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.

While the cardinals did not publicly discuss their Condoleezza Rice meeting, Cardinal Pio Laghi, who simultaneously met with Bush and gave him a letter from the pope, told an Italian newspaper that he would tell Bush, "From the moral perspective, the question of non-adherence to the just-war doctrine is clear." The Vatican's foreign affairs specialist, Archbishop Jean-Louis Tauran, was then calling an Iraq war without U.N. authorization a "crime against peace." Egan is fully in tune with these Vatican views and those of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which issued a strong statement against the war before Congress passed the authorizing resolution in late 2002.

While the Times and the rest of the mainstream media devote major play to every single-standard bishop who threatens Eucharistic sanctions against pro-choice politicians, the much broader antiwar views of the American church have been routinely ignored. Egan, who is an authentically pro-life and apolitical prelate, is known to be as upset about the loss of innocent Iraqi life as he is about the unborn. He was one of 22 church leaders from six continents to appear on an international webcast organized by the Vatican shortly before the war, declaring that U.N. weapons inspectors must determine that Iraq posed "a clear and present danger" before war could be justified. Calling the inspectors' findings "essential," Egan said "the truth of the danger must be established beyond any doubt" and "clearly set before us" before any invasion, urging that no one "rush into combat."

It's that balancing act of countervailing abortion and war issues—both seamlessly involving life, in Egan's view—that may force him to take both Bush and Kerry off the invitation list, in sharp contrast with O'Connor and the currently partisan prelates. The former bishop of Bridgeport, Connecticut, Egan has nonetheless been registered in New York since 1985, without affiliating with either party, whereas O'Connor was a registered Republican in Pennsylvania for decades before becoming New York's archbishop in 1984. The Voice then revealed that O'Connor had registered as an independent here just as he launched his Ferraro attack, claiming on his registration card that he had not been previously registered in an apparent attempt to conceal his prior Republican affiliation. Similarly, Bishop William Weigand of Sacramento, one of the most aggressive prelates on the current communion-denial issue, is also a registered Republican.

Ironically, the Smith dinner, which raises hundreds of thousands for archdiocesan health programs, was named after the first Catholic nominee for president, who lost to Herbert Hoover in 1928, losing the Democratic South solely because of his religion. Abortion was not a national issue when he or Kennedy ran; but both were pluralists who strongly championed American diversity, with Smith installing Herbert Lehman as New York's first and only Jewish governor. By denying the dinner as a platform for Bush—whose party has exploited the abortion issue without ever meaningfully delivering on it—Egan will continue in the Smith tradition, understanding that democracy and religious dictate are incompatible.


Research assistance: Abby Aguirre, Daniel Magliocco, Marc Schultz, and Ned Thimmayya

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