Varia: Who Are the 'Real' Catholics?

I was waiting outside Senator Ted Kennedy's office not long ago, listening to one side of a conversation on a subject on which one side is all anyone ever seems to hear. "Yes, Ma'am, he is Catholic,'' the young man answering the senator's phone that day told the caller wearily.

"The senators are not doctors, Ma'am, with the exception of Bill Frist...And I think one of them is a veterinarian...I'm sorry you feel that way, Ma'am...The Pope has met him on several occasions and he considers him Catholic.'' Yes, the aide sighed as he hung up, he gets those calls all the time.

Catholics have also been dialing the Washington archdiocese to weigh in on whether another pro-choice Catholic, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry, could, should or would take communion on Easter. (In the end, he did, in Boston, without incident.) Why would such a private matter even be open to public debate? Because, previously on "How Catholic Is He...'' Archbishop Raymond Burke of St. Louis began the discussion back in February when he announced ahead of the Missouri presidential primary that he, for one, would refuse Kerry the Eucharist since his public stands on abortion and gay unions contradict church teaching. Last week, Kerry brought fresh misery on himself when he fought back by citing a non-existent pope, "Pius XXIII" as a source of his mistaken belief that Vatican II essentially tells Catholics: Whatever. Someone from a group called Priests for Life then accused Kerry of "supporting the dismemberment of babies.'' And for those who just can't get enough on the subject, there are now several new Web sites solely devoted to Kerry's standing in the Church, including

I can only imagine how smirk-worthy this exercise must seem to non-Catholics, including a few of my acquaintances who are amazed that anyone would want into our not-very-exclusive club after all we've learned about how our leaders protected child abusers instead of children over the decades. And the Catholic Church has not survived for more than 2,000 years by excluding, but rather by co-opting everything from Roman holidays to elements of African animism.

So it was a relief to hear Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington respond with a pastoral voice on the Kerry issue. McCarrick is heading a U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops task force on how to handle Catholic politicians who support abortion rights. In an empty meeting room at St. Matthew's in downtown D.C., where the cardinal led a prayer service last Wednesday, he pulled a couple of dusty folding chairs down from a stack so we'd have someplace to sit while we talked. When I asked about Kerry's standing, he seemed pained by the idea of turning him, or anyone else, away. "I would find it hard to use the Eucharist as a sanction," he said gently. "You don't know what's in anyone's heart when they come before you. It's important that everyone know what our principles are, but you'd have to be very sure someone had a malicious intent [before denying him communion.]" McCarrick is surprisingly humble, and a reluctant judge. "It's between the person and God,'' he said. Should Kerry or someone in his campaign seek counsel on Catholic protocol? "What they do,'' he demurred, "is really their business and not mine.'' The archdiocese has gotten some calls on the subject from rank-and-file Catholics, but he declined to characterize the faithful as a monolith: "Obviously, we run the spectrum in the Catholic Church, from people who feel very annoyed with their politicians to those who are very supportive.''

Though this attitude is sure to be criticized as more watered-down Catholicism Lite, I don't see it that way. At a less orthodox time in my own Catholic life, a nun in my parish in Northern California improved my understanding and appreciation of the sacraments through the underused--and doubtless desperate--strategy of working with me instead of turning me away. I had agreed to teach a parish Sunday school class for second-graders preparing to make their first communion--until it dawned on me that I would also be expected to instruct them on the sacrament formerly known as confession. "I haven't been in a while myself," I told her. "That's fine,'' she said briskly. "Maybe you'll go now.'' Like her, McCarrick seems to feel that we only get better if we stick around and practice.

For some, this willingness to meet people where they are amounts to an acknowledgment that the clerical sex scandals have undermined the bishops' ability to lead. But McCarrick disagrees. "You have conversations that are compassionate but clear. You're not doing anyone a favor if you're not clear.'' He seems confident that the church as a whole is ready to move beyond the scandals now. But, he said, "You can only move forward if the people believe that we appreciate the harm that's been done, and understand the sadness and the betrayal.''

"We've had this trauma, but we can't stay in darkness; that's the whole Easter message. We're an Easter people and Alleluia is our song,'' he said, quoting Augustine. Throughout the trial that the scandal has been to all American Catholics, that song sometimes seemed impossible to sing. The wounds will not heal quickly, and they are sure to be ripped open occasionally, too. Only last week, a 72-year-old priest in Orange County, California was removed from the ministry after pleading guilty to molesting a 15-year-old girl as he sat with her in the back seat of a car--while her parents rode up front.

A few Sundays ago, Robert S. Bennett, who chaired the independent lay review board investigating the crisis, came to my parish in Georgetown to field questions about the group's final report, which found that at least 10,000 children had been abused over half a century while bishops--consumed by the fear of exactly the kind of scandal they eventually created--consistently protected the predators. Of course, the place was packed for that meeting, and Bennett gamely took one hot question after another--on celibacy, homosexuality, the role of women in the church. Yet somehow, on Easter morning, I looked around the same space, which was once again completely filled, and saw an Easter people, singing "The Strife is O'er'' like they meant it. And after all we've been through, they all looked like "real'' Catholics to me.

Editor's Note: Due to an error, several phrases were dropped from the opening paragraphs of this column when it was published on April 12. The full version was published on April 13.