The next great Catholic scandal?

Posted: Apr 13, 2004 12:00 AM
Stay with me a minute. This is not a column about a presidential candidate. It's a column about a religion. My religion. And maybe yours, too.

I'm a Roman Catholic. I woke up the day after Easter to find this headline in The New York Times: "Kerry Attends Easter Services and Receives Holy Communion."

Weird, right? It's hard to count all the ways. First, the "dog bites man" aspect: John Kerry, who describes himself as a "believing and practicing Catholic," goes to church on Easter. This is headline news? Second, there is the uneasy feeling that some unspoken boundary is, or is about to be, crossed. For faithful Catholics, communion is not just a nice ritual: It is the body and blood of Jesus Christ, and the ultimate sign of our willingness to be incorporated into the church. Why are the sacraments of my faith being (I dunno) dirtied up with presidential politics?

You can't just blame The New York Times. The Catholic Church has begun to realize how big a problem it has on its hands: When highly visible Catholics dissent from the church's core teachings on things like abortion and remain Catholics in good standing, it is hard to see how the next generation of Catholics can avoid concluding the church is just not serious. You too can be a good Catholic AND support abortion -- John Kerry (not to mention Rudy Giuliani) is living proof.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops recently formed a task force to struggle with how to deal with pro-choice Catholic politicians. In February, the archbishop of St. Louis, Raymond Burke, warned John Kerry that he could not, in good faith, allow him to take communion. Sen. Kerry's archbishop, Archbishop Sean O'Malley of Boston, has not mentioned Kerry specifically, but did say Catholic politicians who oppose core Catholic teachings "shouldn't dare come to communion." Meanwhile, William Donohue of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights is raising a different issue, claiming, "There is no evidence that John Kerry and Teresa Heinz were ever married in the Catholic Church."

This is not a column about John Kerry, presidential candidate, because frankly, I don't believe any of it will affect the election returns. The American Catholics who care deeply about the church's teachings on abortion or marriage are probably already out of the Kerry camp.

I am just an ordinary Catholic. I don't believe in lay excommunication. It's not my decision. The real problem my bishops are being forced to face is that for several generations now, they have not formed a majority of Catholics who actually believe what the church teaches on abortion, sex, marriage, the Eucharist or anything else really. Catholic teachings are becoming a kind of gnosis, the secret of the elect few, not the basis of the faith of ordinary Catholics.

Sign of the times: An Upper East Side pastor recently fired Catholic schoolteachers for contradicting the church's teaching to their students (on gay marriage, among other things). How did the church respond? With applause and plaudits for the moral courage of this priest? No, of course not: The archdiocese of New York ordered the pastor to reverse the firings, on the grounds they were "disruptive" to the schools. (He resigned instead.) If you can't count on Catholic schools to teach Catholicism, who can you count on?

I don't have all the answers. I believe denying Kerry the sacrament of communion would help, not hurt, his presidential campaign, and that that is why The New York Times is virtually taunting the Catholic bishops on this issue: Provoke an anti-Catholic firestorm or confess your own impotence.

I don't believe in playing politics with the sacraments, one way or the other.

But if Catholic bishops cannot stand up for the teachings of the church, who can?