The battle for the Catholic vote

Facing a legitimacy crisis at home, American bishops have been trying to crack down on pro-choice politicians like John Kerry. But so far Catholic voters are siding with the Democrat.

By Joe Feuerherd
Published October 31, 2004 1:26PM (EST)

Bishop Rene Gracida was in full rant mode. His audience was the Catholic delegates to the Republican National Convention, gathered for a midmorning rally in a Times Square hotel ballroom on the day George W. Bush would deliver his convention acceptance speech. The 81-year-old retired head of the Corpus Christi, Texas, diocese spoke of heresy, which the church defines as "the obstinate post-baptismal denial of some truth which must be believed." Today's pro-choice Catholic politicians, Gracida explained, are like the fourth century Arians, who denied the divinity of Christ. It was an obscure reference, lost on much of the crowd. But Gracida's point wasn't: John Kerry is a heretic.

Like long fingernails moving slowly across a blackboard, Kerry's candidacy grates at Catholic conservatives, his election an almost unfathomable outcome. It is bad enough that a Kerry victory would remove a president who assiduously courted the conservative wing of the 65-million-member American Catholic Church, providing unprecedented access, appointments and influence to the church's Republican caucus. More important, perhaps, is that Kerry's election would validate one side in the Catholic culture wars -- the wrong side. The notion that a Catholic who favored abortion rights, embryonic stem cell research and gay rights could be both the most powerful person in the world and the church's most prominent layman is almost more than they can bear.

It would be a four-year nightmare: President Kerry exchanging pleasantries with the pope; President Kerry taking Communion at Washington's St. Matthew's Cathedral; President Kerry posing for pictures with cardinals; President Kerry with an Ash Wednesday smudge on his forehead.

To these Catholic conservatives, Kerry is not truly Catholic; he's hiding behind Christ's church, using it to gain sympathy with swing voters to further an abomination: the "culture of death" symbolized by legal abortion and embryonic stem cell research.

Gracida, meanwhile, may have been over the top, but he wasn't alone.

  • Virginia state Sen. Ken Cuccinelli, a member of the Republican National Committee's Catholic Working Group, told the delegates that young voters increasingly oppose abortion rights. He offered an explanation: "Pro-life people are bearing the children and pro-abortion people are killing them." Said Cuccinelli, "The 'culture of death,' is self-limiting."
  • Bush's reelection is vital not only to the country but also to the church, said Sen. Sam Brownback, of Kansas, a recent convert to Catholicism. "I can't think of anything more important to our faith than getting that job done."
  • Rep. Mark Kennedy, of Minnesota, cited a January 2003 Vatican document on the "Participation of Catholics in Political Life." It is now "impossible" for a Catholic legislator to support abortion rights, said Kennedy. This is "no longer allowed within the church," he said.
  • It's unusual, unheard of even, for a Catholic bishop to explicitly endorse a candidate for public office. But in his closing prayer at a meeting of Catholic GOP delegates, Gracida cast the appearance of nonpartisanship aside. He called on the Almighty to help the delegates "achieve the election of George W. Bush as president of this great nation."

    Afterward, the retired bishop distributed the business card of Marc Balestrieri, a Los Angeles-based canon lawyer who is petitioning the Archdiocese of Boston to have Kerry excommunicated. Balestrieri's claim received brief attention -- some news stories and an appearance on Fox News' "Hannity & Colmes" -- when he filed it last June. Balestrieri was back in the spotlight last week following a New York Times story in which he claimed newfound Vatican support for his excommunication crusade. The Vatican was forced to respond. "No, John Kerry is not a heretic," a Vatican official told Catholic News Service, the news agency funded by the U.S. bishops. That, however, is not good enough for those on American Catholic right, who, when it comes to John Kerry, aim to be more Catholic than the pope.

    But are Catholics listening? If they are, then they appear to be rejecting the conservatives' advice. According to the Pew Research Center, Kerry now leads Bush among white Catholic voters by 7 percentage points, 50 to 43, though he trailed Bush among those voters by 16 percentage points as recently as early October.

    Once captive of the big-city and Democratic machines, Catholics now vote pretty much like everybody else. Like the rest of the nation, they gave Al Gore a small majority in 2000 and supported Bill Clinton twice. They voted for George H.W. Bush against Michael Dukakis and backed Ronald Reagan against both Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale. Whether today's Catholics are a leading indicator or a mirror image of the electorate is a matter of some dispute among academics who have studied the question.

