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Kerry’s Take on Catholicism ‘Typical’

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Times Staff Writer

One point was largely overlooked in the news reports and talk-show discussions about whether Sen. John F. Kerry should take part in the central rituals of his faith: The former altar boy is Roman Catholic the way many Americans are Roman Catholic.

He has been divorced and remarried, and believes abortion should be rare but legal. He says gay couples ought to be allowed to share lifelong commitments through civil unions, but not be married in church.

The Massachusetts senator, says Michele Dillon, professor of sociology at the University of New Hampshire, “is a very typical American Catholic.... He doesn’t agree with everything the church teaches.”

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The presumed Democratic presidential nominee also thinks that his faith is his own business.

Kerry has said as a senator, “My oath is to uphold the Constitution of the United States in my public life; my oath privately between me and God was defined in the Catholic Church ... which allows for freedom of conscience for Catholics with respect to these choices, and that is exactly where I am.”

Although his beliefs may be typical, Kerry’s pattern of worship is a little less so. He’s a regular churchgoer, but on the campaign trail he has been as likely to attend services at a black Protestant church as he is at a Catholic church.

On Ash Wednesday, he was anointed with the traditional forehead smudge at a Catholic church in Cleveland. On Palm Sunday, however, Kerry took Communion at the Charles Street African Methodist Episcopal Church in Roxbury, Mass. The action caused a flurry of news reports and criticism from conservative Catholics because he went outside of his own faith for the sacrament, an act that is frowned upon.

When in Boston, Kerry and his wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, regularly worship at the Paulist Center, which conducts Catholic services but is not a church.

It has no stained-glass windows or statues of saints, but instead a spare chapel with a modern interpretation of a crucifix that hangs from the ceiling. There is a cross that looks more like a tree, a sleek Christ with faint wounds and a representation of the Holy Spirit.

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When the Kerrys worshiped there Easter Sunday, there were no altar boys or altar girls. Churchgoers stood rather than kneeled during Mass. And the music veered from traditional hymns and was sung in various languages, including Spanish.

The center is home to the first group in the country for divorced Catholics, a program to bring lapsed Catholics back to the faith, and a group for “lesbians, gays and friends.” Instead of using traditional Communion wafers, the center has a ministry whose members bake bread for the Eucharist.

Father John Ardis, center director, describes Kerry as “very committed to social justice and to the needs of the poor” -- central tenets of the Catholic faith.

“He’s very committed to employment for our people, to a broad span of needs, like healthcare,” Ardis said.

On so-called social justice issues, Kerry receives high marks from a group called Network, a National Catholic Social Justice Lobby, which ranks members of Congress on how they vote on issues related to this area of Catholic teachings.

According to a U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops statement on “faithful citizenship,” Catholic politicians must fight for economic justice, a living wage, affordable and accessible healthcare, affordable housing, an end to hunger, affirmative action, workers’ right to organize, and an end to nuclear weapons and the death penalty.

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It was part of their “particular responsibility,” the bishops said, “to bring together consistently their faith, moral principles and public responsibilities.”

But though such matters -- Kerry’s strong suit as a Catholic -- are important, the bishops’ statement instructs that the first “moral priority for public life” is “protecting human life,” including opposing abortion, genetic cloning and embryonic stem cell research.

Kerry has said he personally opposes abortion but respects a woman’s right to get one. On April 25, he was endorsed by one of the country’s largest abortion-rights groups at a rally in Washington, where he said, “Abortion should be rare, but it should be safe and legal, and the government should stay out of the bedroom.”

Kerry is against cloning but is a strong proponent of stem cell research. At a news conference in February, he assailed President Bush’s decision to shake up the membership of an advisory board on bioethics for what Kerry described as religious reasons.

“The United States of America ought to be doing stem cell research,” Kerry said at the time.

Conservative Catholics like John M. Haas, president of the National Catholic Bioethics Center, think that a candidate’s support for abortion rights is a deal-breaker and trumps other issues. “It is the most fundamental and basic human right that there is,” Haas said. “If you’re not alive, you can’t exercise all of your other rights.”

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What Kerry finds himself mired in is “a classic standoff,” said Edward Sunshine, associate professor of theology at Barry University in Miami Shores, Fla.

“As far as the Pope and bishops are concerned, [Bush] represents the Catholic position on these life issues,” Sunshine said. “On the other side, from the perspective of Catholic social teaching, George W. Bush is a disaster, and Kerry does very well in terms of official Roman Catholic, U.S. bishop positions. He’s in sync with almost all of the Catholic bishops’ positions on this.”

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