Pope John who?

It’s an old habit in American presidential politics: when your campaign is going sour, attack the Vatican. The Know-Nothings tried it with some success in the 1840s. James G. Blaine famously failed to distance himself from a supporter’s attack on “Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion” in 1884 — and lost to Grover Cleveland by a hair. Now, in the oddities of history, it’s a Catholic of Irish descent who’s taking a similar tack.

The day after the Vatican released a statement which taught that Catholic legislators have a moral obligation to oppose gay “marriage,” Senator John Kerry (D-Massachusetts) blew his well-coifed stack. “Kerry raps Pope,” ran the full-page headline in the Boston Herald. As, indeed, the senator did. “It is important not to have the Church instructing politicians,” a “fuming” senator said. “President Kennedy drew that line very clearly in 1960 and I believe we need to stand up for that line today.”

So the Pope had “crossed the line.” But whose line? Perhaps Senator Kerry should be reminded that the name of the Pope is “Pope John Paul,” not “Pope John Fitzgerald.”

And what line? However much it may have dampened anti-Catholic bigotry during the 1960 campaign, John F. Kennedy’s address to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association hardly constitutes a definitive Catholic statement on Church and state — or on the relationship between a conscience formed by Catholic understandings of moral truth and American democracy. Not only did the Kennedy speech fail to note that religion — Jewish and Christian conviction — informs and sustains the religious tolerance of the vast majority of Americans. He also bypassed any discussion of the relationship between democratic politics and civic virtue.

Kennedy’s eloquence – “…If this election is decided on the basis that 40,000,000 Americans lost their chance to be President on the day they were baptized, then it is the nation as a whole that will be the loser in the eyes of Catholics and non-Catholics around the world, in the eyes of history, and in the eyes of our own people…” — probably blunted the fangs of bigotry among some fever swamp Protestants in 1960.  But it did little to advance the national debate on the relationship between religiously-grounded moral values and American public life. As Senator Kerry evidently reads him, John F. Kennedy was the prophet of what Father Richard Neuhaus has called the “naked public square” — an American public arena in which no one’s religiously-informed moral judgments have a place.

Senator Kerry’s outrage also smacks of the opportunistic. Would Senator Kerry have charged that the Pope had “crossed the line” if the Vatican had said that a vote in favor of re-segregating America’s restaurants and schools would be “gravely immoral”? Very unlikely. Would Senator Kerry object to the Vatican informing Catholic politicians that a vote in favor of repealing minimum-wage laws was “gravely immoral”? Would Senator Kerry object to a Vatican document proposing that Catholic politicians had a moral obligation to protect the environment?

Of course not. Whatever else it may or may not have been intended to communicate, Senator Kerry’s displeasure appealed to several core Democratic constituencies crucial to his quest for the presidency: gay activists; secularists who champion the naked public square; liberals who believe, with Justice Anthony Kennedy of the Supreme Court, that “liberty” means the unfettered expression of personal willfulness, as long as it’s “between consenting adults” and “no one gets hurt.” That’s the debased notion of liberty that underwrites the abortion license — and only a bear of very little brain would think that that issue wasn’t lurking in the background of Senator Kerry’s blast at the Vatican. (Not that there’s much doubt of where the junior senator from Massachusetts stands on this front — and it isn’t in defense of the inalienable right to life.)

Senator Kerry argued that “Our founding fathers separated Church and state in America.” That’s true and it isn’t. The Framers wisely forbade any federal establishment of religion — a national state Church. They did this to foster the free exercise of religion, not to create a public arena shorn of religiously-informed moral arguments. The “wall of separation” is Thomas Jefferson’s interpretive (and tendentious) metaphor, not the Constitution’s text. Surely a serious candidate for President should know that much.

COMING UP: Q&A: USCCB clarifies intent behind bishops’ Eucharist document

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Last week, the U.S. bishop concluded their annual Spring meeting, during which much about the Church in the U.S was discussed. In particular, the bishops voted to draft a document on the meaning of Eucharistic life in the Church, which was approved by an overwhelming majority.

Since then, speculation about the nature of the document has run rampant, the chief of which is that it was drafted specifically to instigate a policy aimed directly at Catholic politicians and public figures whose outward political expressions and policy enactment do not align with Church teaching.

The USCCB has issued a brief Q&A clarifying the intent of the document, and they have emphasized that “the question of whether or not to deny any individual or groups Holy Communion was not on the ballot.”

“The Eucharist is the source and summit of Christian life,” the USCCB said. “The importance of nurturing an ever
deeper understanding of the beauty and mystery of the Eucharist in our lives is not a new topic for the bishops. The document being drafted is not meant to be disciplinary in nature, nor is it targeted at any one individual or class of persons. It will include a section on the Church’s teaching on the responsibility of every Catholic, including bishops, to live in accordance with the truth, goodness and beauty of the Eucharist we celebrate.”

Below are a few commonly asked questions about last week’s meeting and the document on the Eucharist.

Why are the bishops doing this now?

For some time now, a major concern of the bishops has been the declining belief and understanding of the Eucharist among the Catholic faithful. This was a deep enough concern that the theme of the bishops’ strategic plan for 2021-2024 is Created Anew by the Body and Blood of Christ: Source of Our Healing and Hope. This important document on the Eucharist will serve as a foundation for the multi-year Eucharistic Revival Project, a major national effort to reignite Eucharistic faith in our country. It was clear from the intensity and passion expressed in the individual interventions made by the bishops during last week’s meeting that each bishop deeply loves the Eucharist.

Did the bishops vote to ban politicians from receiving Holy Communion?

No, this was not up for vote or debate. The bishops made no decision about barring anyone from receiving Holy Communion. Each Catholic — regardless of whether they hold public office or not — is called to continual conversion, and the U.S. bishops have repeatedly emphasized the obligation of all Catholics to support human life and dignity and other fundamental principles of Catholic moral and social teaching.

Are the bishops going to issue a national policy on withholding Communion from politicians?

No. There will be no national policy on withholding Communion from politicians. The intent is to present a clear understanding of the Church’s teachings to bring heightened awareness among the faithful of how the Eucharist can transform our lives and bring us closer to our creator and the life he wants for us.

Did the Vatican tell the bishops not to move forward on drafting the document?

No. The Holy See did encourage the bishops to engage in dialogue and broad consultation. Last week’s meeting was the first part of that process. It is important to note that collaboration and consultation among the bishops will be key in the drafting of this document.


Featured photo by Eric Mok on Unsplash