2016-07-27
John Kerry was never a Prodigal Son. His faith journey contains no leave-taking and triumphant return, no revival, no conversion on the road to Damascus. Unlike President Bush--a Protestant who experienced a profound conversion at age 40 under the Rev. Billy Graham's tutelage--Kerry has been a steady, churchgoing Catholic literally since the day he was born.

For Americans who have grown accustomed in the last four years to a certain kind of spiritual biography, Kerry's will seem starkly different. He uses different language, has a different connection to ritual, and most likely a different relationship with Jesus. His faith life illustrates not only the stylistic and theological differences between Catholicism and evangelical Protestantism, but also the differences between American Catholicism of an earlier generation and that which has grown in the last few decades.

According to those who know him, Kerry is a religious man. On the campaign trail, he is said to carry a rosary, a prayer book, and a St. Christopher medal (the patron saint of travelers). He attends Mass regularly--complaining when his campaign staff doesn't leave time in his schedule for it.

His father, Richard, was a Catholic, and his mother, Rosemary, was an Episcopalian who raised the four children as Catholics. Kerry was baptized and reared in the pre-Second Vatican Council Catholic Church, with its strict rules and Latin Mass. When he was 10 and the family was living in Berlin, his parents sent John to a boarding school in Switzerland. The young boy would sit alone in the chapel's back pew, staring at the altar or lighting a candle, according to his biographer, Douglas Brinkley, author of Tour of Duty.

Although Kerry is descended from John Winthrop, the first Massachusetts governor, and the prominent Massachusetts Forbes family, his father was in the foreign service and was, essentially, a government worker--not a member of the upper class. John Kerry's wealthy and childless Aunt Clara paid for his private schooling. So although Kerry rubbed shoulders with rich people throughout his childhood, he was a lonely, not-quite-as-wealthy outsider--a little too serious, eager, and dorky to fit in to the casual, sarcastic culture of upper-class New England.

"I thought of being a priest," Kerry recalled. "I was very religious while at school in Switzerland. I was an altar boy and prayed all the time. I was very centered around the Mass and the church." What Bible passages moved him most? "The letters of Paul," he said, "taught me not to feel sorry for myself."

As a teenager he attended St. Paul's, an Episcopal boarding school where he was one of only a few Catholics. Kerry took a taxi into town to attend Mass while the other boys went to the on-campus Episcopal chapel.

There, Kerry met his most important spiritual mentor: the late Rev. Richard Walker, a black Episcopal priest who went on to become Bishop of Washington. According to Brinkley, Kerry and his pal Daniel Barbiero spent evenings listening to Walker discuss civil rights and faith. Kerry was "always quite religious," Barbiero told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

When Kerry and Barbiero later arrived at Yale together, Barbiero let his religious life slide, while Kerry still attended Mass. "One of the first things he did when he got there was to find out where the Catholic Church was," Barbiero said.

Kerry has said his religious faith propelled him to join the Navy and go to Vietnam, because he wanted to please God. Six of his closest friends died there, and Kerry received the Silver and Bronze stars for valor and three Purple Hearts for minor injuries. Barbiero remembers carrying a Catholic missal into battle; Kerry carried a rosary and prayed it daily. "We viewed those things as keeping the good Lord as close to us as possible during what we knew would be a difficult time," Barbiero said.

When Kerry got home from Vietnam, he told Time magazine, he went through what he calls a "period of a little bit of anger and agnosticism, but subsequently, I did a lot of reading and a lot of thinking and really came to understand how all those terrible things fit."

Indeed, Kerry recently described his Catholicism as "an important part of getting through tough periods in my life and remains a bedrock of values--of sureness, I guess--about who I am, where we all fit, what our role is on this planet."

As John Kerry grew older, Catholicism was changing dramatically.

Between 1962 and 1965, Catholics worldwide gathered in Rome for the Second Vatican Council, which brought sweeping change to the church. Many Catholics at that time, particularly Americans, felt liberated by new Vatican encouragement to think for themselves and to evaluate moral decisions based on Christian conscience. This is why, for example, so many American Catholics--upwards of 90 percent--reject church teaching banning artificial birth control: to them it seems wrong, and they feel Vatican II gave them license to make that decision.

The Rev. John Ardis, director of the Paulist Center in Boston, where Kerry often worships, believes the senator typifies Catholics of his generation. "Vatican II called us to a greater participation in the church. It called us to greater ownership of the church. For the Paulists, that would also mean we emphasize taking our faith into the workplace," Ardis told Beliefnet on Wednesday. "And that is clearly what he has done--taken it into his life's work."

Vatican II also emphasized what is called Catholic Social Teaching, a body of ideas about how the church deals with issues in the world. Since the 1960s, liberal and moderate Catholics inspired by those teachings have been loosely called "social justice" Catholics--emphasizing work with the poor, fair wages, nuclear non-proliferation, environmental concern, and just immigration practices. In addition, many of these Catholics emphasize what the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago coined the seamless garment life ethic: that all life is sacred, and therefore abortion and war-mongering, poverty, and the death penalty are wrong.

Conservatives argue that Vatican II had some negative side effects, including an increase in divorce among Catholics. John Kerry typified his generation of Catholics in that way, too. In 1970, he married Julia Thorne, an Episcopalian who is the twin sister of Kerry's Yale friend, David Thorne. Kerry apparently didn't insist on a Catholic upbringing for the children. Kerry and Thorne did, however, have the marriage recognized by the Catholic Church. "He and Julia got a priest's blessing on Long Island before they got married in a more ecumenical ceremony on my grandmother's lawn," David Thorne said.

