|Cover story -- Analysis|
Issue Date: October 15, 2004
In divided Vatican opinion, Kerry appears to lead Bush
By JOHN L. ALLEN Jr.
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 Vaticans 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: Isnt anyone in Rome saying anything newsworthy about the split taking place in the Catholic church in the United States?
Reasons include that the Vatican does not endorse political candidates, and that, from Romes 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 wouldnt be even more pronounced.
How would a hypothetical Vatican vote break out?
In American political parlance, weve 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:
Red dicasteries, meaning departments more friendly to Bush, include:
Im 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 Bushs 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, its 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 Vaticans 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 popes 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, its 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 Ruinis 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, its 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 churchs 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
National Catholic Reporter, October 15, 2004
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