Ethics & Public Policy Center

Pope John who?

Published in The Catholic Difference on September 13, 2003


George Weigel

Distinguished Senior Fellow and William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies


It’s an old habit in American presidential politics: when your campaign is going sour, attack the Vatican. The Know-Nothings tried it with some success in the 1840s. James G. Blaine famously failed to distance himself from a supporter’s attack on “Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion” in 1884 – and lost to Grover Cleveland by a hair. Now, in the oddities of history, it’s a Catholic of Irish descent who’s taking a similar tack.

The day after the Vatican released a statement which taught that Catholic legislators have a moral obligation to oppose gay “marriage,” Senator John Kerry (D-Massachusetts) blew his well-coifed stack. “Kerry raps Pope,” ran the full-page headline in the Boston Herald. As, indeed, the senator did. “It is important not to have the Church instructing politicians,” a “fuming” senator said. “President Kennedy drew that line very clearly in 1960 and I believe we need to stand up for that line today.”

So the Pope had “crossed the line.” But whose line? Perhaps Senator Kerry should be reminded that the name of the Pope is “Pope John Paul,” not “Pope John Fitzgerald.”

And what line? However much it may have dampened anti-Catholic bigotry during the 1960 campaign, John F. Kennedy’s address to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association hardly constitutes a definitive Catholic statement on Church and state – or on the relationship between a conscience formed by Catholic understandings of moral truth and American democracy. Not only did the Kennedy speech fail to note that religion – Jewish and Christian conviction – informs and sustains the religious tolerance of the vast majority of Americans. He also bypassed any discussion of the relationship between democratic politics and civic virtue.

Kennedy’s eloquence – “…If this election is decided on the basis that 40,000,000 Americans lost their chance to be President on the day they were baptized, then it is the nation as a whole that will be the loser in the eyes of Catholics and non-Catholics around the world, in the eyes of history, and in the eyes of our own people…” – probably blunted the fangs of bigotry among some fever swamp Protestants in 1960. But it did little to advance the national debate on the relationship between religiously-grounded moral values and American public life. As Senator Kerry evidently reads him, John F. Kennedy was the prophet of what Father Richard Neuhaus has called the “naked public square” – an American public arena in which no one’s religiously-informed moral judgments have a place.

Senator Kerry’s outrage also smacks of the opportunistic. Would Senator Kerry have charged that the Pope had “crossed the line” if the Vatican had said that a vote in favor of re-segregating America’s restaurants and schools would be “gravely immoral”? Very unlikely. Would Senator Kerry object to the Vatican informing Catholic politicians that a vote in favor of repealing minimum-wage laws was “gravely immoral”? Would Senator Kerry object to a Vatican document proposing that Catholic politicians had a moral obligation to protect the environment?

Of course not. Whatever else it may or may not have been intended to communicate, Senator Kerry’s displeasure appealed to several core Democratic constituencies crucial to his quest for the presidency: gay activists; secularists who champion the naked public square; liberals who believe, with Justice Anthony Kennedy of the Supreme Court, that “liberty” means the unfettered expression of personal willfulness, as long as it’s “between consenting adults” and “no one gets hurt.” That’s the debased notion of liberty that underwrites the abortion license – and only a bear of very little brain would think that that issue wasn’t lurking in the background of Senator Kerry’s blast at the Vatican. (Not that there’s much doubt of where the junior senator from Massachusetts stands on this front – and it isn’t in defense of the inalienable right to life.)

Senator Kerry argued that “Our founding fathers separated Church and state in America.” That’s true and it isn’t. The Framers wisely forbade any federal establishment of religion – a national state Church. They did this to foster the free exercise of religion, not to create a public arena shorn of religiously-informed moral arguments. The “wall of separation” is Thomas Jefferson’s interpretive (and tendentious) metaphor, not the Constitution’s text. Surely a serious candidate for President should know that much.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.

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