Kerry and communion

Robert Novak

5/3/2004 12:00:00 AM - Robert Novak

WASHINGTON -- Readers of the Catholic Standard, official publication of the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., raised their eyebrows two weeks ago. They learned of a 45-minute meeting April 15 of Sen. John Kerry with the Archbishop of Washington, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick. Why did Sen. Kerry seek a meeting with a prelate who was not his bishop and whom he never had met?

 The answer was grounded in high-level political intrigue. McCarrick heads the task force on Catholic participation in public life established by the U.S. bishops. Its most publicized task is to inquire whether politicians who defy Catholic teaching should receive the sacraments. About to become the first Catholic since John F. Kennedy to be nominated for president, Kerry was lobbying McCarrick against being denied Holy Communion as an unwavering pro-choice abortion advocate.

 Whether his lobbying helped, Kerry could not have been more pleased by his interview published in last Thursday's Catholic Standard. While asserting abortion "may be primary," he added that "people who are with us on one issue" may be "against us on many other issues." McCarrick concluded: "All these things will have to be weighed very carefully." Intentionally or not, he was following the lead of liberal, pro-choice Democrats and providing cover for Kerry with traditional Catholics.

 Cardinal McCarrick is so respected and well-liked that not only priests but also prominent laymen do not want to criticize him. Without mentioning McCarrick by name, publisher Deal Hudson of the conservative Catholic magazine Crisis told me: "Anytime our leaders allow the life issue to be made one of many issues provides cover for Kerry's effort to attract Catholic votes."

 McCarrick's interview is far more important than Cardinal Francis Arinze's recent Vatican declaration that priests must deny Communion to pro-choice politicians. The decision is not in the hands of Rome but of local bishops. I asked one highly placed source to measure Arinze's impact on leaders of 195 American dioceses. "Little or none," he said. "The weak will ignore it. The brave and courageous will be encouraged, but they already know they are right."

 Even before last week's interview, McCarrick had opposed withholding Communion as a "sanction" against offending Catholics. He fortified that position last week by asserting that abortion is only one issue even if it's the most important one. That fits the claim made by Catholic Democrats in recent days that Cardinal Arinze's position raises questions about sanctions for advocating capital punishment or even war in Iraq.

 Actually, the Catholic Catechism asserts that "the Church has acknowledged as well-founded the right and duty of legitimate public authority to punish malefactors by means of penalties commensurate with the gravity of the crime, not excluding, in cases of extreme gravity, the death penalty." As far as war in Iraq is concerned, it apparently meets the Catechism's definition of "just war."

 In contrast, Vatican Council II declared abortion to be an "unspeakable crime." Pope John Paul II's Evangelium Vitae (Gospel of Life) encyclical in 1995 asserted that responsibility for this crime "falls on the legislators who have promoted and approved abortion laws." This encyclical, uncompromising on abortion, defends the death penalty "in cases of absolute necessity." Indeed, abortion is not only a "primary" issue as described by McCarrick, but there is no other issue described in Catholic doctrine as threatening a loss of sacraments.

 The problem may be the Cardinal's statement April 11 on Fox News Sunday a few days before Kerry came to visit him: "I'm happy that I have friends on both sides of the aisle." He obviously meant not an abortion aisle but the political aisle, a concept that imposes on a prince of the Church the burden of exercising even-handed judiciousness between Republican and Democrats.

 The pro-choice politicians seem to be winning the first round, but one priest familiar with how the Church operates told me that more and more American bishops, influenced by John Paul II, will deny communions and "finally 'out' liberal Catholics for what they are at heart, Protestants." This priest sees the day when "pro-abortion politicians will stop calling themselves Catholic or repent of their sins." That surely will not happen before the 2004 election.