About That Whole Kerry Excommunication Thing

Is Kerry excommunicated or not? If you have been following this, your head may be spinning by now from all the charges, denials and counter-charges.

The story that caused all the excitement was reported in an interview on the October 15, 2004 edition of EWTN’s the World Over Live with Raymond Arroyo and was immediately reported online by a CWN (Catholic World News) headline claiming that John Kerry had incurred the penalty of excommunication because of his continued public support for abortion and euthanasia, in defiance of Church teaching.

At the center of the swirling controversy is Marc Balestrieri, a California canon lawyer, who has brought a canonical suit against Kerry (and others), citing his flagrant dissent from Church teachings on the dignity of life. This summer he visited Rome and spoke to officials at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, asking them whether public support for abortion could be considered heresy, and thus grounds for excommunication. On October 15th, he announced that he had received an affirmative answer.

Balestrieri's announcement drew a firestorm of criticism. Vatican officials insisted that the opinion Balestrieri was citing — a 4-page letter from Father Basil Cole, OP, a respected American theologian — was not an official response from the Vatican, nor an authoritative statement of Church policy.

That is true. But even if Father Cole's letter only expressed his own opinion, it is an opinion worthy of consideration. Marc Balestrieri asked a question, and he received an answer. The answer wasn't “official,” and it didn't come from the Vatican. But it still was an answer. And in the absence of any official response from Rome, it was the best answer available!

Although several other media outlets have claimed that the Vatican has rejected the notion that Kerry is subject to excommunication, as I see it, those other outlets have the story wrong.

Let me explain:

The Vatican has not said that Father Cole's opinion is in error — only that it is not authoritative. (Technically speaking, the Vatican has said nothing at all. There have been a few public comments by individuals working in the Roman Curia, but no “official” statement whatsoever on this topic.) Father Cole's judgment remains, at the least, a very defensible position. One Catholic news agency quoted an unnamed Vatican official as saying that Kerry is not a heretic. But an offhand quote from an anonymous source is surely no more “official,” and no more persuasive, than a reasoned argument by a respected scholar. And keep in mind that Father Cole's letter to Balestrieri was written at the request of a prominent Vatican official, who presumably had a rough idea of what his fellow Dominican would say.

Maybe Marc Balestrieri misled Vatican officials about the purpose of his questions, as one of the Vatican officials implied. He insists that he did not, and has issued a statement rebutting the charges against him as well as offered documentary proof on his website. Probably he pressed his argument too far, by applying the logic of Father Cole's letter to the particular case of John Kerry. Very likely he undermined his own canonical case by generating premature publicity.

Nevertheless, give Marc Balestrieri credit for this much: He asked a very provocative question: Is a Catholic politician like John Kerry subject to the penalty of excommunication?

The answer he received was unofficial. The answer was unauthoritative. The answer was debatable. But the answer was Yes.

Phil Lawler is editor of the online service Catholic World News. This article is adapted from the CWN Weekly News Summary, and is used with permission of the author.

Subscribe to CE
(It's free)

Go to Catholic Exchange homepage