John F. Kerry, the first Catholic presidential nominee since John F. Kennedy, may be heading for a confrontation with some bishops of his own church.
In an article about Kerry's religion last week, Time magazine quoted the candidate describing himself as a "believing and practicing Catholic."
In the Senate, meanwhile, Kerry has voted against banning partial-birth abortion, against allowing a straight up-or-down vote to ban human cloning, and against the Defense of Marriage Act, which protects states from having to recognize same-sex unions contracted in other states.
This week, Kerry told MTV he favors recognizing "civil unions" as the functional equivalent of marriage, albeit by a different name.
All this puts Kerry at odds with Catholic teaching -- which, of course, makes him no different than many other liberal Catholics who have run for office in recent decades.
But two new factors have arisen in this election cycle: First, on Nov. 21, 2002, the Vatican issued a "doctrinal note" addressed to Catholic bishops, politicians and voters, reminding them of their moral obligations in these areas. Secondly, at least one newly installed U.S. archbishop seems to be following through on the note -- and his boldness may inspire others.
"(T)hose who are directly involved in lawmaking bodies have 'a grave and clear obligation to oppose' any law that attacks human life," said the Vatican note. "For them, as for every Catholic, it is impossible to promote such laws or to vote for them."
"In the same way," said the note, "it is necessary to recall the duty to respect and protect the rights of the human embryo."
"(I)n no way can other forms of cohabitation be placed on the same level as marriage," it said, "nor can they receive legal recognition as such."
In January, Raymond Burke, newly installed archbishop of St. Louis, was asked by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch what he would do if John Kerry came to him for Communion. "I would have to admonish him not to present himself for Communion," said Burke. "I might give him a blessing or something. If his archbishop has told him he should not present himself for Communion, he shouldn't. I agree with Archbishop (Sean) O'Malley."
O'Malley is the Capuchin monk who last year became archbishop of Boston. At his installation Mass, according to Time, Kerry did take Communion. "More recently, however," Time reported, "O'Malley has said that Catholic politicians who do not vote in line with church teachings 'shouldn't dare come to Communion.'"
How does Kerry square his voting record with the moral teachings of his church? He told the Post-Dispatch that "it's not appropriate in the United States for a legislator to legislate your personal religious belief for the rest of the country."
But the Vatican's note rebutted this well-worn argument. The church must be separate from the state, it said, but the state cannot be separate from morality. "(N)o Catholic can appeal to the principle of pluralism or to the autonomy of lay involvement in political life to support policies affecting the common good which compromise or undermine fundamental ethical requirements," it said. "This is not a question of 'confessional values' per se, because such ethical precepts are rooted in human nature itself and belong to the natural moral law."
One can anticipate the complaint: The pope wants to dictate to the president.
No less as a president, than as a senator, than as a candidate, Kerry has free will. He can advocate any agenda he wishes. But if it violates the natural law, the bishops have a right and a duty to hold him accountable.
In this they would be acting not so much like medieval clerics seeking secular power as they would like a 20th-century Baptist minister named Martin Luther King Jr.
Writing from the Birmingham jail, King defended his fight against segregation by citing Catholic saints -- and by making the same argument the Vatican makes now in its doctrinal note. "I would agree with St. Augustine that 'an unjust law is no law at all,'" said King. "To put it in terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal or natural law."
If a Baptist minister can go to jail in defiance of legalized segregation -- on the grounds that segregation violates the unchanging moral law -- then surely a Catholic bishop can protect the sacrament of Communion in defiance of legalized abortion -- on the grounds that abortion violates the unchanging moral law.
And if Martin Luther King Jr.'s courageous defiance could inspire a change for the better in America, so, too, could Raymond Burke's.