As a doctrinaire Catholic who repeatedly has to remind herself not to think of Inquisition-meister Torquemada as "the Blessed Tomas," I ought to believe Senator John Kerry, the presumptive Democratic Presidential candidate, should be turned away from Holy Communion at the altar rail (oh, how I wish we still had altar rails!).

Except I don't. I believe that if he presents himself, Kerry, a Roman Catholic, should be allowed to receive Communion--even though he is one of the staunchest advocates of abortion "rights" in the U.S. Senate. This got complicated in April, when Cardinal Francis Arinze--a top Vatican official who is sometimes mentioned as a candidate for the papacy--said Catholic politicians who support abortion rights should be denied communion. Kerry's campaign then weakly responded that religion should not be an issue in U.S. politics. But shouldn't Catholicism be part of the make-up of a Catholic?

Arinze is one of my favorite cardinals, and any statement from him deserves our full attention. I agree with the cardinal that Kerry should not be asking for communion. But, despite Arinze's statement, I believe that should Kerry present himself, he should not (for the time being!) be denied communion. Before you decide that I advocate this position merely because I'm a Republican who hopes Kerry will go to hell, let me explain:

Refusing Holy Communion is a last sanction, an option only when all else has failed. It is one of the gravest actions the Church can take. Not only that, I detest the idea of politicizing the Mass. (Not to mention the practical consequences-many politicians are in the same situation as Kerry. Are Eucharistic ministers, mostly ordinary lay Catholics, to receive tip sheets telling them who can or can't receive the Eucharist?)

In recent years, the Church has seen long communion lines and short confessional lines, leading to widespread concern that Catholics have forgotten the connections of grace, sin, and the Eucharist.

Senator Kerry's stand on abortion is a public flouting of Church teaching. A Catholic who publicly goes against the teachings of the Church should not think of himself as a good Catholic. Kerry should know better than to queue up for communion. He doesn't.

But he is not alone. Many Catholics today don't understand why they can't be publicly against Church teaching and privately good Catholics. This most often comes up with regard to abortion when Catholics claim to be "personally opposed" to abortion but insist they must make a difference between what they believe as individuals and what they do as politicians. But how can a politician legislate in favor of something he or she "personally" believes to be an abomination?

Gay marriage, which goes against the Church's teaching on marriage as being the sacramental union of a man and a woman, is probably going to be the next issue on which some Catholics are "personally" opposed but for which they are gung ho in their public lives.

The problem with sanctioning Kerry is that part of the blame lies with the Church itself. The Church has not done an adequate job of forming consciences in this regard. Ordinary Catholics do not realize why certain difficult teachings are of paramount importance to leading a Christian life. So many Catholics think of abortion as something on which the Church has a "rule," but they do not realize that the Church's defense of innocent life has a direct link to Christ himself. There is a connection between killing an innocent child and killing Christ all over again. The Church teaches that every life matters. Every human being is offered redemption by that one oblation made on the cross. Because every life is important, even the most inconvenient among us cannot be snuffed out in utero.

Like a number of prominent Catholic politicians, Kerry claims that he opposes abortion but that he must distinguish between his personal beliefs and his actions as a legislator. Arinze is simply the latest Catholic prelate to say this is not enough.

Having argued that the Church should not deny him communion, I still agree with those who say Kerry shouldn't put the Church in this position in the first place. Archibishop Sean O'Malley of Boston, Kerry's own spiritual leader, has, without naming names, said that politicians whose political views go against the teachings of the Church "shouldn't dare come to Communion."

A Protestant who hasn't the Catholic's sense of what the Mass actually is, or a non-believer who rejects the whole business as hocus-pocus, might see the matter as merely a power play by several meddlesome Catholic bishops. But it is an important matter, one that goes to the heart of our faith as Catholics. It touches on everything we believe and hold dear about our faith.

A Catholic in a state of grave sin should never receive the Body and Blood of Christ, which, as Catholics, we know the bread and wine have-mysteriously-become. A Catholic who sleeps in and doesn't go to Church, for example, has disobeyed a serious precept of the Church. He is therefore in a state of serious sin. Therefore, next Sunday, when he gets out of bed in time for Church, he must not receive communion-unless he has confessed and been absolved of the sin of missing Mass.

No less a figure than St. Paul warned of the danger of receiving Holy Communion in a state of grievous sin. In one of his more thunderous moments, Paul warned of eating and drinking to one's damnation. St. Paul exhorted Christians to try and examine their consciences before "presuming" to receive the Eucharist. Reception of the Body and Blood of Christ is not to be done lightly. Benefits accrue to those who receive communion in the proper state. Receiving the Eucharist in an unworthy condition, however, will do nothing but increase one's chances of condemnation.

The Church must do a better job of forming consciences in general, and John Kerry's conscience in particular. Kerry deserves to know, and to be told repeatedly, first in private and then in public, that he cannot claim to be a good Catholic as things stand. Public sinner though he is, Kerry deserves lengthy, intense, and private consultation from his Church before, if it comes to that, he must be turned away from communion. In a way, it's possible to regard Arinze's remarks as a way to open the campaign to educate John Kerry about what it means to be a Catholic.

I am only half joking when I propose a constant stream of tonsured monks in habits into Kerry's campaign headquarters, urgently explaining to him that one can't be a good Catholic without manifesting it in one's public life. But something more discreet and less politically humiliating will do, too. The important thing is to offer John Kerry the chance to do the right thing. Is a holy flip-flop impossible? Improbable? Yes, but with God all things are possible, and John Kerry deserves the chance to embrace his faith publicly. If he refuses, and if he becomes president, then the Church should turn him away. Having a Catholic of such stature flout the teachings of the Church would be untenable. The matter would no longer revolve around one politician's conscience but around the edification of the entire flock.

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