The last time a major political party put forward a Roman Catholic candidate for President, he had to confront bigotry and suspicion that he would be taking orders from Rome. Forty-four years later, the Democrats are poised to nominate another Catholic--another Senator from Massachusetts whose initials happen to be J.F.K.--and this time, the controversy over his religion may develop within the Catholic Church itself. Kerry's positions on some hot-button issues aren't sitting well with members of the church elite. Just listen to a Vatican official, who is an American: "People in Rome are becoming more and more aware that there's a problem with John Kerry, and a potential scandal with his apparent profession of his Catholic faith and some of his stances, particularly abortion."
But it's far from clear whether the greater political problem is Kerry's or the church's. "I don't think it complicates things at all," Kerry told TIME in an interview aboard his campaign plane on Saturday, the first in which he has discussed his faith extensively. "We have a separation of church and state in this country. As John Kennedy said very clearly, I will be a President who happens to be Catholic, not a Catholic President." Still, when Kennedy ran for President in 1960, a candidate could go through an entire campaign without ever having to declare his position on abortion--much less stem cells, cloning or gay marriage. It was before Roe v. Wade, bioethics, school vouchers, gay rights and a host of other social issues became the ideological fault lines that divide the two political parties and also divide some Catholics from their church.
Kerry is a former altar boy who complains when his campaign staff does not leave time in his Sunday schedule for Mass, who takes Communion and describes himself as a "believing and practicing Catholic, married to another believing and practicing Catholic." But just last week he made a rare appearance on the Senate floor to vote against a bill that would make harming a fetus a separate offense during the commission of a crime. The vote put Kerry on the same side as abortion-rights advocates in opposing specific legal rights for the unborn--and against nearly two-thirds of his fellow Senators.
Polls consistently show that Americans prefer their leaders to be religious, and in running to unseat the most openly devout President in recent years, Kerry has at times put a pious cast on his own rhetoric. In a speech at a Mississippi church on March 7, he said Bush does not practice the "compassionate conservatism" he preaches, and quoted James 2: 14, "What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds?"