The Independent Newsweekly
|October 26, 2004||
Vol. 1, No. 39
""I know there are some bishops who have suggested that as a public official I must cast votes or take public positions -- on issues like a woman's right to choose and stem cell research -- that carry out the tenets of the Catholic church. I love my church; I respect the bishops; but I respectfully disagree. My task, as I see it, is not to write every doctrine into law. That is not possible or right in a pluralistic society. But my faith does give me values to live by and apply to the decision I make."
Presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry,
'Respectful Disagreement' Could be Key to Kerry Catholic Vote
By Joe Feuerherd
John Kerry's taken his share of shots from conservative Catholics and members of the hierarchy over the past year. Now, just days before the election, he's pushing back. He's doing so gently, "respectfully," and, if polls are any indication, effectively.
Kerry's Oct. 24 Ft. Lauderdale speech, weeks in the making (Washington Notebook, Sept. 15), was billed as the first time the Catholic candidate would fully address the impact his religious beliefs have on his public policy positions. The setting was secular, the litany of issues (jobs, health care, education, the environment, war) familiar. But the vocabulary was decidedly Catholic.
And he spoke directly to abortion and embryonic stem cell research -- two issues where Kerry's religion and his politics part company.
"I know there are some bishops who have suggested that as a public official I must cast votes or take public positions -- on issues like a woman's right to choose and stem cell research -- that carry out the tenets of the Catholic church," said Kerry. "I love my church; I respect the bishops; but I respectfully disagree.
"My task, as I see it, is not to write every doctrine into law. That is not possible or right in a pluralistic society. But my faith does give me values to live by and apply to the decision I make."
Now, no one, not even the most vocal bishop, is asking Kerry to support legislation declaring that ensoulment occurs at conception, or that belief in the Trinity should be the law of the land. Even Roe v. Wade, for example, allows for restrictions on abortion based on public policy concerns. But, strawman that it is, it's also a clever way to shape the argument: respect for those who make the prolife case coupled with firm but polite resistance to a hierarchy seeking to enact doctrine into law.
Further, there's little political downside for Kerry in engaging the bishops, discredited by the clergy sex abuse scandals, as the foil for his polite opposition.
Is "respectful disagreement" with the bishops a smart political strategy?
"It's certainly necessary politics in this instance," said Kerry spokesman Mike McCurry. "There are many Catholics who themselves feel conflicted [about abortion and embryonic stem cell research] and probably share Senator Kerry's ambivalence," said McCurry.
Crafted with input from such Catholics as Jesuit priest and former Georgetown University president Leo O'Donovan, Jesuit Fr. Robert Drinan, former Hillary Clinton chief of staff Melanne Verveer, former Clinton administration ambassador to Portugal Elizabeth Bagely, and Victoria Reggie, wife of Sen. Edward Kennedy, the speech was an attempt "to fill in the blanks" about Kerry's faith for undecided voters, said McCurry. It is "relevant" and "appropriate," McCurry told a press teleconference call, for voters to want to understand the "quality of the character" of a potential president.
Kerry's Catholicism may yet work to his political advantage. Until the debates, even many Catholics didn't realize Kerry was one of them. Only 40 percent of Catholics, in a poll conducted prior to July's Democratic convention, knew of Kerry's Catholicism.
It was during the debates that Kerry, to guffaws from some, mentioned on two separate occasions that he had once been an altar boy. It was also here that he expressed effusive respect for those who disagree on life issues.
He was equally solicitous to another question, this one about public funding for abortion. "First of all, I cannot tell you how deeply I respect the belief about life and when it begins," said Kerry, who went on to explain that "I can't take what is an article of faith for me and legislate it for someone who doesn't share that article of faith."
According to the Pew Research Center, Kerry now leads Bush among white Catholic voters by 7 percentage points, 50 percent to 43 percent; he trailed Bush among these voters by 16 percentage points prior to the debates. Most significantly, those voters are disproportionately present in such battleground states as Ohio, Pennsylvania, Minnesota, and Michigan. Which goes to show, perhaps, that a little respectful disagreement can go a long way.
The e-mail address for Joe Feuerherd is
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