Friday, March 12, 2004

Slate on Kerry & Catholicism

Nice non-polemical article summing up the political ramifications of Kerry's Catholicism in the post-Roe v. Wade era of presidential campaigning.
Politically speaking, what's his best approach? He could agree not to take communion, a confession of the "defective" nature of his faith, but a sign also that he's willing to play by the rules of the church and at the same time stick by his political scruples. But he would thereby insult, in effect, all other pro-choice Catholics who take communion on principle. He could attack the church's position, thrill liberal Catholics, and look like a man of honor. But that could spook moderate Catholics.

His best tack is probably to talk proactively about how his Catholic faith has affected other parts of his life, like his commitment to helping the poor, for example. It would show that he's a religious man who takes the Catholic faith seriously, even though he defines it in his own way like many American Catholics do. George Bush is already running ads asserting that he's a man of principle, a notion that seems plausible in part because of his widely publicized faith. Weirdly, the fact that after Kerry's first marriage broke up, he sought an annulment might show some Catholics that he cared enough about the rules of the church to go through the process—though it also gives an excuse for critics to probe the circumstances of the divorce and annulment.

As far as the election goes, it's less important for Kerry to agree with the church's positions than it is that he be viewed as a person with strong religious convictions. Obviously having a Catholic-style marital flameout is probably not sufficient. He'll have to offer something a bit more Dororthy Day and a bit less Ted Kennedy. The more he rebuffs the church's theology, the more he'll have to highlight what makes him truly pious.
Steve Waldman in his article implies that the best approach for Kerry would be to dodge the pro-life issue. That's just plain chicken, not to mention impossible, given the centrality of a pro-life vision in Catholicism. If Kerry is to remain a Catholic in good faith and simultaneously a pro-choice Democrat, he's going to have to abstain from regular reception of the Eucharist so long as he is in public office. But he should continue to attend Mass as he is obligated to do. Waldman doesn't like that idea because of the offensive message it sends to pro-choice Catholics. Please. If he kowtows more to heterodox Catholics than to his own bishops on matters of faith and morals, then he should just switch membership to a mainline Protestant church.

The vice-hold that the pro-choice agenda has on the Dem Party is ridiculously disproportionate anyway. Black Democrats complain with just cause about being taken for granted and ignored by the party because they can't defect to the GOP. Similarly, pro-choicers wouldn't turn to the GOP if it were the last party on the planet. Yet unlike Black Dems, pro-choicers have never seen their agenda placed on the block for negotiation. In fact, the party leadership has seen it more fit to shred and sacrifice the policy priorities of black America over any pro-choice expectations of mainly middle-aged, upper-class, white Democrats. If electoral politics dictates these calculated sacrifices, then the party isn't calculating very well. Pro-choice numbers and their "plight" are tiny in relation to the power they wield in determining the party platform. If Dems really want to recapture the WH and the Congress, they've got to start acknowledging the growing dissatisfaction with the pro-choice worldview and start showing some ideological freedom from it. They're not going to lose pro-choice voters, unlike black and Catholic swing voters, to the GOP and can only gain moderates who love the Dems for everything BUT their pro-choice agenda. The pro-choice wing shouldn't feel so comfortable in their party, so long as labor and blacks are seeing their demands negotiated away by the leadership.

Unlike most of my fellow Catholics who take orthodoxy seriously, I do believe it's possible to be both a pro-choice Dem and a faithful Catholic. But such a tightrope act comes at a great cost to one's communion with the Church. Kerry should accept this without the usual liberal indignation and submit to his bishops' proscriptions, including a good dose of penance. The worst thing he could do is ape those Catholics who without any struggle or good will thumb their nose at the Church's moral teachings and mindlessly tow the pro-choice line. I would be deeply impressed if Kerry could muster up enough moral toughness to buck that Kennedy-style of Catholic politics. If he were an even better Catholic, Kerry could also speak to youth of the tragedy of abortion and work to encourage other pro-life options for pregnant women, while upholding his party's pro-choice stance. Too fine a line to walk, I suppose. But as Bush is showing, good faith may be good politics more often than not.