians and the people who vote for them but also the lives of people who aren't members of the Church. That smacks of a one-true-religion arrogance that makes people nervous.


  When John Kennedy ran for President 44 years ago, suspicion about Rome's hold on its faithful ran deep. Kennedy went to great pains to assure the American people that the Vatican wouldn't be directing his every move. He tried to make it clear that he would be a President who also happened to be a Catholic and that he wouldn't allow his religious views or the views of his Church to override his judgment about what was best for his country and its people.

Politicians and lawmakers are required to make decisions on scores of subjects, not just those relating to abortion, gay rights, and the death penalty. Those issues may be among the ones people are most emotional about, but they have little to do with many people's day-to-day lives. In my view, it's irresponsible and naive to judge -- or portray -- a candidate with only those issues in mind.

Sure, there are plenty of religion-based, politically oriented factions and groups (Moral Majority, anyone?). But these aren't churches or religions per se. The Catholic Church is the only religious institution that's threatening to withhold its Sacraments -– which are considered a key part of the religion's practice –- from members who disagree with it politically.

The media has helped inflame the passions surrounding this new activism by the Vatican and some of its clergy by giving way too much attention to Kerry's observance of the sacraments and by being so selective in its coverage. How do I know Kerry took Communion on those two Sundays? Because it was so widely reported. Did Homeland Security Chief Tom Ridge, who is pro-choice, take Communion on Mothers Day? How about Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, another pro-choice Republican? Or New York Governor George Pataki, a Catholic who supports both abortion rights and the death penalty?


  I don't know about any of them, because I couldn't find news coverage about what they did on those Sundays. Their church habits, their pursuit of religious freedom, apparently didn't make the news. Nor should it.

Same goes for Kerry. He's just one of millions of Catholics who disagree with the Church on some matters but who still feel moved to practice their religion. Not everything that happens is newsworthy -- even if it's done by a Presidential candidate. I happen to think a Catholic practicing his religion and partaking of one of its Sacraments should be private.

If the media wants to take the tack that a politician's religious behavior is important because it could inform his decisions, then they should be reporting on all of the prominent Catholic politicians and their religious practices. And they don't, because really, it's largely irrelevant to public discourse. Nothing can be extrapolated from knowing that a Catholic politician, fearing Rome's wrath, declines to present himself or herself for Communion. Nor is anything to be gleaned by a Catholic's seeking the Sacrament.

Put the focus on where it belongs -- on an institution that's trying to exert influence in outmoded ways, not on those who seek to practice a religion they've made their peace with.

O'Connell was raised a Catholic and is a graduate of Boston College, a Jesuit University

Edited by Douglas Harbrecht

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