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Support Catholic politicians

Observer Viewpoint | Monday, April 5, 2004

The New York Times ran an article on April 2, entitled “Kerry, Catholic and Candidate, Creates Uneasiness for the Church.” The Times was right in that it is worth noting Kerry is the first Catholic Presidential candidate on a major ticket in more than forty years. However, the New York Times barely scratched the surface of what is essentially a coup for Catholicism with respect to the Democratic party: The Democrat’s leader in the United States Senate, Tom Daschle of South Dakota, is also Catholic. So is Representative Nancy Pelosi, the Democrat’s leader in the House of Representatives. And it could get better (or worse, depending on your view of things): on almost every pundit’s short list for the Democrat’s vice presidential nominees are Governor Bill Richardson of New Mexico and Senator John Breaux of Louisiana – both are Catholic.

Interestingly, the faiths’ of the Republican leaders stand in stark contrast. Both President Bush and Vice President Cheney are Methodist. Senator Majority Leader Bill Frist is Presbyterian, and Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert lists himself simply as Protestant. Because so few people see Hastert as the real leader of the Republicans in the House, Tom Delay, for good measure, is Baptist.

The real purpose of the New York Times piece was to examine the controversy that Kerry’s nomination will almost inevitably cause in the coming months for Catholics. Kerry, like the rest of the Catholic Democratic leaders, are not considered by many Catholics to be “true” Catholic politicians, because they all maintain a pro-choice stance on abortion rights. Archbishop Raymond Burke of St. Louis is calling Kerry’s Catholicism into question by stating that he would refuse Kerry communion should he be at Mass in St. Louis. Burke’s contention actually begins to get at the heart of a much larger question: why do “non-true” Catholic politicians do so well in the Democratic party?

I will not attempt to provide an answer, however, I think the issue raises two important points. First, Catholics who question Kerry’s Catholicism – or Daschle’s or Pelosi’s – may want to consider that it is because of his Catholicism, and not in spite of it, that makes him a Democrat. If Catholicism has an enduring effect on its followers, then there has got to be something about Catholicism which makes being Catholic and being Democrat such a good fit. I know many Catholics are not pleased to see John Kerry as a presidential nominee, but concluding he is not a true Catholic is a simplistic dismissal which cannot lead to any enhanced understanding of Catholicism.

Second, perhaps Catholic Republicans should ask themselves why is it that they defend the Republican party with any degree of intensity in light of the fact that the party as it stands right now does not seem to want to be led by Catholics. This also should be considered in light of the fact that President George W. Bush felt it politically necessary and strategic to visit Bob Jones University in the last election. The founder of Bob Jones University did not care what a Catholic’s political views were. Ironically, Bob Jones did not discriminate when it came to Catholics; his animosity extended to us all. I am not suggesting that the Republican party is anti-Catholic, but it is disconcerting to read Observer Viewpoint columns where people defend the Republican party as the party for Catholics when the party clearly has not shown it is interested in such a title.

In the end, regretfully I am sure Kerry’s nomination will be more a source of controversy than a matter of pride for Catholics. The whole dilemma reminds me of another article back from 1998 in “George Magazine,” where a story was written about Daniel Patrick Moynihan as a “living legend” in the United States Senate. In the piece he was asked who his political hero was and he responded Al Smith. The only reason Moynihan gave was that Smith was the first Roman Catholic presidential nominee from either major political party. Such is the way Catholicism was meant to be; that there should be something good in and of itself when a fellow Catholic has potentially risen to the top of the political world. Undoubtedly many Catholics will not share in such a sense of triumph if two Catholic Democrats become the president and vice-president, but will instead call into question that very Catholicism. Sadly, all this will show is the communal sense of our Church is considerably far from where it ought to be.

Tom Coffey

Law School

Class of 2006

April 5