Boston Globe, September 28, 2004
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
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
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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