ROME — The Catholic Church in the latter years of the papacy of John Paul II has often been criticized for a poor sense of timing.
The latest incident involves the release of a document aimed at suppressing what the Vatican considers varying types of inappropriate behavior during the celebration of the mass — but which landed as a hot potato in the midst of the American presidential campaign.
Democratic candidate John Kerry, a practicing Catholic, has come under fire for his support of abortion rights, and the issue of whether he should be allowed to receive communion whilst publicly contradicting the will of the Church has become a major issue.
The debate was born of a statement by St. Louis Archbishop Raymond Burke who said some time ago that Kerry should not be given communion while campaigning in that diocese because of his abortion stance.
But, it was last Friday’s Vatican news conference, led by Nigerian Cardinal Francis Arinze, that raised the heat in the media and for the candidate.
The 70-page document that Arinze released did not take aim at politicians and their faith.
Rather, its purpose was to rein in some liberties that have been taken by local churches around the world where lay people have been allowed to perform functions normally done by priests, and the music has strayed from what Rome considers sacred.
But the content of this text was not the headline. Rather, it was simply a venue to get the Church’s top official discuss these issues, on the record.
In his position as “Prefect of Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments” Arinze is responsible for enforcing the Church’s teachings and keeping a close eye on compliance with liturgical orthodoxy.
The reforms made by the Second Vatican Council, now 40 years ago, allowed for more involvement on the part of lay people in the mass, and the incorporation of local cultural traditions as well.
Now the more conservative of the high-ranking church officials feel that in many places these allowances have gone too far and need to be stopped.
But this “Kerry question” cuts much deeper in American society where the separation of church and state is a paramount principle in the constitution. The fear that the Pope could control America through a Catholic president almost cost John F. Kennedy his election.
JFK was the first, and John Kerry would only be the second, Catholic president in U.S. history. Religious affiliation is not a guarantee of votes as Catholics seem to be evenly split between the parties. But the issue could still cost Kerry votes by pushing Catholic voters into taking sides on the communion issue.
Arinze was adroit enough not to get directly drawn into the American electoral fray by mentioning Kerry by name.
But, when he was pushed to respond as to whether an “unambiguously pro-abortion” politician should be allowed to take communion, he said such a politician “is not fit” to, and, “If they should not receive, they should not be given.”
Though Arinze’s choice of words here sounds almost biblical, he wasn’t vague at all when it came to saying who needs to deal with this problem: “The norm of the church is clear, the Catholic Church exists in the United States and there are bishops there. Let them interpret it. “
Hot potato thrown to American bishops
The hot potato is definitely in the American bishops’ lap now, and it is burning.
Not only would such a sacramental prohibition inflame the millions of American Catholics who agree that abortion should be legal, but it would also affect dozens of politicians across the country who hold the same positions as Kerry does.
The pressure to do something is definitely on for the bishops but the timing couldn’t be worse. How can the separation of church and state be maintained when politicians are forced to choose between religion and government?
Catholics are the largest religious group in America. With 65 million people they count for more than 25 percent of eligible voters.
Do the bishops really want to unleash a civil war of opinion among their believers, in a country that was built on the freedom to choose its means of worship?
Or will they find it wiser (and safer) to remember that the ultimate judge of moral behavior for Catholics has always been the conscience of the individual.
Stephen Weeke is the NBC News Bureau Chief in Rome.