Tuesday, October 19, 2004

John Kerry to be excommunicated from the RC?

The Vatican is preparing for the death of the current pope. This preparation has been going on for several years now, much of it out of sight of the general public. I happened to be attending grad school at The Catholic University of America from 1999 to 2002, so I heard some scuttlebutt and caught a fleeting glimpse of the inner workings of the Roman Church. The Vatican, contrary to many people's impression of it, doesn't move in total synch with itself: it's of several minds, being an enormous bureaucracy composed of offices that occasionally find themselves at odds with each other.

Via Drudge, I found this article about John Kerry. It appears that some elements in Rome, at the behest of an American canon lawyer based in Los Angeles, are thinking of excommunicating Kerry for his stance on abortion. Kerry himself is pro-life, but in keeping with the cherished American tradition of the separation of church and state (at least in principle) and his own liberalism, Kerry refuses to impose Catholic morality on the populace. As a politician, then, he affirms a woman's right to choose. As a Catholic, he denies this.

Even if you know nothing else about American culture or John Kerry, you can already see from the above that there are many religious, cultural, and political issues at play. Kerry is banking on the idea that modern American Christians will accept that religion is essentially a private affair. This harks back to the First Amendment's "establishment clause," and has roots even deeper than that: Bernard Lewis, in his Islam and the West, is able to find scriptural justification for the secularism of Western culture: "Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's; and unto God the things that are God's." (Mt. 22:22, KJV; I'm fully aware this verse can be interpreted in different ways. I'm sure Lewis is, too.) Jesus himself, or the gospel writer who put words in Jesus' mouth, seems to be advocating a church/state dichotomy.

As anyone who's followed the life and times of John F. Kennedy knows, Catholic politicians are often suspect because of their ties to the Roman hierarchy. There is always a lingering question of divided loyalties: whose will does one obey in the end, that of the American people, or that of Rome? Kennedy worked hard to dispel the notion that he would sell the country to Rome; as far as I can tell, Kerry has also made some efforts in that direction.

I admire the fact that Kerry is taking a principled stand. Maybe some will disagree: "By publicly affirming and privately denying a woman's right to choose, Kerry merely confirms that he's a flip-flopper," they'll say. But I'm not sure what else Kerry can do. Something has to give. The question is whether Rome will indeed push ahead with excommunication. I'd be interested to see how Kerry would react to that.

Kerry may be Catholic, but he's acting according to his conscience-- something we Protestants can appreciate, given the crucial role we ascribe to conscience regarding matters of faith. While I couldn't bring myself to vote for Kerry (or Bush, for that matter), and while I disagree with many of Kerry's convictions (such as they are), I appreciate the courage it takes to stand against one's own church with regard to an important issue. But because Kerry's Catholic, he has to know that, if Rome decides to excommunicate him, he must abide by its decision to do so.

Some questions to chew on:

1. Is religion essentially a private affair? Should it be?

2. If a religious tradition contains claims about the nature of people and of reality at large, how is it possible for a person to treat politics as something completely separate from that person's own religious life? In other words: can/should a Christian put aside the dictates of his/her Christian conscience when trying to decide how to vote on an issue?

To put it yet another way: my Christianity isn't supposed to be something I "turn on" and "turn off." The same could be said for the people of other religions: a mindful Buddhist always tries to live mindfully, not merely when it's convenient to do so; a devout Muslim lives in acute consciousness of God's presence, etc. By separating church and state as we do, and thereby creating a neutral public space (i.e., secularism) allowing for many religious and nonreligious practices, are we asking people to engage in this "turning on" and "turning off"?

3. What does the privatization of religion (if that's in fact what's been going on) imply about the nature of American secularism?

4. Is America a religious country? If yes, what is the role of the "establishment clause" in fostering or repressing American religious life?


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