    What's not in dispute, however, is that ethnic Catholic voters -- the Poles, Italians and Irish who make up a disproportionate percentage of the population in such swing states as Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio and Pennsylvania -- will have an unusually big influence on the outcome of the presidential race this year.

    At the congressional level, these states are home to 11 of the 35 Democrats who regularly support antiabortion measures. These members of Congress -- folks like Bart Stupak and Dale Kildee of Michigan; Mike Doyle, Paul Kanjorski and John Murtha of Pennsylvania; Jim Oberstar of Minnesota; and Marcy Kaptur and (until he decided to run for president and flip-flopped on abortion) Dennis Kucinich of Ohio -- represent more than 6 million constituents, most of whom are accustomed to pulling the lever for culturally conservative Democrats -- a choice they won't have in the upcoming election.

    John Kerry of late is doing his best to make them comfortable with him, despite their doubts on abortion. In a speech last week billed as the fullest exploration of his faith and its role in his public life, Kerry used a distinctly Catholic vocabulary. He talked of the "common good" where "individual rights and freedoms are connected to our responsibility to others." He mentioned "stewardship and community," "solidarity," and the "ethical test of a good society." And he addressed the faith that has "sustained me in the best and worst of times, and that I will carry with me every day as president."

    And he directly addressed those church leaders who have questioned his Catholic credentials. "I know there are some bishops who have suggested that as a public official I must cast votes or take public positions -- on issues like a woman's right to choose and stem cell research -- that carry out the tenets of the Catholic church," said Kerry. "I love my church, I respect the bishops, but I respectfully disagree. My task, as I see it, is not to write every doctrine into law. That is not possible or right in a pluralistic society. But my faith does give me values to live by and apply to the decision I make."

    No bishop, of course, would concede that he is asking Kerry to write Catholic doctrine into law. But Kerry's "respectful" disagreement with a Catholic hierarchy discredited by sex scandals and distrusted for the appearance of partisanship might be just the formula needed to placate the antiabortion consciences of job-hungry swing-state Catholics.

    But there are still a lot of conservative Catholics working to blunt Kerry's appeal with those voters. And the GOP hopes they succeed. Ever since 2000, after Crisis Magazine, a conservative Catholic publication, commissioned a poll of Catholic attitudes and voting patterns, Karl Rove has eyed a portion of the Catholic vote he believes should be part of Bush's religious base. The essential finding of the survey was that Catholics who attend Mass frequently were considerably more likely to support Republican candidates than those who attend less often. The "God gap" was born, in which "faithful Catholics" (frequent church attendees) were pitted against "cafeteria Catholics," those said to pick and choose among the church's teachings.

    Crisis magazine's publisher, Deal Hudson, a former Baptist minister and philosophy professor from Fort Worth, Texas, who converted to Catholicism in 1982, shopped the findings to that year's crop of Republican contenders. Only Rove was interested. Hudson met with Rove and Bush, who liked what they heard. Hudson became the "go-to Catholic" for the Bush campaign and, later, administration. Hudson acted as the Catholic gatekeeper, verifying the bona fides of prospective Catholic appointees. Each Thursday morning Hudson and Rove's agent, White House director of public liaison Tim Goeglein, participated in a teleconference call with like-minded Catholic activists. It was a mutually beneficial relationship: The activists informed the White House what they were hearing on such issues as abortion, international family planning, judicial appointments, education vouchers, gay marriage and the like, and the White House got its message directly to those in a position to help carry out the plan.

    But in August, Hudson resigned his post as Republican National Committee "Catholic Outreach" chairman when it was revealed that as a professor at Fordham University in 1994, he encouraged an 18-year-old freshman to join him and some older students for a night of drunken partying. Following the party, according to the student's statement, Hudson took her back to his university office, where they exchanged sexual favors. As a result of the incident, Hudson was forced to give up his tenure and to pay a $30,000 settlement to the student.

    Hudson's departure from the campaign hasn't, however, changed the Bush Catholic strategy. "There are two key elements to the Catholic vote," says Leonard Leo, the Federalist Society executive vice president who succeeded Hudson. "There are 'faithful Catholics,' by which I mean Catholics who attend Mass at least once a week and who believe in the magisterium of the church and the fundamental doctrines of the church."

