Kerry Hit by New Threat in Abortion Row with Bishops

By Rupert Cornwell
Independent [Washington DC]
May 21, 2004

John Kerry's support of abortion rights has dragged the Democratic candidate into an increasingly politicised feud within the Roman Catholic church, with some senior church figures demanding that priests deny communion to him and all other pro-abortion Catholics.

Yesterday, 48 Democratic members of Congress who are Catholics wrote to the Archbishop of Washington DC, complaining that the threats by bishops to withhold communion were counterproductive, and dragging the church into a political quagmire.

The debate threatens to re-open tensions that appeared to have been laid to rest when John F Kennedy won the 1960 election to become the first Catholic president in US history. But that victory was secured only after Mr Kennedy publicly declared his allegiance lay to the US and its constitution, not to a foreign-based church.

Now, 44 years later, another Massachusetts senator with the initials JFK must cope with a similar problem, except that this time the impetus has come not from a sceptical population but from arch-conservatives in the church, egged on by the potent and vociferous anti-abortion movement.

The letter from the 48 members of Congress, who include the Democratic minority leader Nancy Pelosi as well as several known opponents of abortion, makes clear that a handful of outspoken clerics threaten to undo much of the good work of the past decades.

"For many years, Catholics were denied public office by voters who feared they would take their directions from the Pope," says the letter to Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, Archbishop of Washington, who heads a panel of bishops deciding whether and how to punish Catholic politicians whose positions are in conflict with church doctrine. "That type of paranoid anti-Catholicism" might have abated. But, the signatories warn, "attempts to influence votes by the threat of withholding a sacrament" will only revive such latent prejudice.

The letter also says it would be inconsistent for the US Catholic establishment to make its stand on abortion, rather than on other issues pitting Catholic politicians against the church, notably the death penalty and the war in Iraq.

Cardinal McCarrick, arguably the most influential figure in the US Catholic hierarchy, is against what he calls "confrontation at the altar rail". But others are not, leading critics to accuse them of political meddling, at the tacit behest of the Republican-dominated pro-life movement.

After setting out his position in a Catholic newspaper, the cardinal was roundly criticised by the American Life League, a prominent anti-abortion group, for having capitulated to those who believed that a woman's right to choose was paramount.

There is a wider risk too, that the dispute will further sully the reputation of a church tarnished by the scandal over sexual abuse by Catholic priests. "This will alienate a great many Catholics," Leslie Tentler, a professor at Catholic University said. "It plays into the oldest stereotype, which is that Catholics can't think for themselves."

But others believe the controversy may yet help Mr Kerry, by emphasising he is a Catholic, while headlining his independence from the church more effectively than his own assurances could ever do.