It's time to ask the question again: Has anyone in the GetReligion.org audience seen a mainstream news report on the issue of Sen. John "Call me JFK" Kerry and Communion that quotes the key Vatican language on politics, life issues and conscience? I have not. I would like to pause for a second, however, and note two recent articles that did identify key elements of this story. The first is that this is not really a church-state matter, if one takes Catholic doctrine seriously at all. And, since there are millions of people who do take Catholic doctrine seriously (and millions who do not), I would argue that the doctrinal issues should be reported in mainstream press coverage. So how do you cover this without mentioning the actual statements from Rome?
In a recent New York Times report on this controversy, Laurie Goodstein did not address the Vatican statements. It would, of course, be a major event if the Holy Scriptures of elite news did so. However, she did focus in on the heart of this story. This is not about a few bishops wanting to deny Communion to candidate Kerry. This is a story about a major division in the U.S. Catholic bishops on how to respond or not respond to the Vatican. Goodstein reports:
The discord among the bishops, a group that usually tries to speak with a unified voice, has provoked dismay from Vatican officials and even Pope John Paul II, according to transcripts and reports of recent Vatican meetings with American prelates.
Cardinal Joseph F. Ratzinger, a Vatican official, told a group of visiting American bishops ... that he wanted to meet with an American task force that is studying how to relate to Catholic politicians. And the pope, in an address on marriage last month to American bishops, made a general but pointed reference to "the formation of factions within the church" in the United States. ...
Under church law, bishops who head the nation's 195 dioceses are entitled to decide how to apply church teaching in their own jurisdictions. Only about 15 bishops have said publicly that politicians who support abortion rights should not receive communion. And some of these bishops have clarified their stances, saying that such politicians should not present themselves for communion.
For journalists, the next major news hook is when the bishops gather behind closed doors on June 14 in Colorado for several days of prayer, Bible study and tension you could cut with a knife. Once again, this is not a story about the division of church and state. It's about the division of doctrine and sacraments. It's important, for example, that the bishops are supposed to be preparing a major statement on Catholic life and the Eucharist. It may end up being more important than the upcoming statement on Catholics in politics.
What many of the bishops seem to be saying goes something like this: People who do what Kerry is doing are placing their souls at risk, but it would be wrong for bishops to try to stop them.
This brings us to the second story -- which does concern politics.
A journalist who has at least managed to address both the political and doctrinal sides of this controversy is -- no surprise -- the veteran Newsweek religion reporter Kenneth Woodward. On the political side, he recently focused on an under-covered reality in this story. The conservative bishops are being accused of promoting the Republican Party. Meanwhile, the Vatican statements clearly call for a link between politics and the defense of the rights of the unborn. The larger problem -- one linked to the ongoing "pew gap" reality in American life -- is the lack of national-level Democrats (Catholics or otherwise) who are opposed to abortion on demand.
Does anyone doubt that the bishops would be pro-Democrat if there were any pro-life Democrats to promote? Here is a long passage from Woodward on this issue. Note the crucial word "practicing" in the very first sentence.
For the pope, the bishops and -- if polls are to believed -- for most practicing Catholics, abortion is the taking of innocent life and therefore violates the most fundamental of human rights. By contrast, the pope's opposition to capital punishment is conditional, not absolute, and the church's application of just war principles is open to reasoned debate. When it comes to abortion, there is far less room for discussion.
If the present situation comes with a twist, it is this: As recently as 40 years ago, Democrats were more likely than Republicans to oppose abortion. ... In recent years, the party has done little to welcome Catholics who oppose abortion. At the 1992 Democratic National Convention, party leaders prevented Robert P. Casey, the pro-life governor of Pennsylvania, from airing his views in a speech. As president, one of the few issues on which Bill Clinton would not compromise or triangulate was abortion. More recently, Mr. Kerry has said that if Senator John McCain, a Republican, agreed to be his running mate, "The only thing he would have to do is say, 'I'm not going to appoint any judges who would overturn Roe v. Wade.' "
Even now, Republicans can seem more flexible than Democrats in accommodating dissidents on the abortion issue. Think of Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, who just survived a primary fight with a pro-lifer, or of California's new pro-choice governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger. No wonder, then, that many Catholics have abandoned the party toward which they once felt tribal allegiance, and have become one of the largest blocs of swing voters in recent presidential elections. If the Democrats feel the bishops are out to stigmatize them, it is because on "choice," the party seems to permit none.