Not a Prodigal Son

Kerry has a different language, a different connection to ritual, and a different relationship to Jesus than that of Bush.

BY: Deborah Caldwell


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A December 2003 interview with the

Interfaith Alliance

probably comes closest to reflecting the candidate's true sensibility. In it, Kerry called his faith "your guidepost, your sort of moral compass, your sustaining force if you will, in everything that you do. But...maybe it's a little bit the New Englander in me or something--you wear it in your heart and in your soul, not necessarily on your sleeve....There are all the lessons of a lifetime of my relationship as a person of faith, but not something that I think you ought to push at people every single day in the secular world."

Of course, an evangelical Christian, such as President Bush, wouldn't put it quite like that. Evangelicals are more comfortable describing a personal conversion experience, a moment when they came to "know Jesus." It's not as if Catholics (or even non-evangelical Protestants) mind talking about their spiritual journey when asked. It's just that sharing one's personal testimony is simply

not done

in those circles. The average Catholic of Kerry's generation, or any other generation, would probably wince at the thought of talking publicly about a "personal relationship" with Jesus.

Yet Catholics (and non-evangelical Protestants) do have a connection with Jesus. Kerry accesses it through his relationship with Mary, the mother of Jesus, when he prays the rosary. Like all Catholics, he makes an intense physical connection to Jesus' body and blood during Communion. The liturgy, meanwhile, binds Catholics to tradition, and through its sacred beauty allows the worshipper to drift into a meditative union with God.

But you won't ever hear Kerry saying he's "feeling blessed by the Lord" on a particular day or talk about God using him as an "instrument."

How has his Catholicism affected his political approach? Had he been a Catholic raised in, say, the 1940s, it would have likely meant that John Kerry's positions would reflect those of the Church. Many conservative Catholics believe Vatican II unleashed the phenomenon of the "cafeteria Catholic," those who embrace Catholicism but not all its teachings.

Michele Dillon

, a University of New Hampshire sociologist and Catholicism expert, says majorities of American Catholics disagree with church teaching against birth control (93%), divorce (65%), married priests (60%) and female priests (60%). Even on abortion, at least two-thirds of American Catholics are in some sense pro-choice, Dillon says.

Teresa Heinz Kerry calls herself pro-choice, but in June told Barbara Walters that she considers abortion a "dreadful reality." Perhaps Kerry has been influenced by his wife. In a July interview in Iowa, he said, to the surprise of some observers: "I oppose abortion, personally. I don't like abortion. I believe life does begin at conception." Still, he remains pro-choice, the position that has landed him in trouble with the Catholic Church. Some bishops have argued that his position on abortion is so immoral he should be denied Communion.

All during the spring, bishops in

Colorado Springs


St. Louis









, and


publicly announced they would deny Communion to pro-choice Catholic politicians in their dioceses--most notably, of course, Kerry. Media coverage was intense. As a result, Kerry has decided to take Communion in liberal Catholic centers around the country, with photographers trailing him at every stop.

Kerry never publicly commented on the controversy, though he hasn't shied from criticism of the Vatican in the past. Last July the Vatican issued a document opposing legal recognition for gay unions and urging Catholic politicians to hew to that position. This prompted Kerry to criticize the Vatican. "I believe in the church and I care about it enormously," he said. "But I think that it's important to not have the church instructing politicians. That is an inappropriate crossing of the line in America."

Throughout the abortion controversy, Kerry's critics are saying, in effect, he's a "bad Catholic." But that doesn't mean he'll be viewed that way by the majority of American Catholics. "John Kerry is as good a Catholic as other American Catholics are themselves," Dillon told Beliefnet. "He would be an outlier if he were pro-life, pro-death penalty and anti-labor."

And there are some aspects of Catholic teaching that Kerry embraces fully. In his autobiography,

A Call to Service

, he writes that "being an American Catholic at this particular moment in history has three particular implications...The first two follow directly from the two great commandments set forth in the Scriptures: our obligations to love God with all our hearts, souls, and minds and to love our neighbors as ourselves. The first commandment means we must believe that there are absolute standards of right and wrong. They may not always be that clear, but they exist, and it is our duty to honor them as best we can.

"The second commandment means that our commitment to equal rights and social justice, here and around the world, is not simply a matter of political fashion or economic and social theory but a direct command from God..."

The third facet, he said, is the constitutional principle of the separation of church and state--a tradition made clear by President Kennedy. "He helped make religious affiliation a non-issue in American politics," Kerry wrote. "It should stay that way."

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