Julia battled depression and chose to end the marriage in 1982. After six years of formal separation, the couple finally divorced in 1988.

In 1992, Kerry met Teresa Heinz while fumbling his way through a Portuguese hymn at a Catholic Mass in Rio de Janeiro. They were both attending a United Nations-sponsored Earth Summit. When they wed three years later, Kerry's divorce forced them to marry outside the church, which doesn't officially permit it. But Heinz Kerry was reportedly uncomfortable in what is called an "irregular relationship" with Catholicism. So in 1997 Kerry applied for and was granted an annulment of his previous marriage--an act that allowed them to receive communion.

When Kerry is home, he attends the Paulist Center in Boston, an easy walk from his house. It is not a traditional parish; its members describe it as an "intentional community" because they choose to worship there--many of them driving from all over New England. Built in 1970 by the Paulists (a religious order like the Jesuits), it operates with the permission of Archbishop Sean O'Malley of Boston, but is financially independent of the Church.

The Paulist Center emphazes liturgy, music, and helping the needy. It attracts as many as 1,000 worshippers at its four weekend Masses, and has 2,400 families on its mailing list, says Ardis, the center's director.

"He worships here regularly when they're in town, but we've never sat down and had any kind of at-length conversation about his faith," Ardis says. "In some ways I probably have the same relationship with him that priests have with most parishioners--which is more contact at Sunday Mass rather than at other times. With only about 10-15 percent of parishioners do you have a higher level of relationship than that."

The center has a nuts-and-berries sort of reputation, with a lot of campus-ministry types in attendance. It is sometimes picketed by pro-life activists because it is Kerry's home church. But it isn't all that unusual; similar intellectual, liberal-leaning Catholic centers full of pro-choice Catholics dot the American landscape, especially in university towns.

Ardis says Kerry is committed to the social justice work of the center, including a Wednesday night dinner for 200 homeless people, a food pantry and a tutoring program for inner-city children. Kerry once participated in a 20-mile walk for hunger sponsored by the church, and he has served the homeless at least once on a Wednesday night, Ardis says. "If we look at his track record, it is reaching out to the most needy of society," says Ardis.

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, Nebraska, Orlando, Newark, Trenton, and Camden 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."

In an Indianapolis speech in June to members of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, Kerry talked about his belief that politicians honor God by helping others through government policies. "I am running for president because it's time to turn the words into deeds and faith into action," Kerry said. "Scripture tells us there is a time to break down and a time to build up. This is our time to break down divisions and build up unity."

In A Call to Service, Kerry wrote that he believes the Bible calls for practicing social justice and equal rights. He also criticized religious opposition to gay rights. "I believe that this and every other form of discrimination is opposed to the spirit of the Bible," he wrote.

Though it's not clear what effect it's had on him, Kerry's spiritual biography added a new chapter during the campaign when he discovered for the first time that his grandfather was an Austrian Jew named Fritz Kohn who converted to Catholicism with his wife, Ida Lowe, then changed his name to Frederick Kerry and moved to the United States. Though he was a successful and well-known businessman in Brookline, Mass., Frederick Kerry eventually lost three fortunes--and committed suicide in 1921. John Kerry apparently knew none of this history when it was excavated by the Boston Globe a year ago.

Kerry has said repeatedly that he draws inspiration from his family. "My parents helped me understand at an early age that we are all put on this earth for something greater than ourselves," Kerry said on the campaign trail in early July.

Kerry will never be the kind of glad-handing guy who grabs a voter's hand and says he'll pray for them. He is, however, a devout Catholic who has never apparently had a crisis of faith. Yet a June 2004 Time magazine poll found that only 7 percent of voters described Kerry as a "man of strong religious faith." A Pew Center poll indicated that only a quarter knew he's Catholic. Numerous other polls show that Americans who attend church regularly are overwhelmingly pro-Bush.

Kerry is now wrestling with how and when to discuss his faith. His campaign staff has reluctantly concluded that remaining silent will merely allow the Republicans to define him as a secular Democrat out of the mainstream. About two months ago, Democratic consultants including Mike McCurry, President Clinton's former spokesman, met with senior Kerry officials to press their case that Kerry had to find his religious voice. McCurry told Beliefnet: "They said, 'It's very hard for Kerry to do. It's just not a comfortable thing for him to address."

He has sympathy for Kerry's discomfort. "If you ask a Catholic in the Northeast to talk about his faith, he might say, 'Huh? What is this, Catechism?' Kerry is exactly in that category."

But Kerry appears to be finding his footing. A campaign ad released on July 26 directly tackled the faith issue. In it, Kerry says the following: "In Vietnam I think most of the time I wore a rosary around my neck when we went into battle. So I believe. I still believe."

Then he seemed to nail it during his acceptance speech on July 29: "And let me say it plainly: in this campaign, we welcome people of faith. ... I don't wear my own faith on my sleeve. But faith has given me values and hope to live by, from Vietnam to this day."

And now, voters will see if Kerry can keep up the faith drumbeat. He may not wear a rosary around his neck on the campaign trail, but he'll probably wear his religion on his sleeve.