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Catholic Politicians Challenged on Loyalty to Faith, Government - 2004-04-29

Presumed Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry is facing some tough questions about his Catholic faith? but they're very different from the ones faced by John F. Kennedy, the nation's last Catholic presidential candidate. In 1960, the young Senator Kennedy had to defend himself against allegations that he would let his loyalty to Catholicism interfere with his responsibilities as a U.S. president. But Mr. Kerry is being accused of letting his loyalty to the Democratic Party interfere with his responsibilities as a Catholic. VOA's Maura Farrelly recently sat down with the editor of a leading Catholic magazine to talk about the challenges faced? and posed? by Catholic politicians in America.

The topic of John Kerry's Catholicism first captured the media's attention last February, when Archbishop Raymond Burke of St. Louis, Missouri, told a reporter he would not give Communion to the Catholic presidential candidate from Massachusetts. The reason was that Senator Kerry has consistently opposed laws that would limit or outlaw abortion? a procedure condemned by the Church as "murder." Since Archbishop Burke's announcement, three other American bishops and a Cardinal in Rome have said they, too, believe that Catholic politicians who support legalized abortion should not receive Communion. But in Boston, Senator Kerry's home parish, Archbishop Sean O'Malley has said he assumes any Catholic looking to receive Communion is coming in "good faith," and that it's not his job to deny Mr. Kerry? or any Catholic politician? one of the church's most fundamental Sacraments.

"Clearly the U.S. bishops are in disagreement about this," notes Father Tom Reese, editor of America magazine, a weekly periodical put out by the Society of Jesus, an order of Catholic priests that dates back to the sixteenth century.

"We have Archbishop O'Malley saying one thing, Archbishop Burke saying another thing. And even more remarkable, hundreds of bishops not saying anything, who really don't want to deal with this issue at all," he says.

Father Reese says in some ways, John Kerry's candidacy has put Church leaders in a difficult situation, because now members of the media? and certain groups with a political agenda? are pushing for the Church to comment on the presidential campaign--something that traditionally, it has not done.

"In the United States, we've had a tradition in the Catholic Church of not endorsing political candidates, not endorsing political parties. The U.S. bishops have been involved in discussing issues. For example, they'll come out against capital punishment. They're for forgiveness of Third World debt," he explains. "So, since they don't like to get involved in endorsing or condemning the individual candidate, most bishops don't want to talk about this, and don't want to deal with it. But there is a very strong, pro-life group in the United States pushing for this."

Father Tom Reese says the Catholic Church in the United States has had to be very careful about making pronouncements when it comes to politics. He says even though anti-Catholicism isn't nearly as rampant or nasty as it used to be, the Catholic Church? with its "Old World," hierarchical structure? is still viewed by many as being slightly antithetical to American ideas about freedom and democracy.

"I think in the United States there's a double standard. You know, when a bishop says something about politics, everybody gets all upset, 'Separation of Church and State. Why is there this interference?' At the same time, Jesse Jackson, a Baptist minister, can run for president," Father Reese says. "Pat Robertson can run for president. If a Catholic bishop in the United States decided he was going to run for president, all hell would break loose. And yet, he has a right to his political opinions. I think there's still a little bit of paranoia toward the Catholic Church."

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has put together a committee that's considering the issue of how Church leaders should approach Catholic politicians who vote for measures contrary to Church teaching. But pointedly, that committee has announced it will not make any of its recommendations public until after the presidential election in November.