Given the strong statements of a handful of bishops in recent weeks, is it likely that the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops will issue an edict sometime before the November presidential election, declaring Sen. John Kerry an unworthy candidate for the reception of Holy Communion and directing all bishops, priests and eucharistic ministers to deny him the sacrament if he should seek to receive it?
The answer is unequivocally, “No.” And that is why the most militant of the Catholic anti-abortion groups, the American Life League, has already launched an advertising campaign against Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, archbishop of Washington, D.C., and chair of a special bishops’ committee to examine the matter and to make recommendations to the full body of bishops. The league’s initiative is generated by fury and frustration, but mainly the latter.
Catholics who were going to vote for President Bush’s re-election anyway look upon the controversy created by Sen. Kerry’s voting record on abortion-related legislation as political insurance against a victory by the Democrats. Such Catholics would not have voted for any Democrat this year, not even if the party had nominated Sen. Zell Miller of Georgia, whose voting record is indistinguishable from that of a conservative Republican.
The president’s re-election campaign has a vested interest in keeping the Catholic issue alive. So long as Sen. Kerry remains on the defensive regarding his relationship with his church, the focus is not on the state of the economy or the war in Iraq.
Political operatives like Deal Hudson, a convert to Catholicism from the Southern Baptist tradition and editor of Crisis, an ultra-conservative Catholic magazine, advise the White House on how best to exploit the division between the bishops and Sen. Kerry and win votes for the president.
But why will the bishops not act against Sen. Kerry on the Communion issue? The first and most obvious reason is that they know that such an action would be interpreted by most Americans as an endorsement of President Bush’s re-election, and the bishops do not want to be perceived as partisan political actors, particularly since neither party’s hands are clean when it comes to fidelity to the teachings of the Catholic Church.
A slim majority of Catholics still vote Democratic — and not because they favor abortion rights. They regard that issue, rightly or wrongly, as less immediately pressing than jobs, prescription drugs, health care, education and the high cost of the war in Iraq in terms of lives, money and national reputation.
Indeed, those Catholics who regard the abortion issue as only one of many on which to base their vote this November are more in line with their bishops than are fellow Catholics who believe that abortion trumps all other issues — so much so that Catholic politicians, like Sen. Kerry, who do not vote “right” on abortion-related legislation must be publicly censured and humiliated by the ultimate spiritual weapon of virtual excommunication, for that is what denial of Communion amounts to.
Since 1976 the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, through its administrative committee (composed of some 50 or more bishops, including the USCCB’s officers and committee chairs) has issued a quadrennial statement just prior to each presidential campaign and election, including this one.
A key paragraph has remained virtually unchanged throughout these years: “As bishops, we seek to form the consciences of our people. We do not wish to instruct persons on how they should vote by endorsing or opposing candidates. We hope that voters will examine the position of candidates on a full range of issues as well as on their personal integrity, philosophy and performance. We are convinced that a consistent ethic of life should be the moral framework from which to address issues in the political arena.” (For the most recent statement, see “Faithful Citizenship: A Catholic Call to Political Responsibility” in Origins, Oct. 23, 2003, pp. 321, 323-330. The paragraph quoted above in on p. 325, column 2, paragraph 1.)
The words “or opposing” were added to the statement that was published just prior to the 1988 election because the bishops had been stung by the charge that, during the 1984 campaign, certain high-profile prelates, especially the late Cardinal John J. O’Connor of New York, had singled out the Democratic vice presidential candidate, Congresswoman Geraldine Ferraro, a Catholic, for particular criticism on the abortion issue. This created the clear impression for many that the bishops were, in effect, endorsing President Reagan’s bid for re-election.
In spite of the threats of a few individual bishops, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops will not repeat that mistake this time around.
Father McBrien is a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame.