What would JFK do? Are Catholic bishops the real heretics?

If the New York Times is the Bible of elite journalism, then we can now say that questions about whether Sen. John “Call me JFK” Kerry should be receiving Communion at Catholic altars are officially legit. The New York Times has written about this topic, even if the paper elected not to make this a photo op.

And check out reporter Katharine Q. Seelye’s description of the congregation in the lead:

Rejecting the admonitions of several national Roman Catholic leaders, Senator John Kerry received communion at Easter services today at the Paulist Center here, a kind of New Age church that describes itself as “a worship community of Christians in the Roman Catholic tradition” and that attracts people drawn to its dedication to “family religious education and social justice.”

textHoly loaded labels! New Age?

This is, according to the Times, the “center” that the Kerrys consider their church home. The article does not, however, answer a question that practicing Catholics would immediately want to know: Who was the priest who served as celebrant in this Mass and, thus, gave Communion to Kerry? In Catholic theology, this would lead directly to another question: Does this priest serve under the authority of Archbishop Sean O’Malley of Boston?

O’Malley has said that Catholic politicians whose beliefs clash with Catholic doctrine should voluntarily abstain, saying they “shouldn’t dare come to communion.” The word “dare” is crucial, suggesting that Kerry is placing his own soul at risk.

Rome has made itself quite clear on the status of politicians who are Catholic, yet publicly support abortion rights, gay rights and other key planks in the Sexual Revolution platform. However, the American Catholic bishops must be divided on this issue, because they have organized a task force to research the issue that Rome has already decided.

Perhaps this task force will not report its findings until after the election. The leader, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington, said on “Fox News Sunday” that denying Communion would be a last resort. The Times picked up this quotation: “I think there are many of us who would feel that there are certain restrictions that we might put on people. But I think many of us would not like to use the Eucharist as part of the sanctions.”

However, some task force members — perhaps thinking of Rome — want to discuss other penalties, such as excommunication. During the Missouri primary, St. Louis Archbishop Raymond Burke announced that he would not give Communion to Kerry.

By the way, in a related story that received little attention, Kerry recently was photographed taking Communion in a non-Catholic church — the AME Charles Street Church in Roxbury, Mass. The Boston Herald quoted these reactions:

“Catholics should not receive communion in a Protestant church,” said Sister Mary Ann Walsh of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. “It’s standard church teaching.” …

Stephen Pope, a Boston College theology professor, said, “As a matter of church law, Kerry broke the law of the church,” but added that Kerry was in a “no-win situation” since taking or refusing communion would have offended someone.

And there’s the rub. All of these nasty little Catholic doctrines are so, so divisive and, well, doctrinaire.

The issue for the Catholic bishops is whether these doctrines (and Vatican directives) have any authority in their zip codes. If they are able to make up their minds — a huge “if” — they face the wrath of the authority that many of them fear the most. That would be the New York Times. It is safe to say that, in the opinion of the Times, it would violate the separation of church and state for bishops to deny Communion to Kerry. Perhaps there will need to be a law against bishops doing such a thing.

Does Kerry have a constitutional right to call himself a Catholic? What would Maureen Dowd say?

Print Friendly

About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Ken

    The Catholic blogs are all ablaze with discussions of What To Do About Kerry. The arguments run from “nail him” to “it could backfire”. Personally, I think second-guessing Archbishop O’Malley is the really losing proposition, but that’s because I learn toward the latter position.

    It seems to me journalists might usefully explore the sympathy Kerry does have among self-identified Catholics who don’t lurk on Catholic blogs. A host of questions exist as to the shape of that support. While such an exercise could be perceived as anti-Catholic (or actually be anti-Catholic), a lot of pro-choice Catholics exist, including Mass-goers as well as CINOs, plus that vast group of cultural Catholics who won’t look beyond the “Catholic” tag on a candidate. Or are they vast? Or just an urban myth?

  • Dan

    As far as most Americans are concerned, as far as even most American CATHOLICS are concerned, this is a fuss about nothing. They have long since decided that one can be a good Catholic without assenting to or obeying all of the Church’s teachings, including those relating to issues like abortion or gay rights. Kerry is far closer in spirit and practise to the majority of American Catholics than are his critics. So the Vatican and the Catholic blogosphere can fulminate themselves into a frenzy, and it still won’t amount to a hill of beans.

  • nora

    I think the Church needs to be more forth right in declaring its teaching on the consequences of advocating immoral conduct, whether communion is refused or not. Kerry has seriously mis-stated Church teaching in seeking to justify his own sinful conduct.

    The main point of the argument is not a personal one about whether the politicians should be receiving communion. Clearly they should not, but they are so far-gone (in my opinion) that the thought of receiving the Lord in a seriously sinful state doesn’t even matter to them. They eat to their own damnation. The real concern is over scandal to the faithful (a Catholic doctrine about the risk of leading people into sin by one’s own bad example) by allowing the public to conclude that the politicians are in good standing. There are many different ways of countering such scandal, and first and foremost should be to SPEAK OUT loudly and clearly about what the Catholic faith requires.

    However, it’s not such an open and shut case that Rome expects Catholic politicians who are pro-choice to be excluded from communion (which is not the same as excommunication). The Bishop of Rome (the pope) has many pro-choice politicians in his own diocese, and he has not stated in public that they are excluded from communion.

  • http://philalethia.blogspot.com Jonathan David

    In light of Dan’s comments, what then is Roman Catholicism in the US beyond a “cult of personality”? IOW, if his comments are to be taken as truly representative, the only thing that really makes a US Catholic “catholic” is his sentimental attachment to the Bishop of Rome. If this is the case, it seems like a whole bunch of people might be “eat[ing] their own damnation”.

  • http://blogs.law.harvard.edu/natep Nate

    Well, as my boyfriend goes to the Paulist Center, I can tell you a little bit about it.

    The Paulists are an order of priests, in the same manner as the Jesuits. They have a focus on “missionary work to North America.” (Take a look at http://www.paulist.org.) They Paulist Center in Boston isn’t any sort of “New Age” place. They tend to be moderate to liberal Catholics, with a fairly “guitar mass” worship style. but that’s a function of Vatican II, rather than any particualr parish.

    The priests of an order like the Paulists or the Jesuits receive their faculties (their authority to perform the sacraments) from the bishop of the diocese, so the priests at the Paulist center could not perform the Sacrament of the Eucharist without the permission of the archbishop. And it seems that if the church hierarchy wants to keep Kerry from receiving the Eucharist, they’d have to go through the formal process of excommunication. In any case, it’s not really the prerogative of the priest, it seems, but a matter for the bishop.

    Melissa Hennenberger had a great piece on this in the Newsweek Online the other day. One quote:

    “…it was a relief to hear Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington respond with a pastoral voice on the Kerry issue. McCarrick is heading a U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops task force on how to handle Catholic politicians who support abortion rights. In an empty meeting room at St. Matthew’s in downtown D.C., where the cardinal led a prayer service last Wednesday, he pulled a couple of dusty folding chairs down from a stack so we’d have someplace to sit while we talked. When I asked about Kerry’s standing, he seemed pained by the idea of turning him, or anyone else, away. `I would find it hard to use the Eucharist as a sanction,` he said gently. `You don’t know what’s in anyone’s heart when they come before you. It’s important that everyone know what our principles are, but you’d have to be very sure someone had a malicious intent [before denying him communion.]` McCarrick is surprisingly humble, and a reluctant judge. `It’s between the person and God,” he said….”

  • Ken

    To say that `It’s between the person and God,”is not a Catholic understanding of the Eucharist. Moreover, the Cardinal’s comments fail to account for the historic practice of the Church. May one assume his statements have been taken out of context?

  • Dan

    “In light of Dan’s comments, what then is Roman Catholicism in the US beyond a ‘cult of personality’?”

    I don’t think it can reasonably be described as a “cult.” In America, as in the rest of the developed world, Catholicism today is more a matter of heritage or identity than it is a matter of assent or obedience to Church doctrines. Most American Catholics simply do not accept the Church’s teachings on all sorts of important matters, yet they still consider themselves to be bona fide Catholics. John Kerry is one such Catholic. That is simply the reality of the Church in the modern world.

  • http://www.joe-perez.com/weblog.htm Joe Perez

    Upon reading this I was just wondering why nobody makes a fuss about all the Catholic politicians of both parties who support an adult’s right to purchase contraception? Nobody seems to be talking about denying THEM communion.

  • nora

    The reason such people aren’t excluded from communion is because they don’t present the same problem of leading others astray by their bad example. On the other hand, if people who are sinning stand up and advocate sin as a postive good thing and as compatible with the Catholic faith(as do pro-abortion politicians) with the same kind of public platform, then they should be excluded. And for the same reason — they would be seriously sinning by leading others into sin and confusing people about what is and is not compatible with Catholicism.

  • http://www.exgaywatch.com Mike Airhart

    While I agree that churches are entitled to enforce rules for their members, I would like for someone to explain to me why the Catholic hierarchy is only pressuring Catholic politicians on the issues of abortion and homosexuality.

    Whatever happened to the church’s teachings on the death penalty, divorce, human rights, poverty, unjust war, and proper uses and abuses of capitalism?

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt


    I answered your post earlier and, for some reason, it didn’t make it onto the site. Strange.

    Like it or not, there is a simple reason that abortion has been raised to this unique status — the Vatican has raised to this unique status. The pope has done this and so has the Vatican, in general. You might want to read the essay by Archbishop Chaput to see some of the specifics.

    So, if there is “one-issue politics” going on here, it is the Vatican that is doing it.