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Issue Date:  October 15, 2004

In divided Vatican opinion, Kerry appears to lead Bush


Over dinners in Rome, in e-mails and during Q&A sessions after lectures, Americans frequently ask these days what the Vatican thinks about the U.S. presidential election. Beyond the now-infamous letter of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the Vatican’s doctrinal czar, to Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington, concerning Communion for pro-choice politicians, there has been no public comment.

This silence, for some, has been deafening. One correspondent from Oregon recently put it this way: “Isn’t anyone in Rome saying anything newsworthy about the split taking place in the Catholic church in the United States?”

Answer: Nope.

Reasons include that the Vatican does not endorse political candidates, and that, from Rome’s point of view, pastoral guidance concerning elections pertains to local bishops. Yet there is a third factor that would make it difficult for the Holy See to arrive at a clear message on the American election, even if it wanted to: The Vatican is almost as divided between Bush and Kerry as Americans themselves.

Based on more than two dozen background conversations with Vatican officials over the last six months, ranging from the cardinals who head Vatican offices to the junior clergy who staff them, I believe that if the Holy See were to vote in a secret ballot for the American president, Kerry would beat Bush 60-40.

This usually comes as a surprise to colleagues in the secular press, long accustomed to thinking of the Vatican as on the conservative side of every argument. People who know the European scene, on the other hand, are sometimes surprised to hear that the margin against Bush wouldn’t be even more pronounced.

How would a hypothetical Vatican vote break out?

In American political parlance, we’ve come to speak of “red states” and “blue states,” meaning states that lean to the Republicans or to the Democrats. Inside the Holy See, one can in a similar way speak of “red dicasteries” and “blue dicasteries,” meaning Vatican departments that lean to Bush and those that tend to favor Kerry.

Blue dicasteries include:

  • Council for Justice and Peace
  • Secretariat of State (the second section, dealing with international diplomacy)
  • Council for Migrants and Refugees
  • Council for Inter-religious Dialogue

Red dicasteries, meaning departments more friendly to Bush, include:

  • Council for the Family
  • Academy for Life
  • Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith
  • Vicariate of Rome (not technically a dicastery of the Holy See, but its head, Cardinal Camillo Ruini, is an important Vatican figure)

I’m speaking here, it should be clear, of general tendencies. Individuals within each of these dicasteries may well hold different views. Most other offices could probably be placed into the “undecided” category.

At one level, the difference between red and blue dicasteries pivots on areas of responsibility. Those offices that deal with diplomatic questions generally emphasize the rule of international law, multilateral diplomacy and a strengthened role for the United Nations. The Holy See is a small state, and like most other small states, it believes that a democratic and multilateral world order is its only hope for having a voice in global affairs. Similarly, dicasteries engaged with the Islamic world, such as Inter-religious Dialogue, have a strong concern for Islamic sentiment. They are more likely to see American policy choices through the eyes of the “Arab street,” especially on Iraq and the Israeli-Palestinian question.

Meanwhile, officials of those Vatican offices concerned with faith and morals, especially sexual morality, tend to find Bush’s clarity on issues such as abortion, gay marriage and stem cell research far more decisive. As one senior Vatican official told me Oct. 4, “If I were American, I would vote for Bush. He seems to have more respect for the mystery of life.”

In addition, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith under Ratzinger has long been concerned with the coherence of Catholics involved in public life. Sometimes the Secretariat of State takes a more flexible, realpolitik view; Cardinal Angelo Sodano, for example, recently awarded a papal knighthood to a pro-choice Catholic from St. Lucia. For the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the most important question about a Catholic politician who breaks with the church tends to be, “What are we teaching if we let this pass?” For the Secretariat of State, it’s often a more pragmatic question: “What happens if he wins?” Does the Catholic church really want to begin its relationship with the second Catholic president of the United States by, in effect, placing him under interdict?

At another level, differing sensibilities on the Bush/Kerry race have to do with sociological context. Many graduates of the Accademia, the Vatican’s elite school for diplomats, come out of the same cultural circles as staffers in the foreign ministries of secular European governments, and imbibe the same worldview. Hence the instinctive ambivalence about the United States, and especially the Bush White House, that characterizes much secular European opinion is represented inside the Vatican. At the same time, those Vatican officials who work on the “culture wars” tend to be those most disaffected from the main currents of secular European society, and hence more likely to be sympathetic to the conservative sectors of thought that back Bush.

