Separation of Church and Kerry

by Jay Johansen
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I'm not a Catholic, but I don't think you have to be a member of that church to realize that they consider opposition to abortion to be pretty fundamental to what it means to be Catholic.

Democratic Presidential candidate John Kerry says he is a Catholic, but he is pro-abortion. Indeed, he is so strongly pro-abortion that he has said that the only criteria that should disqualify a judge from a position on the Supreme Court is if he is not pro-abortion. How does he reconcile this? He invokes "separation of church and state". He told Time magazine, "I don't tell church officials what to do, and church officials shouldn't tell American politicians what to do in the context of our public life."

But of course, the Catholic church is not trying to force Mr Kerry to oppose abortion. They're just telling him that if he wants to call himself a Catholic, it might be nice if he actually expressed agreement with some of the ideas the organization was established to advance.

Suppose that a candidate is absolutely opposed to any restrictions on handgun ownership. He gives speeches to the NRA promising his 100% support for their agenda. And at the same time he calls himself a member of Handgun Control America and appeals to his "fellow members" for their votes. When he is challenged on this apparent contradiction, he replies, "I don't tell the officers of Handgun Control America what to do, and they shouldn't tell American politicians what to do in the context of our public life".

Surely the only logical response would be to say, Huh? How can you be a member of an organization, while at the same time actively opposing that organization's goals?

Organizations have rules for their members. The last time I checked Microsoft wasn't part of the government either -- we have separation of corporation and state too -- but that doesn't mean that Microsoft can't require its employees to use Windows. An acquaintance of mine works for General Motors, and he tells me that they have a separate parking lot, far away from the building, for non-GM cars. If he decided to buy a Toyota could he say, "Hey, they can't tell me what kind of car I'm allowed to drive"? Of course they can't. But it's their parking lot: they can tell him what kind of car he's allowed to park there.

No one is saying that Mr Kerry is obligated to be a member of the Catholic Church. If he doesn't agree with the policies of the Catholic Church, then he doesn't have to be part of it. But if he wants to be a member, he must abide by the organization's rules.

Personally, I agree with many of the beliefs of the Catholic Church and I support many of their policies. But I disagree with many others. And so ... I am not a member. That seems to me to be plain common sense. It would simply be silly for me to join an organization and then complain that I don't like their policies. I don't like their policies, so I don't join. Like, duh.

Now, just to help out Mr Kerry, let me offer him an out. He could say, "Comparing a pro-abortion member of the Catholic Church to a pro-gun member of Handgun Control America is an unfair comparison. Handgun Control America is a single-issue group. If you don't support gun control, there's no logical reason to join. But the Catholic Church takes positions on many issues. I joined the Catholic Church because I believe the Bible, I believe that Jesus is the son of God, and I believe the way to Heaven is to follow the sacraments of the Church. These are the central beliefs of the Catholic Church. I disagree with the Church on some other issues, but I think these are less important." Now, surely the really curious thing is that, to the best of my knowledge, Mr Kerry has never said anything like this. (Perhaps he doesn't agree with the Catholic Church on these things either, or perhaps he doesn't want to bring up such subjects for fear of alienating non-Catholic supporters, or perhaps ... but we could speculate endlessly about what's in another person's head. Still, it leaves the question: Just what positions of the Catholic Church does Mr Kerry support? Exactly why does he want to call himself a Catholic?)

Instead, when challenged he blathers about "separation of Church and State". The fact that the Catholic Church has no special political standing as a part of the government means that it therefore is not allowed to have rules for its own members? What does "separation of church and state" even have to do with the subject?

Is Mr Kerry "Catholic" in the sense that he believes in the teachings of the Catholic Church and supports the Catholic Church's goals? Or is Mr Kerry "Catholic" in the sense that he believes that American Catholics will vote for anyone who calls himself a Catholic?

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19 Jun 2004.

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