    The second group, Leo continued, are "swing Catholics," who may be less devout but remain sympathetic to the church's teaching on a range of social issues. "Swing Catholics and faithful Catholics are often in accord on a number of the 'culture of life' issues," said Leo, "and I suspect that it is this combination of voters which will be pivotal in deciding who controls the Catholic vote in this election."

    And Leo has a lot of allies in the conservative leadership of the American Catholic Church. It's important to remember that in the years immediately following the Supreme Court's Roe vs. Wade decision of 1973, the antiabortion movement was, for all practical purposes, the hierarchy of the Catholic Church. It would be another decade before the evangelical Christian right joined the fight. Society's elite opinion makers -- medical professionals, academics, journalists, lawyers -- generally favored the new abortion regime, versions of which, prior to the court's ruling, had been bubbling up in state legislatures throughout the country.

    The bishops stepped into the breach. They funded the fledging movement's infrastructure (the largest group, the National Right to Life Committee, was created by the bishops). Church leaders testified before Congress in favor of a constitutional amendment to overturn Roe. They backed the Hyde Amendment, which banned federal funding of abortion. They pushed for judges who would reverse the court's ruling.

    As the national Democratic Party moved increasingly to embrace abortion rights, the Reagan presidency offered hope to antiabortion activists. But it quickly became clear that tax cuts and military spending were more important to the pragmatists who surrounded Reagan than a gut-wrenching battle to restrict what had become the most commonly performed medical procedure in the country.

    Some 31 years and 40 million-plus legal abortions later, the bishops are at least as far from overturning Roe as they were in the 1970s. Further, vast numbers of their own flock reject their teaching. Catholics are as likely to be pro-choice as their Protestant neighbors; Catholic women have abortions at roughly the same rate as the rest of the population. The generation of bishops who fought the earlier battles over abortion are no longer on the scene. They have been replaced by the "John Paul II bishops," clerics who combine strict adherence to church teaching with an understanding of the bully pulpit that comes with a bishop's chair. John Kerry's candidacy has emboldened this new generation; it is a "teaching moment" they have not let pass.

    Having witnessed the three-decade failure to restrict abortion rights, the John Paul bishops have made clear they are ready to take the fight to the next level. Today, that struggle begins in their pews -- and is focused on their most prominent members.

    The agenda of the U.S. bishops' closed-door meeting last June in Englewood, Colo., was supposed to be light. Most of the six-day special assembly was to consist of an "extended period of time for prayer and reflection." Then reality -- in the form of the clergy sex-abuse scandal and John Kerry's presidential candidacy --intruded. In the two and a half years since the Boston Globe first got a Massachusetts court to unseal records related to priestly abuse of minors and the ensuing coverup, the bishops as a body had dealt with little else. In the weeks prior to the Colorado meeting, another flare-up occurred in which more than two dozen bishops squabbled with the high-powered lay board (its members included Washington lawyer Robert Bennett and former Clinton chief of staff Leon Panetta). There had been other disputes -- the board's first chairman, former Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating, had resigned in disgust, comparing the bishops to the Mafia.

    This time, the fight was over the board's plan to continue reviews of diocesan child-protection programs. A number of bishops wanted to cancel or delay these "audits." Sensing a public relations disaster in the making, the bishops overrode the concerns of some of their members and voted to approve a next round of reviews.

    Then they moved on to Kerry. Previously, before the Massachusetts senator had become the presumptive nominee of his party, the bishops had established a task force chaired by Washington Cardinal Theodore McCarrick to address issues regarding Catholics in public life. The committee was to report its recommendations to the bishops after the election.

    But as the bishops gathered at the Inverness Hotel, things had gotten out of hand. In late 2003 Bishop Raymond Burke, of La Crosse, Wis., issued a "notification" calling upon Catholic legislators in the diocese "to uphold the natural and divine law regarding the inviolable dignity of all human life." Catholic legislators "who continue to support procured abortion or euthanasia may not present themselves to receive Holy Communion" because, Burke said, they are guilty of "manifestly grave sin, which is a cause of most serious scandal to others."

