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Issue Date:  October 29, 2004

Kerry's 'excommunication' short-lived


Until last week, the Los Angeles canon lawyer seeking to have John Kerry excommunicated for his pro-abortion views had experienced only modest success in publicizing his cause. That changed Oct. 19 when The New York Times picked up the story, giving credence to Marc Balestrieri’s claim that Vatican officials had declared Kerry a “heretic.”

It went downhill from there. Vatican officials said Kerry had not been excommunicated and charged that Balestrieri had misled them. The Los Angeles archdiocese said the canon lawyer had inflated his resume.

Balestrieri told NCR that until recently he served as a defender of the bond and associate judge for the Los Angeles archdiocese’s marriage tribunal. Those credentials are repeated on the Web site of De Fide, an organization Balestrieri founded to pursue his heresy claim against the Massachusetts senator.

But it’s not the case, said Los Angeles archdiocesan spokesperson Todd Tamberg. “In order to be a defender of the bond you have to have a decree written by the archbishop,” Tamberg told NCR. “He does not have those documents because he never had the position he claims to have had.” Repeated Tamberg: “He was not in a canonical position that required any type of decree by the archdiocese.”

It is true, said Tamberg, that Balestrieri did some minor freelance work for the tribunal, assignments that were discontinued approximately a year ago. “Doing a little part-time freelance work does not make [Balestrieri] what he claims to be,” said Tamberg.

“That is wholly untrue,” countered Balestrieri to the charge that he overstated his credentials. As the archdiocesan defender of the bond he wrote “dozens and dozens” of opinions and, just prior to his heresy petition becoming public in July, “the tribunal of Los Angeles asked me to act as an associate judge,” Balestrieri told NCR. He said he possesses pay stubs from as recently as July that demonstrate the work he did.

It was not the only time Balestrieri’s truthfulness was questioned last week.

Balestrieri, who filed his heresy claim against Kerry last June in the Boston archdiocese, announced Oct. 15 that Vatican officials had provided him with a definitive judgment related to Kerry’s status as a Catholic. Their response? Kerry, through his support of abortion rights, had excommunicated himself.

Balestrieri based his claim on a Sept. 11 letter he received from Washington-based Dominican Fr. Basil Cole, a friend of Dominican Fr. Augustine DiNoia, a high-ranking official in the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Cole responded to Balestrieri at DiNoia’s request.

“If a Catholic publicly and obstinately supports the civil right of abortion, knowing that the church teaches officially against that legislation, he or she commits that heresy envisioned by [Canon 751]” and, assuming certain conditions are met, “is automatically excommunicated,” wrote Cole.

That was when The New York Times picked up the story. “Letter Supports Anti-Kerry Bid Over Abortion,” read the Oct. 19 headline. So empowered was he by the response he got from the Vatican, Balestrieri told the Times, he was expanding his heresy complaint to include a host of other politicians, including Sens. Ted Kennedy, Tom Harkin, Susan Collins and former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo.

The story, however, began to unravel quickly.

“The authority [in the letter] is very minimal,” Cole told NCR. Catholics, said Cole, are “free to think the whole thing is baloney” promulgated by a “smalltime theologian” or to accept its reasoning, but it does not amount to a last word on the topic.

In a statement, Cole explained further. “Neither Fr. DiNoia nor I had any knowledge that [Balestrieri] was going to ‘go after’ Kerry or any other Catholic figure for their public stance concerning the evil of abortion. So, in my letter to Marc Balestrieri, I began by mentioning that my letter is a personal and private opinion to him about anyone who would publicly and persistently teach that abortion is not morally prohibited. It is in no way is authoritative from the congregation nor was I representing the congregation. Its only weight is that of a priest and a theologian who appeals to sacred sources.”

“I thought I was advising a student who was working on a project,” DiNoia told Reuters. “I referred him to a reliable theologian on the matter. I was acting in my capacity as a theologian trying to be helpful to a young person.

“I had no idea his aim was actually to build a heresy case against John Kerry or against anyone else. I feel that we have been instrumentalized,” said DiNoia.

Balestrieri acknowledged that he did not tell congregation officials about his efforts to have Kerry excommunicated. In an August meeting with an official of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in the Vatican, “I explained … that I was a canon lawyer submitting these [questions] strictly seeking a theoretical clarification of the two issues concerned, and confirmation of the conclusions of my research,” said Balestrieri.

“No, Kerry is not a heretic,” a Vatican official told Catholic News Service.

Joe Feuerherd is NCR Washington correspondent. His e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, October 29, 2004

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