Monday, October 4, 2004

Can a Catholic vote for John Kerry in good conscience?

Published in the Alton Telegraph--October 4, 2004

With the presidential election drawing near, this is a vital question for a large segment of the voting populace. However, the prior and more interesting question is whether John Kerry is really a Catholic. I do not ask this question lightly, nor am I the only one asking.

A Catholic is someone who believes in the teachings of the Roman church and lives his life accordingly. This includes participating in Mass and other sacraments, praying regularly, doing charitable works, and avoiding sinful behavior, for starters. Being a Catholic is relatively easy to discern simply because it entails a set of behaviors and many clear positions on social and moral issues.

This is sadly not the case with Protestantism. There are pro-choice and pro-life Protestants. There are pro-gay and anti-gay Protestants. There are Protestant drinkers and Protestant teetotalers. There are Protestant pacifists and Protestant hawks. There are Protestants who hate divorce and those who think it perfectly acceptable. There are even some Protestants who don’t capitalize the term, if you can believe it. And these contrasts only begin the list.

For Catholics, however, these and many other issues are settled. Catholicism is anti-abortion, anti-contraception, anti-divorce, anti-homosexuality, anti-pornography, anti-premarital sex, and anti-war (generally speaking anyway). So if a person believes in abortion, contraception, divorce, gay behavior, pornography, cohabitation, and war, he is diametrically opposed to the bulk of Catholic social teaching. Since John Kerry is a divorced and remarried, pro-choice, pro-gay legislator, I’m not sure what he means when he labels himself Catholic.

The real problem with so many Catholics, John Kerry included, seems to be a mutated belief system I call “Catholic,but…-ism.” Whereas Catholicism is very clear, Catholic,but…-ism is supremely vague. For instance, someone might say, “I’m a Catholic, but …I don’t attend Mass.” Since taking the Eucharist is the central religious practice in Catholicism, this has always seemed odd to me. Others might say, “I’m a Catholic, but…I have sex with my fiancĂ©e.” For a religion which is so staunch about marriage and sexuality, one might easily be baffled by such a statement. My personal favorite is the oft-parroted, “I’m a non-practicing Catholic,” which I suppose everyone has heard at some time or another. But Catholicism is fundamentally a way of life. To not practice it is to not be it. All these Catholic,but…ists are essentially saying, “I’m not a Catholic,” which is why Archbishop Burke and others have raised the possibility of denying communion to them.

Fundamentally, such a decision comes from acknowledging that certain beliefs and practices place a person outside the state of grace necessary for partaking the Eucharist. It’s not about punishing them or about coercing them to change or even about violating the separation of church and state. It’s actually a way of protecting the person in question, because if a person who is not right with the Lord partakes of communion, the Bible clearly teaches that he causes himself injury, even perhaps risking death. (1 Corinthians 11:27-30) This is why Catholics quite properly deny communion to people who are unbelievers. It’s also why segregationists were denied communion and even threatened with excommunication by Bishop Rummel in 1956.

Being a Catholic is difficult and often inconvenient. It requires many sacrifices. That’s what makes it meaningful. As a Protestant, I have tremendous respect for serious Catholics, but mostly contempt for Catholic,but…ists because they, like the foolish subject of the old proverb, want to have their cake and eat it, too. They want the benefits of saying they are Catholic without incurring any of the costs.

I just wish people would make a commitment. Either be a Catholic, and follow the teachings of the Church, or leave it and do your own thing. Heck, there are plenty of Protestant groups that embrace just such “individuality.” I’m not trying to convince you or the politicians to leave your faith. I just want you and them to take it seriously; seriously enough to either follow it or forsake it. Because doing neither is actually a form of forsaking, even though it never seems to be.

It was just such fence-sitting that Jesus had in mind when He said He’d rather have people hot or cold, not lukewarm. Yet lukewarm seems to be the most accurate description of John Kerry’s religious devotion, and serious Catholics should ask themselves whether voting for such a Catholic,but…ist is really consistent with their own sincere faith. I certainly don’t know his heart, and I’m in no position to comment on the status of his personal salvation. I am simply pointing out that he shows very few signs of being committed to social principles which the Roman church has been proclaiming for over a thousand years.

In this particular election, the alternative to Kerry is a man who is United Methodist but fairly conservative within that particular denomination. As such, Bush is certainly not a Catholic. However, other than the war in Iraq (which Kerry also supported), President Bush is almost perfectly in line with Catholic social morality. If we looked at practice and proclamation, one might even say he is more Catholic than the junior Senator from Massachusetts.

In the final analysis, one thing is clear. The sort of concern people had the last time a Roman Catholic ran for president is a non-issue in this election. When JFK was elected, people were terrified that the Pope would be running the White House. They turned out to be wrong. I think it’s quite clear in this year’s contest that no one needs to worry about John Kerry being too loyal to the Vatican. In truth, the real concern for serious Catholics is whether he is loyal enough.