When John F. Kennedy ran for president in 1960, he said some things about Catholic bishops that might, in today's climate, be condemned for insolence toward church authority.
"I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute - where no Catholic prelate would tell the president (should he be Catholic) how to act," Kennedy told the Greater Houston Ministerial Association in September 1960. "I do not speak for my church on public matters - and the church does not speak for me."
Kennedy, of course, spoke those words in an effort to fight anti-Catholic bigotry. That was long before the 2004 campaign in which John F. Kerry, only the third Roman Catholic in American history to be nominated for the presidency by a major party, found himself fending off certain prelates who said that his stand on abortion meant he could not receive communion - and also meant that Catholics should not vote for him.
The episode caused anger, anguish and reflection among Democratic politicians who are Catholic. "People felt their faith was being questioned, and they were angry that ideologues were using the church for their own purpose," said Rep. Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut.
Such reflections have produced a remarkable document that will be released later this week, a "Statement of Principles By Fifty-Five Catholic Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives." It is, to the best of my knowledge, an unprecedented attempt by a large number of elected officials to explain the relationship between their religious faith and their public commitments.
"As Catholic Democrats in Congress," the statement begins, "we are proud to be part of the living Catholic tradition - a tradition that promotes the common good, expresses a consistent moral framework for life and highlights the need to provide a collective safety net to those individuals in society who are most in need. As legislators, in the U.S. House of Representatives, we work every day to advance respect for life and the dignity of every human being. We believe that government has moral purpose."
The statement is only six paragraphs long, which gives it clarity and focus. After a paragraph on Catholic social teaching about the obligations to "the poor and disadvantaged," the writers get to the hard issue, insisting that "each of us is committed to reducing the number of unwanted pregnancies and creating an environment with policies that encourage pregnancies to be carried to term."
What's significant is that this is not a statement from prochoice Catholics trying to "reframe" the abortion question. The signatories include some of the staunchest opponents of abortion in the House, including Reps. Bart Stupak, Dale Kildee, Tim Holden, James Oberstar and James Langevin.
In other words, Democrats on both sides of the abortion question worry that it is crowding out all other concerns. And in very polite language, the Catholic Democrats suggest that their bishops allow them some room to disagree. "In all these issues, we seek the church's guidance and assistance but believe also in the primacy of conscience," they write in an echo of Kennedy. "In recognizing the church's role in providing moral leadership, we acknowledge and accept the tension that comes from being in disagreement with the church in some areas."
With any luck, this statement will provoke two debates, one outside the Catholic Church and one inside.
One of the troubling aspects of 2004 was the extent to which partisan politics invaded the churches and seemed to enlist them as part of the Republicans' electoral apparatus. But there is a difference between defending the legitimate right of churches to speak up on public questions and the hyperpoliticization of the church itself.
For Catholics with moderate or liberal leanings, the argument from some bishops that they could only vote for staunch foes of abortion posed a wretched dilemma. It seemed to demand that such voters cast their ballots for conservative or right-wing candidates with whom they might disagree on every other question - social justice, war and peace or the death penalty. All are areas where liberals are often closer to the church's view. "Our faith does and should affect how we deal with issues," says DeLauro. "But we're rebelling against the idea of a one-issue church."
If nothing else, these Catholic Democrats will haul out into the open a discussion with their bishops, with their fellow Catholics and with their constituents that has been festering underground. "We were silent for too long," says DeLauro. "And that meant you were defined by others, not by yourselves."
E.J. Dionne's e-mail address is postchataol.com.
Washington Post Writers Group