Kerry's Catholic Question

Cardinal Edward Egan faces a defining moment in the 2004 race for the White House

Judas received communion at the Last Supper—from Christ himself, no less—but in some Catholic dioceses across America, John Kerry can't. The first pro-choice Catholic to ever become the presidential candidate of a major party, and the only Catholic nominee since John Kennedy 44 years ago, Kerry is held to a higher standard by the hierarchy, and that's made the communion rail a political danger zone for him.

John and Luke indicate in the Gospels that Judas received bread and water from Jesus, even as Christ revealed that Judas would soon betray him. To this day, the transubstantiated Eucharist remains the greatest daily event of Catholic life, a feast of faith. But, for the first time, and only in America, a handful of partisan bishops are aggressively trying to turn what Catholics regard as the body and blood of Christ into leverage for swing votes.

From Boston to Sacramento, bishops have been speaking out on the issue for months now—none more outrageously than Bishop Michael Sheridan from Colorado Springs, who contends that Catholics who vote for candidates who favor choice, gay rights, or stem-cell research are ineligible for communion. But New York's cardinal, Edward Egan, has been conspicuously silent, participating quietly in a recent national bishops conference that issued a statement trying to calm the roiling waters. The statement did not buy the argument of Sheridan and others that canon law required the denial of the Eucharist to either elected officials or voters, saying "bishops can legitimately make different judgments on the most prudent course of pastoral action."

Egan is known to believe, like three-quarters of the bishops at the recent conference, that this is a private matter between a prelate and a pol, not a matter for public coercion and humiliation. A recent unnoticed editorial in the archdiocesan paper Catholic New York denounced efforts to use the Eucharist as "a political pawn," calling "blanket blacklists" of people not entitled to receive communion "problematic," and attributing the clamor to "pressure politics in an election year."

The cardinal will soon face a related challenge—how to deal with the invitation list for October's Al Smith dinner, the annual Waldorf Astoria white-tie archdiocesan affair that always attracts gobs of media and, usually, the presidential candidates of both parties. For example, that footage in Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 of Bush saying "Some people call you the elite; I call you my base" was shot at the 2000 dinner, when Al Gore and W. squared off in brief monologues, both sitting next to the then newly installed Egan. The only presidents to win without attending the Smith dinner since its inauguration six decades ago were Harry Truman and Bill Clinton.

It was Egan's predecessor, Cardinal John O'Connor, who made himself America's most partisan prelate in 1984, the last time a pro-choice Catholic appeared on a national ticket, New York's own congresswoman and Democratic vice presidential candidate, Geraldine Ferraro. O'Connor declared that Ferraro "has a problem with the Pope," deriding her so often that a spokesman for the Reagan White House told the Voice after the election: "Asking what role O'Connor played in the presidential campaign is like asking what part the Pope played, what part moral principle played."

O'Connor wound up barring Ferraro from appearing at the Smith dinner, where Reagan alone was feted. Reagan's opponent, ex-veep Walter Mondale, repulsed no doubt by O'Connor's transparent partisanship, claimed he had a scheduling problem, but asked if Ferraro could appear in his place. Though Spiro Agnew had been allowed to appear in Richard Nixon's stead in 1972, and Nixon subbed for President Eisenhower in 1956, O'Connor said veeps weren't up to snuff. O'Connor reversed himself in 1996 and decided veeps were fine, asking both Gore and GOP nominee Jack Kemp. He left Clinton out because he'd just vetoed the partial-birth abortion ban bill. To even out the 1996 scorecard, O'Connor also did not invite GOP presidential nominee Bob Dole, who, strangely enough, is said to be under consideration as this year's featured speaker.

That may well be where Egan winds up this year—because he and the pope have big-time problems with both Bush and Kerry. Should Egan decide to leave both presidential candidates off the invitation list, it would neutralize the political effect of the event. Should he just invite Bush, it would attract such national attention that it might help deliver a Catholic majority to Bush, who narrowly lost that vote to Gore in 2000. Not only are Catholics the largest religious group in half a dozen key states, from New Mexico to Michigan and Pennsylvania, Bush was the only candidate in the last 36 years to win without carrying the Catholic vote.

Bush got a taste of just how suspicious the hierarchy is of him when he journeyed last month to Rome for a photo op with Pope John Paul II. The pope took the opportunity—in trembling but forceful terms—to rebuke Bush for his Iraq policies, a view Cardinal Egan clearly shares, as little as it is noted in the New York press. Egan, in fact, was one of four American cardinals who went to the White House on the eve of the war to question the urgency of a unilateral invasion.

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