WHO WOULD HAVE THOUGHT SO MANY OF OUR politicians are so religious? Newspapers give the impression of office incumbents and seekers tripping over themselves to get to the Communion rail, only to be thwarted by bishops of nefarious agenda withholding the consecrated wafer from them. Most recently it's New Jersey Gov. Jim McGreevey who's in the ecclesiastical doghouse, but in January 2003 erstwhile California Gov. Gray Davis got the word from on high that he should choose between supporting abortion and coming to the Supper.
Also last year, timed for the 30th anniversary of Roe vs. Wade, the American Life League (ALL) took out a full-page ad in The Washington Times disclosing the identities of "The Deadly Dozen" in the Senate: John Kerry, Tom Daschle, Ted Kennedy, Joseph Biden, and eight other Catholic defenders of legalized abortion. (Only one, Maine's Susan Collins, is a Republican, thus prompting the charge by Dems of partisanship in the ALL.)
Plucky. I especially liked the sound of Camden Bishop Joseph Galante's apologia for his sacramental denial to Gov. McGreevey's extended tongue: The prelate described the act of abortion as "absolute wrong," a refreshingly old-fashioned phrase in this postmodern clime from which hiccuped Gov. McGreevey's predictable indignation: "I just don't know that that's what charity and faith is all about." (Mr. McGreevey also has said that the abortion issue is "intensely personal," which, presumably, is a soul condition a notch more agonizing that just plain "personal.")
The phenomenon is international. Once upon a time there was no question of denying the sacred host to the presidents of Mexico; they didn't show up for Mass. The Catholic Church was the underdog then, priests and nuns being excluded for most of the 20th century from basic civil rights, like the vote. When Ernesto Zedillo, in 1999, deigned to attend the inauguration of a cathedral, it was the first time a Mexican chief executive had blessed an act of public worship with his presence. Enter Vicente Fox next, ending the stranglehold of the PRI party, and appearing at a post-election Mass where he tendered his tongue, thronged by reporters and flashing cameras. But the honeymoon with the Church proved short-lived, as Mexico City's Cardinal Rivera soon announced that Mr. Fox was no longer welcome at the Lord's table.
Here is where the essay turns embarrassing, and I wish I could draw cleaner good guys and bad guys. For President Fox's fall from grace springs from his recent marriage to long-time spokeswoman Marta Sahagun, since both are divorced without church-conferred annulments to make the new nuptials legit. Gov. McGreevey, a two-time loser in the eyes of the Church-he's pro-abort and also divorced-could also remove one hurdle to Bishop Galante's chalice and bread by pursuing an annulment.
Now an annulment ($850 please) is an official declaration from the church that "a marriage in question was invalid in the true sense of the word," according to Catholic priest Mark Connolly. In the old days we thought this meant the union had never been consummated, but considering that Senora Sahagun, for one, was married 27 years and has three sons, the definition has doubtless undergone a face lift. Sure enough, "immaturity," "lack of true marital commitment," and "unresolved forces within their personalities" are now good enough grounds. We didn't know this in the past, but do now, Father Connolly notes, "because of all the help and aid we get from the behavioral sciences."
What happened to "absolute wrong"? What happened to "What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate" (Mark 10:9)? I hear instead Jesus' rebuke: "You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition!" (Mark 7:9).
Cornered like church mice, Gov. McGreevey, Sen. Kerry, and President Fox could take a page from 16th-century French history and learn from that consummate politicien of old, Henry of Navarre, never one to let religion get in the way of political ambition. First a Huguenot, till the St. Batholomew's Day massacre made it less propitious, he switched to Catholicism. Then things simmered down and he turned Protestant again. When Henry III was assassinated, he saw his chance and turned Catholic again, supposedly exclaiming, as he ascended to the throne crowned Henry IV, "Paris is well worth a Mass."
John Kerry in any event will have a difficult time, for becoming respectable on abortion in the eyes of the Church would alienate some of his core supporters. Perhaps the book of Judges has the best epitaph for our contemporary funeral for absolutes: "In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes" (Judges 21:25).