WASHINGTON — Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., doesn't understand the Catholic faith he professes to adhere to, according to Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz of Lincoln, Neb.

Kerry, the presumptive Democratic nominee in this year's presidential race, in an April 6 article in The New York Times defended himself from those who have criticized him for supporting policies that are antithetical to the teachings of the Church.

“Who are they?” Kerry asked a reporter. “Are they the legislators who vote for the death penalty, which is in contravention of Catholic teaching?”

Kerry, who refers to himself as a “practicing Catholic,” went on to say: “I'm not a Church spokesman. I'm a legislator running for president. 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 by Pius XXIII [sic] and Pope Paul VI in the Vatican II, which allows for freedom of conscience for Catholics with respect to these choices, and that is exactly where I am. And it is separate. Our Constitution separates church and state, and they should be reminded of that.”

“If his quotes are accurate, Mr. Kerry misunderstands, in a most drastic way, the teachings of the Second Vatican Council and of Pope John XXIII and Pope Paul VI,” Bishop Bruskewitz said. “This indicates, in my view, if those quotes are accurate, that Mr. Kerry doesn't understand the Catholic faith he says he professes, and he certainly doesn't understand how conscience is related to the morality of human acts.”

In his impassioned retort, Kerry apparently confused Blessed John XXIII, who called for the Second Vatican Council, with his predecessor, Pope Piux XII. But he's also confused about Vatican II's teaching on conscience, said Alan Schreck, a professor of theology at Franciscan University of Steuben-ville, Ohio.

Schreck referred to Article 16 in the Vatican II document Gaudium et Spes (On the Church in the modern world), which states that, in the depths of his conscience, man has a law, written and imposed by God, that summons him to love good and avoid evil. Obeying the law gives dignity to man; he will also be judged according to it, Article 16 says.

“Hence, the more right conscience holds sway, the more persons and groups turn aside from blind choice and strive to be guided by the objective norms of morality,” Article 16 states.

These norms of morality are found in the natural law and the revealed law — the Bible and sacred Tradition — which are important to study and take seriously so that people don't create their own morality, which is moral relativism, Schreck said.

This is clearly stated in Article 14 of the Vatican II document Dignitatis Humanae, (declaration on religious freedom): “In the formation of their consciences, the Christian faithful ought carefully to attend to the sacred and certain doctrine of the Church. For the Church is, by the will of Christ, the teacher of the truth.”

“Too often, when people invoke conscience, what they imply is that truth is purely subjective,” Schreck said. “In other words, they mean, ‘Well, my conscience says this, and your conscience says that. But no one can say what is objectively true.’”

Gaudium et Spes also makes clear that whatever is opposed to life — including abortion — should be considered “infamies” and a “supreme dishonor” to God, Schreck added.

A spokesman for the Kerry campaign did not return several phone calls.

New Guidance

During a previous presidential campaign, another Massachusetts senator with the same initials as Kerry was also peppered with questions about his faith. John F. Kennedy's famous response set the tone for other Catholic politicians throughout the years.

“I am not the Catholic candidate for president,” Kennedy said during a 1960 campaign speech. “I am the Democratic Party's candidate for president who happens also to be a Catholic. I do not speak for my Church on public matters — and the Church does not speak for me.”

The difference between then and now is that the Vatican has issued a doctrinal note to remind bishops, Catholic politicians and lay people involved in politics that “a well-formed Christian conscience does not permit one to vote for a political program or an individual law that contradicts the fundamental contents of faith and morals.”

According to “Participation of Catholics in Political Life,” published by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and approved by Pope John Paul II in November 2002, the magisterium does not want to flex political power or eliminate a Catholic's freedom of opinion.

“Instead,” the note said, “it intends — as is its proper function — to instruct and illuminate the consciences of the faithful, particularly those involved in political life, so that their actions may always serve the integral promotion of the human person and the common good.”

The note also reiterated John Paul's concern “that those who are directly involved in lawmaking bodies have a ‘grave and clear obligation to oppose’ any law that attacks human life.”

In the United States, the Church leadership has been “slow to react” to Kerry, said William Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights.

“I am the king's good servant, but God's first.”

For instance, Kerry has voted against the Defense of Marriage Act, favors same-sex unions and — despite claiming to be personally opposed to abortion — has a 100% pro-abortion voting record, according to NARAL Pro-Choice America.

“Certainly, Catholics are looking to the bishops for some guidance on this,” Donohue said.

Meanwhile, some Church leaders have made clear their views regarding politicians who support policies contrary to Church teachings. In his April 14 column in the Denver Catholic Register, Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver complained of “Catholic senators who take pride in arguing for legislation that threatens and destroys life — and who then also take Communion.”

“Candidates who claim to be ‘Catholic’ but who publicly ignore Catholic teaching about the sanctity of human life are offering a dishonest public witness,” the Capuchin archbishop wrote. “They may try to look Catholic and sound Catholic, but unless they act Catholic in their public service and political choices, they're really a very different kind of creature. And real Catholics should vote accordingly.”

In an April 15 interview with the Register, Bishop Bruskewitz said he would refuse holy Communion to any Catholic politician who is “a persistent, obstinate and public sinner” or who advocates heinous sins such as abortion.

Gunning for Catholics

But Kerry challenged Archbishop Sean O'Malley in his own Archdiocese of Boston by attending an Easter Mass at the Paulist Center and receiving Communion.

Father Christopher Coyne, a spokesman for the archdiocese, said Archbishop O'Malley has not made any public comments regarding Kerry and he doesn't know when, or if, the archbishop will do so.

“We're trying to avoid getting embroiled in the national race right now,” Father Coyne said. “There's work on the national level, the bishops' conference, for questions like these. We want to be in line with what comes out on the national level.”

Father Coyne was referring to a task force organized by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops that is going to release guidelines about how the Church should treat Catholic politicians who ignore Church teachings.

Bishop Wilton Gregory, the president of the conference, declined to be interviewed for this article. A spokesman for the conference said he didn't know when the task force would issue the guidelines — or if they would be available before the November election.

The head of the task force, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington, D.C., said in an April 11 interview on “Fox News Sunday” that withholding Communion from politicians is something he's reluctant to do.

“I think there are many of us who would feel that there are certain restrictions that we might put on people,” he said. “But I think many of us would not like to use the Eucharist as part of the sanctions.”

But some recent actions by the Democrats indicate that the Democratic Party wants to attract as many Catholic voters as it can. The Hill, a Washington, D.C., newspaper, reported that congressional Democrats are preparing a “Catholic Voting Scorecard” to show that Catholic lawmakers in the House of Representatives are more in line with the Church on key issues than House Republicans who are Catholic.

Meanwhile, in revising its web-site in early April, the Democratic National Committee deleted a link to Catholics for a Free Choice, a group that promotes abortion.

“The DNC deserves no credit for this action,” the Catholic League's Donohue said in a statement. “It brazenly offended Catholics for years by embracing a Catholic-bashing organization. But now that its leader, Sen. John Kerry, is in trouble with Catholics for a whole host of reasons, prudence dictates that the DNC distance itself from anti-Catholic bigotry.”

As the issue heated up in mid-April, Kerry requested a meeting with Cardinal McCarrick, and the two men met April 15. The cardinal's spokeswoman, Susan Gibbs, said the two men had never met before and described the 45-minute tête-à-tête as a “private, pastoral meeting.” She said Cardinal McCar-rick would not reveal the contents of their discussion.

Carlos Briceño writes from Seminole, Florida.