Finally, personalities come into play. The pope’s vicar for the Rome archdiocese, Cardinal Camillo Ruini, is more pro-American than many Vatican prelates. In part, this is a result of genuine conviction about the importance of the Atlantic alliance; in part, it’s also a desire not to alienate the church from the government of Silvio Berlusconi in Italy, a staunch Bush ally. Given that the Italian state collects more than 1 billion Euros in tax revenues for the Italian bishops’ conference each year, one can understand Ruini’s sensitivity.

Two precisions are in order. First, the estimate of a 60-40 vote in favor of Kerry is based on the assumption that all personnel of the Holy See would take part. If the focus is just on the cardinals and other senior officials who head dicasteries, the balance would probably shift slightly in favor of Bush. Second, that 60-40 split in favor of Kerry represents a change from the 2000 election, when I suspect a similar straw poll in the Vatican would have found a 60-40 vote in favor of Bush over Al Gore. In that sense, it’s not an endorsement of John Kerry, who is even less known in Rome than to many Americans, so much as opposition to Bush, above all for the war in Iraq and the rest of his foreign policy.

To be clear, the Vatican was never going to say anything explicit about the American presidential race. Even if it wanted to, however, internal disagreement would make arriving at a common line problematic. In some ways, the clash of views reflects the American Catholic split itself.

All of which makes the point that, despite the Catholic church’s image as rigidly hierarchical and ultracentralized, reality is different. Catholicism has clear and definitive answers to a relatively short list of questions, expressed in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Outside that territory, things are more fluid. The pope and Vatican officials can provide the elements for arriving at a moral judgment on political questions, but ultimately making that judgment is a do-it-yourself affair.

When it comes to choosing between Bush and Kerry, therefore, American Catholics, if the Vatican is any indication, are essentially on their own.

John L. Allen Jr. is NCR Rome correspondent. His e-mail address is

Blue dicasteries

“The position of the Holy See concerning the military action of 2002-2003 is well known. Everyone can see that it did not lead to a safer world either inside or outside Iraq. … Without prejudice to the right and duty of each State to protect its citizens and its institutions, it seems obvious that terrorism can only be effectively challenged through a concerted multilateral approach … and not through the politics of unilateralism.”

-- Archbishop Giovanni Lajolo, Vatican foreign minister, speaking to the United Nations General Assembly Sept. 29

“In Europe, there is a discussion about the legitimacy of the new executive [in Baghdad], and perhaps history’s judgment on the intervention in Iraq will be severe. But we must face facts: The child has been born. It may be illegitimate, but it’s here, and it must be reared and educated.”

-- Cardinal Angelo Sodano, Vatican secretary of state, in a Sept. 22 interview with La Stampa

“How do you prevent an act of madness? If you can’t identify who the terrorists are, what do you do? They are in states. We know there are terrorists in Italy, for example. Are you going to therefore invade Italy? … We have to look for the motivations, the causes that make a terrorist. We have to go to the roots.”

-- Cardinal Renato Martino, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, in a Sept. 6 interview with the National Catholic Reporter

Red Dicasteries

“Not all moral issues have the same moral weight as abortion and euthanasia. For example, if a Catholic were to be at odds with the Holy Father on the application of capital punishment or on the decision to wage war, he would not for that reason be considered unworthy to present himself to receive holy Communion. … There may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about waging war and applying the death penalty, but not however with regard to abortion and euthanasia.”

-- Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, in his letter to McCarrick

Measures for same-sex marriage “invent a new definition of marriage, quite different from the existing one.” Approval of such measures is “quite a sad thing,” and “a true dehumanization” of the government’s attitude toward family life.

-- Cardinal Alfonso Lopez Trujillo, president of the Pontifical Council for the Family, speaking Oct. 2 on Vatican Radio about proposals for gay marriage in Spain and elsewhere

“The international community must oppose organized terror with the greatest energy and determination, without giving even the impression of considering their blackmail and impositions.”

-- Cardinal Camillo Ruini, speaking to the permanent council of the Italian bishops’ conference Sept. 20

National Catholic Reporter, October 15, 2004

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