The attempt to discredit John Kerry among his fellow Catholics intensified Tuesday when a right-wing activist claimed to have Vatican support for his excommunication. The claim, although immediately dismissed by Vatican authorities, steps up a campaign by conservative Catholics to punish Kerry for his support for abortion rights and stem cell research.
He is the first Catholic to seek the presidency since John F. Kennedy, and his candidacy has angered right-wing religious forces who see his liberal outlook as a threat. "Whenever the Democratic Party nominates a Catholic it is a godsend, because otherwise the abortion issue is secondary," said Father Richard McBrien, a theologian at Notre Dame University. "If it weren't for Kerry being a Catholic, these people would have no platform."
The activist, Marc Balestrieri, produced a letter from a Dominican priest in Washington Tuesday that he said represented official Vatican support. Balestrieri, who claims to be an expert in canon law and to have served as a consultant to the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, has been given a wide hearing in the press, but the archdiocese said Tuesday that his service had been limited to ghostwriting a few documents on marriage.
The Vatican said he had misrepresented both his contacts with church authorities and the official weight of the letter. Balestrieri, who founded an organization last June with the express purpose of seeking Kerry's excommunication, was unrepentant. "It is a misstatement of the facts," he told the Guardian. "They are covering their backs. They do not want to take responsibility for what is the true teaching of the faith."
Although Kerry is in no immediate danger of excommunication, he can expect intensifying opposition from Catholic conservatives.
About a quarter of voters are Catholic, and they are heavily represented in battleground states. More than half are believed to support legalized abortion, and the community generally leans toward the Democratic Party.
But traditionalists have been courted by President Bush, whose opposition to abortion and stem cell research gives him an advantage with clergy as well as churchgoers, and it will be hard work taking them from the Republican camp, especially since a number of prominent church leaders have voiced their opposition to Kerry.
Earlier this year nine bishops said they would deny him communion for his support of abortion rights, and on the past two Sundays there have been calls from the pulpit in several battleground states to shun candidates who support abortion rights and stem cell research.
"There is no element of the common good, no morally good practice, that a candidate may promote and to which a voter may be dedicated, which could justify voting for a candidate who also endorses and supports the deliberate killing of the innocent, abortion, embryonic stem-cell research, euthanasia, human cloning or the recognition of a same-sex relationship as legal marriage," Raymond Burke, archbishop of St. Louis, Mo., said in a pastoral letter.
The bishops of Newark, Denver and Colorado Springs and clerics in Michigan, Wisconsin and elsewhere have issued similar instructions.