Kerry's problem with Catholics

Posted by Peter


By Frank Wilson

Inquirer Books Editor

Only one signer of the Declaration of Independence wrote his address on the document. That was "Charles Carroll of Carrollton," who added his place of residence, he said, so that the British would have no trouble finding him should they wish to hang him.

Carroll was also the only signer of the declaration who was a Roman Catholic. His brother, the Jesuit John Carroll, became the first U.S. Catholic bishop.

Catholics have played a key role in American politics from the very beginning, as George J. Marlin amply demonstrates in The American Catholic Voter: 200 Years of Political Impact (St. Augustine's Press, $30). The book is filled with fascinating facts and interesting statistics, but that hardly explains why its author is getting invited onto national talk shows. That's come about because, in the last chapter, the Brooklyn-born Marlin - a former executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey and a onetime Conservative Party candidate for mayor of New York City - shows how the Catholic vote could tip the election to President Bush.

That may seem odd, given that Sen. John F. Kerry is the third baptized Catholic to be nominated for president by a major political party. Moreover, Catholic voters may make up about a quarter of the electorate, but, as Marlin pointed out in an interview, theirs is "not the monolithic vote it was in the days of Al Smith or John Kennedy."

The problem for Kerry, Marlin says, is that Catholics who favor him live mostly in states such as New York and Massachusetts that he is likely to win anyway, whereas more traditional - and generally older - Catholics are concentrated in such battleground states as Wisconsin, Ohio, Missouri and Pennsylvania.

"Bush lost Wisconsin [in 2000] by a quarter of 1 percent," he says. "The state is 30 percent Catholic."

"Like most other Americans," Marlin adds, "Catholics consider the war on terrorism the No. 1 issue, but in a close election... the issues and voters along the margins matter." Abortion matters greatly for more traditional Catholics, and they find Kerry's position on the issue more than a little problematic.

In July, in an article in the Washington Post, Kerry was quoted as saying, "I oppose abortion... . I believe life does begin at conception." But, he added, "I can't take my Catholic belief, my article of faith, and legislate it on a Protestant or a Jew or an atheist."

That's morally and intellectually incoherent. "Every time you cast a vote on the floor of the United States Senate," Marlin says, "you're voting to impose your beliefs on somebody else. If you vote for higher taxes, you're voting to impose them."

He has a point. The Catholic view that life begins at conception is not put forward as a mere gynecological factoid. The church draws a moral conclusion from it: If human life begins at conception, then abortion - the direct and intentional termination of a fetus' life signs - amounts to the taking of innocent human life. It is hard to see how one could accept this as an article of religious faith, as Kerry says he does, and feel no obligation to act on it - in fact, to feel obliged not to.

Indeed, he seems to have done everything he could on behalf of those who espouse the opposite view. At this year's annual NARAL Pro-Choice America dinner, he pledged "no overturning Roe v. Wade, no packing of the courts with judges hostile to choice, no denial of choice to poor women." (NARAL Pro-Choice America is the former National Abortion Rights Action League.) Kerry voted against the Partial Birth Abortion Act and has voted against bills requiring parental notification in the case of teens seeking abortion.

There is, to be sure, a line of reasoning in Catholic discourse that could be stretched to justify Kerry's position. It is the so-called seamless-garment ethic put forth by the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, which argues against overemphasizing one moral issue - specifically, abortion - while downplaying others, including poverty, racism and war.

Kerry would seem to have alluded to this during the third presidential debate, when he said that "I think that everything you do in public life has to be guided by your faith, affected by your faith, but without transferring it in any official way to other people. That's why I fight against poverty... . That's why I fight for equality and justice."

This viewpoint is not, however, accepted officially by the church. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, head of the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, has stated that "not all moral issues have the same moral weight... . There may be a legitimate diversity of opinion... about waging war and applying the death penalty, but not, however, with regard to abortion and euthanasia."

Last week, a Zogby International poll found Catholic voters as a whole equally divided between the two presidential candidates. This could indeed be good news for President Bush because, in 2000, Al Gore won the Catholic vote by about 56 percent to 44 percent.

Kerry's professed religious belief that human life begins at conception simply cannot be reconciled with his record of steadfast support for abortion rights. During the last presidential debate, he quoted the second epistle of St. James: "Faith without works is dead." By that standard, the depth of Kerry's faith can be fairly estimated at about six feet under.


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