    Though Burke's sanction was the harshest delivered in recent memory against pro-choice politicians, other bishops had taken similar measures. In a January 2003 statement directed at then-California Gov. Gray Davis, Bishop William Weigand, of Sacramento, said that politicians who support abortion rights "should have the integrity to acknowledge" that they are at odds with the church and "abstain from receiving Holy Communion." In early 2003 Bishop Robert Carlson, of Sioux Falls, S.D., urged Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle to stop proclaiming himself a Catholic in his campaign brochures.

    Still, these actions were seen as anomalies. No one, other than Burke, had taken the dramatic step of denying Communion to pro-choice Catholic politicians. And Burke did so from a relative backwater -- La Crosse was not Los Angeles, New York, Chicago or Boston.

    But then, in December 2003, Burke was promoted, named Archbishop of St. Louis by Pope John Paul II. On Feb. 1, two days before the Missouri presidential primary, Burke told reporters that if Kerry presented himself for Communion, he would deny him the sacrament. And thus began what "The Daily Show's" Jon Stewart deemed "wafer madness." It was a free-for-all. Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput weighed in on April 14 (and many times subsequently). "Candidates who claim to be ... 'Catholic' but who publicly ignore Catholic teaching about the sanctity of human life are offering a dishonest public witness," Chaput wrote in the Denver Catholic Register. "They may try to look Catholic and sound Catholic, but unless they act Catholic in their public service and political choices, they're really a very different kind of creature."

    On May 1 Bishop Michael Sheridan, of Colorado Springs, Colo., upped the ante. Not only should pro-choice politicians be denied Communion, he said in a pastoral letter, but those who vote for them are equally culpable.

    In a May 5 pastoral letter, Newark, N.J. Archbishop John Myers declared that when it comes to abortion "public officials cannot hold themselves excused from their duties, especially if they claim to be Catholic. Every faithful Catholic must be not only 'personally opposed' to abortion, but also must live that opposition in his or her actions. To receive Communion when one has, through public or private action, separated oneself from unity with Christ and His Church, is objectively dishonest." Then from the Vatican, Nigerian Cardinal Francis Arinze, head of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, said that pro-choice politicians should be denied Communion.

    Still, the overwhelming number of bishops either remained silent, took a less confrontational approach, or flat-out rejected the idea that the Eucharist should get mixed up in the highly charged atmosphere of a presidential campaign. Among them was McCarrick, who met privately (no photo op or press conference) with Kerry for nearly an hour in mid-April. As chair of the bishops' task force, the 74-year-old archbishop led the discussion at the June meeting. Much to the disgust of the Catholic right, McCarrick publicly stated his opposition to making a politician's views on abortion a Communion litmus test.

    Following McCarrick's lead, the bishops overwhelmingly approved a statement in which they reiterated their "unequivocal commitment to the legal protection of human life from the moment of conception until natural death," but offered no collective opinion on whether pro-choice Catholic politicians should be denied Communion. Such decisions, declared the bishops, "rest with the individual bishop" in his home diocese. "Bishops can legitimately make different judgments on the most prudent course of pastoral action," the statement said. The bishops also pledged to deny honors, such as honorary degrees or speaking platforms at Catholic colleges, to public figures who favor abortion rights.

    When it comes to the church's role in American politics, this election has defined and crystalized a debate that will continue regardless of who wins the presidency. Kerry's candidacy, combined with the rise of the John Paul II bishops, has forced the American church to confront an issue -- the "scandal" of pro-choice Catholics in high public office -- for which there are no easy answers.

    My mother-in-law, who lives in the battleground state of Pennsylvania, told me that her neighbor has a sign in her yard that says, "A Catholic Cannot Vote for a Democrat." It's the inevitable result of the discussion that has taken place this year.

    Unless the Democratic Party makes room for a genuine diversity of opinion on abortion within its ranks (which seems unlikely), it will face an increasing effort by outspoken members of the American Catholic hierarchy and their lay supporters to delegitimize its role in U.S. society. The goal is nothing less than to make the party a moral outcast.

    Whether these bishops, given the problems within the church and with their own leadership, will be able to convince people in the pews of this is a big question. A Kerry victory, particularly if he carries the Catholic vote, will likely widen the chasms in the American church.

    Joe Feuerherd

    Joe Feuerherd is Washington correspondent of the National Catholic Reporter, an independent newsweekly.

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