Easter is this coming Sunday and where Sen. John Kerry, the Democratic candidate for president, will attend church suddenly has become a political issue. If the Roman Catholic senator sticks to his home Boston Archdiocese, he faces the implied threat from Archbishop Sean O'Malley of being refused Communion.
Archbishop O'Malley has said since the summer that pro-choice Catholic politicians are in a state of grave sin and cannot properly take Communion, though he mentioned neither Mr. Kerry nor Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, another Massachusetts Democrat.
Two months ago, St. Louis Archbishop Raymond Burke said Mr. Kerry "must not present himself for Communion" at any church in the city. However, "I might give him a blessing or something," the archbishop added.
Mr. Kerry was in St. Louis on March 28, but he sidestepped the Communion issue by attending New Northside Missionary Baptist Church, where he quoted a few verses from the second chapter of James.
Yesterday, Mr. Kerry again worshipped at a Protestant congregation: Charles Street African Methodist Episcopal Church in Dorchester, Mass. "We're thankful that there's going to be a revolution in this country ... a new movement," the Rev. Gregory Groover saidfrom the pulpit during the Palm Sunday service. "And we say, God, bring him on, the next president of the United States."
The Kerry campaign has declined comment on his faith and his Easter plans.
Catholics are obligated to attend Mass on Sundays and all Holy Days, but they do not have to receive Communion. It is specifically recommended, however, that Catholics go to confession at least once during Lent, and failing Sunday obligation is a grave sin that makes one ineligible for Communion. "O'Malley has been quoted as saying if you are pro-abortion, you shouldn't go to Communion," said the Rev. John Putka, a political science professor at the University of Dayton in Ohio. "Kerry says he intends to go. All you need is one time where he is denied Communion and there's a national incident."
Mr. Kerry's positions favoring human stem-cell research; the right to abortion, including partial-birth abortion; and civil unions between homosexuals are contrary to church teachings and have turned a vocal and active group of conservative Catholics against him.
When news accounts showed the senator attending Mass during a recent Idaho ski trip, the American Life League (ALL) issued a news release pointing out that the senator had arrived late and had been dressed in a ski suit at Our Lady of the Snows parish in Sun Valley.
In recent months, the senator has provided a few details about his Catholic past: service as an altar boy, wearing rosary beads during his Vietnam War service, one-time plans to become a priest. On Ash Wednesday, he emerged from a Catholic church with a smudge on his forehead signifying penance. "People ask: 'Is he making up his beliefs to take the red states?' " said Timothy Thibodeau, a history professor at Nazareth College in Rochester, N.Y. "Kerry's problem is that people doubt his sincerity. They think he is cooking up his religion just in time to run for the election."
Mr. Kerry has said he may be personally opposed to abortion as a Catholic but will not allow the church's positions to interfere with public policy, citing President Kennedy's 1960 statement to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association: "I am not the Catholic candidate for president. I am the Democratic Party's candidate for president who happens also to be a Catholic."
But Mr. Kerry is not dealing with the church Mr. Kennedy knew.
"When Kennedy ran for president, the Catholic Church hadn't yet had Vatican II," said Mr. Thibodeau, referring to the formative church council that met in Rome from 1962 to 1965. "John F. Kennedy grew up with a traditional Latin Mass Catholicism," he said. "By the early 1970s, when Kerry began the formative years of his political career, the church had radically changed. There was a drift by Catholic politicians from mainstream Catholic teaching."
Mr. Thibodeau pointed out that the discrepancy between church teachings and Mr. Kerry's public stances is common today. "Kerry is in many respects symbolic of a great many Roman Catholics who are totally at odds with the church's teaching on many things. He is also divorced and remarried. So are a lot of Catholics."
Mr. Kerry's marriage to Julia Thorne produced two children and ended in a civil divorce in the 1980s. He sought an annulment in 1997, two years after he married ketchup heiress Teresa Heinz. Mr. Kerry has said his "current marriage is in good graces with the church," but his campaign has declined repeated requests from several newspapers to show that the annulment was granted.
A task force of Catholic bishops on how to deal with disobedient politicians, led by Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington, has yet to issue a set of promised guidelines. "This is all about the bishops and how they choose to respond and not respond," said Joe Starrs, director of ALL's Crusade for the Defense of Our Catholic Church. "If Cardinal McCarrick and Archbishop O'Malley don't do something, Senator John Kerry and all these other pro-abortion Catholic politicians will receive Communion and the rest of the faithful will think, 'Gee, it's OK to support abortion and euthanasia.' "
Bishops have been denying Communion to politicians since A.D. 390, when Ambrose, the archbishop of Milan, excommunicated Roman Emperor Theodosius I for killing 7,000 unarmed Greeks during a tax rebellion.
Theodosius had to endure a ceremony of public penance before Ambrose agreed to accept him back into the church.
But that was then. "Ted Kennedy, in my mind, is the poster boy of the American Catholic at odds with the church," Mr. Thibodeau said. "Ted goes out of his way to be at odds with church on partial-birth abortion, gay marriage and all the hot-button issues the Vatican wants to discipline politicians on. "So, the Kerry people can say, 'Why are you picking on John Kerry when there are a host of Catholic politicians who are worse, but who are still receiving Communion?' The outrage seems to be selective."