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Tim Kaine’s candidacy revives a Catholic civil war on abortion

Tim Kaine’s candidacy revives a Catholic civil war on abortion
Vice presidential nominee Tim Kaine arrives to speak at the 2016 Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia on July 27. (Los Angeles Times)

In his speech Wednesday at the Democratic National Convention, vice presidential nominee Sen. Tim Kaine spoke powerfully about his Catholic faith.

"I went to a Jesuit boys high school – Rockhurst High School," Kaine recalled. "Now we had a motto in our school: 'Men for Others.' And it was there that my faith became vital, my North Star for orienting my life. And when I left high school I knew that I wanted to battle for social justice.  . . . That is why I took a year off law school to volunteer with Jesuit missionaries in Honduras."

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But even before Kaine spoke, some Catholics were pouncing on him for his supposedly un-Catholic support of legal abortion.

One priest tweeted this message to Kaine: "Do us both a favor. Don't show up in my communion line. I take Canon 915 seriously. It'd be embarrassing for you & for me."

Canon 915 in the church's Code of Canon Law says that people who have been excommunicated or who  "obstinately persist in manifest grave sin are not to be admitted to Holy Communion."

Catholic bishops in the U.S. long have been divided over whether Catholic politicians who support legal abortion – even if they are "personally opposed" to the procedure – should be denied Holy Communion.

The foremost American proponent of the "no Communion" position is Cardinal Raymond Burke, the former archbishop of St. Louis who was removed from a position in the Vatican by Pope Francis. In 2004 Burke made it known that he would deny Holy Communion to Sen. John Kerry, then the Democratic presidential nominee, because he supported legal abortion.

At the other pole are churchmen such as Cardinal Roger Mahony, the retired archbishop of Los Angeles, and Donald Wuerl, the archbishop of Washington. "It isn't for us to guess at what's on someone's conscience," Mahony said in 2011.

At least one bishop already has joined in the criticism of Kaine. The Providence Journal reported that Bishop Thomas J. Tobin of that city had written on his Facebook page that, while Kaine described himself as a Catholic, "it is also reported that he publicly supports 'freedom of choice' for abortion, same-sex marriage, gay adoptions, and the ordination of women as priests. All of these positions are clearly contrary to well-established Catholic teaching; all of them have been opposed by Pope Francis as well. Sen. Kaine has said, 'My faith is central to everything I do.' But apparently, and unfortunately, his faith isn't central to his public, political life."

Kaine can probably shrug off the criticism from conservative priests and prelates, just as other Catholic politicians who support legal abortion have done. But he also must reckon with criticism by the Jesuit magazine America, usually regarded as a voice of liberal Catholicism. In an editorial this week the journal said:

"As he accepted the vice presidential nomination at the Democratic National Convention, Mr. Kaine spoke — to great cheers — about coming alive to the mission of social justice and concern for the marginalized as a result of his Jesuit education. The editors of this journal were among many Catholics heartened by these remarks, and we applaud his work for the poor and forgotten. But as long as Mr. Kaine refuses to recognize the unborn among the marginalized and to include them among the children for whom he promises to fight, he has not yet fully embraced the mission of social justice."

The editorial also raised the issue of Kaine's position on the Hyde Amendment, which prohibits federal funding of abortion except in cases of incest or rape or to save the life of the woman or girl. This year's Democratic platform says: "We will continue to oppose — and seek to overturn — federal and state laws and policies that impede a woman's access to abortion, including by repealing the Hyde Amendment."

Asked earlier this month about the platform provision, Kaine said: "I have traditionally been a supporter of the Hyde Amendment, but I'll check it out." According to Clinton's campaign manager, Robby Mook, Kaine "has said that he will stand with Secretary Clinton to defend a woman's right to choose, to repeal the Hyde Amendment." But on Wednesday a campaign aide told the Wall Street Journal that Kaine "is not personally for repeal of the Hyde Amendment" but is nevertheless "committed to carrying out Secretary Clinton's agenda." That's a nice — some might say jesuitical — distinction.

If you take the strictly conservative Catholic view that supporting legal abortion is the moral equivalent of "procuring" one, it doesn't much matter whether you take the additional step of supporting public funding of  abortions. Still, the Hyde Amendment has long been seen – and not just by Catholic members of Congress – as a way to thread a political needle: supporting the legal status of abortion but not requiring taxpayers to subsidize it. (It also arguably reduces the number of abortions.)

If Kaine shifts his position on the Hyde Amendment, he can expect criticism from some Catholics who otherwise would have given him a pass.

One way to avoid the controversy, of course, is for Kaine to stop talking about his faith. If you don't portray yourself as a "Catholic" candidate, you're less likely to have your claims to that identity challenged on Twitter or at the Communion rail. The problem is that Kaine – and the Democratic Party – seem to believe that his religion is not only an essential part of his identity but also a political asset.

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