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Boston Globe, September 28, 2004

Kerry's Catholicism

By James Carroll, Globe Columnist

IN LABELING John Kerry "wrong for Catholics," the Republican National Committee is lying about the meaning of Catholic faith, insulting Kerry, and moving the political exploitation of religion to a new low. The Globe's Michael Kranish reported Sunday on the RNC plot to target Kerry's religious unworthiness as a Catholic. Not only do the Republicans distort Kerry's positions on complicated moral questions; they misrepresent the current state of Catholic ethical thought. General outrage is the proper response to this strategy, but Catholics in particular should repudiate it.

I worship at the same Catholic church in Boston where John Kerry and his wife often attend Mass. Across the years I have observed the senator at prayer, and I have some sense of the seriousness he brings to his devotion. John Kerry's Catholicism is for real. His faith is informed by the spirit of the great renewal that occurred with Vatican II. At that council (1962-65), the Catholic Church finally and fully embraced the principle of religious liberty that had been pioneered in America.

It is not too much to say that Vatican II was the church's nodding to this country for what it taught the world about the primacy of conscience and the rights of all believers. That spirit of openness is reflected in the public positions advanced by John Kerry.

Today, some Catholics, including many bishops, repudiate the theology of the Second Vatican Council, and they are the ones most determined to stop Kerry from being elected. Having a Vatican II Catholic as president of the United States would be a blow against those who hope to roll back the reforms begun at that council. More than that, Kerry's positions on a range of issues, from abortion to the death penalty to the centrality of social justice, mark him not as a renegade Catholic but as one of that increasingly large number of faithful Catholics who understand that moral theology is not a fixed set of answers given once and for all by an all-knowing hierarchy but an ongoing quest for truths that remain elusive.

In the area of sexuality, for example, from which so many hot-button issues arise, it is clear that the human race is undergoing a massive cultural mutation, posing excruciating problems that human beings have never faced before. It is a distortion of the Catholic tradition to insist that all such questions have already been answered with "non-negotiable" regulations. The life of conscience is by definition negotiation with life. The "truth" is not something we possess but something toward which in humility we are moving. "A pilgrim people" is what Vatican II called the church, with a modesty that was itself refreshing change.

The Republican attack on Kerry's religion goes hand in glove with George W. Bush's exploitation of religion for narrow political purposes. Bush salts his public statements with religious references as a way of preempting challenge, a tactic one expects to see in the debate this week. If Jesus is his political philosopher, or if the heavenly father is his adviser on Iraq, then Bush has to explain neither his despotic politics nor his disastrous Iraq policy.

Bush sponsors "faith based" social projects to disguise his agenda of dismantling structures of government that provide basic human needs. Bush cites religion as a way of justifying a politics of exclusion -- wanting America to be a place that bans gay people, keeps women subservient, suspects religious "outsiders" (whether Muslims or atheists). Such religion is the ground of the "us versus them" spirit that defines Bush's foreign policy.

Bush uses religion to justify his penchant for violence, which is manifest in nothing so much as his glib use of the word "evil." Once an enemy is demonized, transcendent risks can be taken to destroy that enemy. We see this apocalyptic impulse being played out in Iraq today. If in order to obliterate "evil" it proves necessary to obliterate a whole society -- so be it. A divinity seen as willing the savage murder of an only son as a way of defeating evil is a divinity that blesses an America that destroys Iraq to save it.

How dare the people who have twisted religion in these ways challenge the religious integrity of John Kerry. Nothing proves the urgency of his election more fully than the Republican profaning of all that is sacred not only about Kerry's firmly held personal beliefs and about the delicate religious balance this country has achieved but also about the precious mystery to which we refer when we speak of God.

James Carroll's column appears regularly in the Globe. His most recent book is "Crusade: Chronicles of an Unjust War."

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