Last week John Kerry finally answered the call, however reluctantly, and spoke out about his Catholic faith and how it impacts his politics. It was a high-minded talk, filled with references to themes drawn from social encyclicals but also, and surprisingly, a direct dismissal of significant elements of Catholic teaching.
George W. Bush, who underwent a born-again experience, took a different route early on in his political career. He famously proclaimed his attachment to religion with the comment that Jesus was his favorite philosopher. It is no secret that he seems more comfortable with the topic.
And so both candidates have now weighed in at length on their spiritual formation, their crises of faith, their redemption, and the way their religious faith inspires them in their sense of public mission. This is an encouraging sign that both candidates have some sense that they must answer to a higher authority, which requires humility.
As a Catholic priest, I'm often asked about my view of Kerry's own faith. I have no right to judge his sincerity, but it strikes me that when it comes to integrating faith with political responsibility, that George W. Bush is a better Catholic.
To be sure, Catholicism does not dictate a particular model of social or economic organization so much as precluding some forms as outright immoral. It is perfectly legitimate for a person to support Kerry's politics as the fulfillment of a certain understanding of the Gospel and a perception of the relative priorities of some issues over others.
At the same time, we need not be bound by Kerry's understanding of Church teaching. It is, for example, legitimate to question the manner in which Kerry imagines that public policy can be effective tool for the implementation of the ethics of the Gospel.
Thus does he quote Scripture concerning how we see the face of God in the face of the poor: “I was hungry and you fed Me; thirsty and you gave Me a drink. I was a stranger and you received Me in your homes; naked and you clothed Me.”
From this he infers that it is the moral obligation of the government to provide universal access to heath care, high wages, lower heating costs, and eliminate pollution.
It is here that Mr. Kerry confuses the flexibility of prudence with non-negotiable truth claims. The transition from scriptural ethics, which apply to individuals in their capacity as moral actors, to public policy, which is imposed by the government, is not as viable as he seems to think.
More troubling, from my point of view, is his declaration of dissent from the Catholic Church on matters of abortion and embryonic stem cell research. “I love my Church; I respect the bishops,” he says, “but I respectfully disagree.” With these words he has driven a wedge between himself and the bishops, and invited those who support him to go down this path him.
Of course, he is technically free to disregard any teaching of the Church he wishes. What needs correction, however, is the implication that Church's position on these matters is somehow “denominational” and not applicable and accessible to any reasonable person. To dissent from something, one needs to first understand it.
He says: “My task, as I see it, is not to write every doctrine into law.” This is, of course, correct. But here is the problem: on the question of abortion and stem cell research, we are not actually dealing with matters that can be dismissed as mere vices. We are dealing with clear cases reaching to the very core of the dignity of life itself, indeed to the human solidarity he cites as his goal. Surely, if anything is within the proper role of civil administration to regulate, matters that deal with the giving and taking of life itself must be included.
To protect life is not to impose one's values; it is to act to prevent distorted values from harming the most vulnerable among us. We all have an interest in the protection of life as a central political concern. This election demonstrates that you don't have to be a Catholic, or even a bishop, to understand this point.