A thorny issue popped up in this year’s election related to John Kerry’s support of a woman’s right to choose. At the center of this issue are Catholic bishops who have called on all Catholic churches to refuse communion to any of their faith who actively support abortion rights, particularly politicians. There have also been calls to deny communion to Catholics who might vote for such a politician. The final act of this sudden attack is an effort recently launched to have John Kerry and a handful of other liberal Catholic politicians excommunicated, essentially removed from the Church.
Excommunication has been a political tool for more than a thousand years, selectively applied to politicians who have dared to stand against Church doctrine. Thankfully, early Catholic Church history is more rife with such cases, especially in the Middle Ages.
King Henry VIII of England was excommunicated for divorcing his first wife, Catherine of Aragon. Such annulments were frequently granted to other kings, but the Pope was under pressure from Charles V of Spain to stop the split. Henry famously ignored the pope and declared the Church of England to be under his own, personal control, free from Papal interference.
His ancestor, King John, was less lucky. Excommunicated for refusing to install the Pope’s choice for Archbishop of Canterbury, he faced the possibility of internal revolt and invasion from France, all sanctioned by the removal of Papal approval. John eventually bowed to this pressure, appointing Stephen Langston the new Archbishop, and the interdict on his country was lifted. Such was the power of the Medieval Church.
It was these sort of historical examples that made many people nervous in 1960 when John F. Kennedy was running for the Presidency, the first and only Catholic to hold that office. Critics fearfully envisioned a direct line to the Pope in the Oval Office, where Kennedy would receive his marching orders directly from the Church. Naturally, they were mistaken in their belief.
The archbishop of Denver, Charles Chaput, is one of the leaders of the current movement to censure Catholic politicians and possibly voters who lean in the “wrong” direction on the abortion debate. To him and those who support him, as he said in a recent New York Times editorial, this is an issue of black and white. Those who remain silent in the face of continuing abortions are just as guilty as those who would get one or perform one. He argues that the separation of church and state is being used as a bludgeon to silence those who would vote along moral and religious lines.
This is a common argument from religious figures, as though the separation were a massive gulf. In fact, it is not. No one argues that voters of whatever faith should not be allowed to vote along whatever lines they wish. Moreover, the separation of church and state has been narrowing for decades. The reason it is there is to protect churches, not just atheists or liberal elites. Were a particular faith become the established church of this nation, it would be only detrimental to religion in the United States. Chaput even acknowledges this fact.
My objection to his line of reasoning is based on the use of Catholic law to intimidate and punish voters. No one—no person, no body, no authority, no one—is allowed under our system to force a citizen to vote one way or the other, nor to punish that citizen for their vote. This is one of the most important features of our democratic process, embodied in the secret ballot that allows citizens to freely vote their minds without fear of persecution. Abortion is a central issue to the Catholic Church, but Chaput would have us believe that the Church is some collective mind, unified and sure of its position. The fact that few bishops have unequivocally supported his call is clear evidence otherwise.
I firmly recognize and fully support the right of individuals to make choices between candidates based on the morality of certain stands those candidates might make. If you do not support abortion rights, then a vote for John Kerry might not be a good idea. What makes me object is the sense that this is not a true moral stand, but instead a convenient political ploy. Are we really to believe that, though silent for more than 30 years since Roe vs. Wade, the sudden attempt to exclude politicians from the Catholic Church is simply a moral stand? Are we to believe that the Catholic Church only just realized that John Kerry and Senator Kennedy have supported abortion rights? And what about Republicans who support abortion rights, like Governor Schwarzenegger?
Let us hope that our politicians and out citizens stand firm against these attempts to intimidate them and to influence the election process. It is not the moral objections that are repugnant here, far from it; rather, it is the idea of using religious censure to punish people for voting their own conscience, or for holding their own beliefs, that goes against the ideals of American politics.