John Kerry’s Abortion Problem and the Catholic Church

National   |   Steven Ertelt   |   Jun 7, 2004   |   9:00AM   |   WASHINGTON, DC

John Kerry’s Abortion Problem and the Catholic Church

by John Leo
June 7, 2004 Note: John Leo is a columnist and contributing editor at U.S. News & World Report. Before joining U.S. News in September 1988, he covered the social sciences and intellectual trends for Time magazine and The New York Times. He also reported on religion for the Times, and wrote essays and humor for Time.

It looks as though more than 90 percent of America’s Roman Catholic bishops want no confrontation with John Kerry over his support of abortion rights -­ so far, only four of the 300-odd bishops said they would deny him Communion, and 15 others indicated serious concern over the issue.

I think Catholic objections to Kerry on abortion are sound. If you proclaim yourself a member of any faith, you ought to be able to stand up on the well-defined moral issues that your faith considers crucial.

This goes for Catholic pro- choice Republicans, too. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Rudolph Giuliani, and George Pataki never seem to get around to talking about abortion as a moral issue.

But the bishops are in a weakened position because they mishandled the clerical sex scandals for so many years. And they are fully aware that a dramatic election-year move against John Kerry, the first Catholic presidential candidate since John F. Kennedy, would surely look as though the church were aligning itself fully with the Republican Party. That would very likely harm the church at least as much as Kerry.

Besides, the bishops have already made their point. The voters will judge for themselves. A Zogby poll last week showed Kerry getting low support among America’s 51 million Catholics on issues where he opposes the church’s position.

Kerry received only 23 percent support from Catholics on the question dealing with unrestricted stem-cell research and also 23 percent on favoring homosexual unions. Two thirds of Catholics would be less likely to support a Catholic presidential candi­date who would use a Roe v. Wade litmus test to appoint pro-choice judges.

The poll reports the "startling" finding that Catholics in "blue" states (those won by Al Gore in 2000) are much less likely to vote for a Catholic candidate who is pro-choice. However, there is doubt about whether these issues will dom­inate among Catholic voters, who tend to be a pretty diverse group.

The pollster, John Zogby, played down his own findings. He thinks the economy, the war, and healthcare will be more important to Catholic voters, and to everyone else as well.

A few points must be conceded to Kerry.

There was no thunderbolt from Rome about denying Communion to pro-choice politicians, though some news media seemed to think so. The Vatican statement by Cardinal Francis Arinze was an off-the-cuff remark, referring to "unambiguously pro-abor­tion" Catholic politicians.

Whatever one thinks of "personally opposed" pro-choice politicians like Kerry, it’s a stretch to argue that they "unambiguously" favor abortion.

In addition, the Catholic Church has procedures for denying Communion. Bishops are supposed to discuss their objections with the per­son involved, then make an effort to understand his thinking and inform him in writing if a sanction is being imposed. It’’s not clear that the Communion-denying bishops followed this procedure.

Yet, it’s easy to understand the frustration of the bishops. They have been saying the same thing to Catholic politicians for many years, with no result. They don’t understand why a Congress that contains so many Catholics can’t shake the stranglehold of the abortion lobby (I don’t understand it either).

NARAL Pro-Choice America and the National Or­ganization for Women are surely the most radical abortion groups on the planet. Their positions, such as backing "partial-birth" abortion, go way beyond what the American peo­ple are prepared to support. Yet Catholic pols seem impotent on the issue. Some, like Kerry, appear at NARAL conventions, egging the activists on with "we must take this issue to the people" rhetoric.

Kerry even voted to allow pregnant girls to be whisked across state lines to get an abortion, thus evading state law. Odds are he would have voted no if the bill had been about taking young girls to a dentist without a parent’s knowledge.

Why do Catholic pols behave so oddly on abortion? Is it be­cause they have no real grasp of their own religion, or is it that they are simply terrified by the abortion lobby? Probably both, with emphasis on the latter.

The abortion lobby made an example of Pennsylvania Gov. Robert Casey in 1992. Casey was a great governor, liberal on every issue of interest to Democrats except abortion. So he was pointedly banned from speaking at the 1992 convention. To rub it in, one of his most bitter opponents in Pennsylvania, a pro-abortion Republican, was given a speaking role.

The liberal Village Voice was so upset by the crass treatment that it offered Casey a forum in New York. But he was drowned out by an alliance of abortion-rights supporters and free-Mumia leftists.

Presumably the Kennedys and Kerrys remember the Casey lesson. Such is the culture of the Democratic Party today. And there are no important Democratic Catholic pols willing to stand against it.