WASHINGTON -- The Republican Party is attempting to convince Roman Catholics that Democratic nominee John F. Kerry is "wrong for Catholics" and at odds with his church.
Earlier this month, the Republican National Committee launched a website called "KerryWrongForCatholics.com" that takes the Massachusetts senator to task for voting against the Defense of Marriage Act, favoring civil unions for gays and lesbians, opposing vouchers for private schools, and taking stands on abortion and other issues that are contrary to church teachings.
The GOP site points out where Kerry, a Catholic, is at variance with the Vatican. A section on Kerry's stance on same-sex unions, for example, is headlined: "Kerry Said Vatican Should Not Instruct Catholic Politicians, Calling It 'Inappropriate.' "
The site suggests that Bush, a Methodist, has a stronger record on Catholic values.
Private groups also have been urging Catholics to oppose candidates who favor abortion and other issues the church condemns. Earlier this month, a nonprofit organization called Priests for Life announced a $1 million campaign, including television commercials, aimed at persuading voters to support candidates who oppose abortion. Another nonprofit, Catholic Answers, is issuing millions of voter guides that list five "nonnegotiable" issues for Catholic voters: abortion, euthanasia, embryonic stem cell research, human cloning, and "homosexual marriage."
The combined effect of the party and private efforts could be as significant politically as the swift boat veterans attack on Kerry, the difference being that this one is occurring without blistering television commercials and is mostly "below the radar screen," according to John Green, who studies religion and politics at the University of Akron.
And the stakes are high: Twenty-five percent of those expected to cast ballots for president Nov. 2 are Catholics, with even higher percentages in some battleground states such as Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and New Hampshire. A recent poll conducted by the Pew Research Center indicated that Bush leads Kerry among Catholics nationwide by a 7-percentage-point margin, a big swing from a 3-percentage-point lead that Kerry held in August.
The GOP campaign is careful to focus only on Kerry, leaving aside other Catholic politicians, including Republicans, whose views are not aligned with the Vatican. Governor George Pataki of New York, for example, supports abortion rights.
"John Kerry is who we are talking about here and reaching out to voters concerning Senator Kerry's record," Ed Gillespie, chairman of the Republican National Committee, said in a telephone interview.
Gillespie has authored a statement urging "fellow Catholics" to "join the Catholic team" and defeat Kerry at the polls.
A Kerry spokesman, Michael Meehan, expressed offense at the nature of the Republican Party's attacks.
"It is outrageous that they say Kerry is 'wrong for Catholics,' " Meehan said. "He is a Catholic, and the issues that he believes in, most Catholics believe in."
Meehan acknowledged that Republicans are ahead in organizing by religion, saying that this year marks "the first serious effort that a Democratic presidential candidate has made in faith-based organizing. While we are making inroads, we are clearly behind where Republicans have been for the last 25 years because they organize along religious lines as part of their base."
The dissection of Kerry's record as a Catholic by other Catholics is a "remarkable sea change" compared to what happened in 1960, when John F. Kennedy had to reassure non-Catholics that he was not under the Vatican's control, said Luis Lugo, director of the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. In that race, Catholics mostly banded together to back a fellow Catholic, while Kennedy's religion was an issue among some people of other faiths.
"Kennedy was essentially saying, 'I don't take orders from Rome,' and here we are in 2004, and if there is any question about Kerry's Catholicism, it is whether he is Catholic enough," Lugo said.
The sea change is also evident in the allegiance of Catholic voters. In 1960, Catholics supported the Democrat, Kennedy, over Republican Richard M. Nixon in the presidential race by a margin of 78 percent to 22 percent. Catholics gradually began to back Republicans, with former President George H. W. Bush getting 52 percent in 1988. Democrats regained the Catholic vote recently, with Bill Clinton and Al Gore winning a majority of that vote in the last three elections.
The GOP strategy to win the Catholic vote depends in part on volunteers who agree to be "Catholic Team Leaders" who encourage church members to support Bush. As of last week, the GOP had commitments from 52,615 such volunteers, according to Christine Iverson, a spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee. The volunteers work through the Internet, telephone drives, and local gatherings to promote the message that Kerry is wrong for Catholics.
Some of those opposing Kerry say that church doctrine guides Catholics against voting for politicians who favor abortion rights. The Kerry campaign responded that Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, head of the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, wrote a letter recently saying that a Catholic could vote for a politician who favors abortion rights under certain circumstances. The letter, which has been the subject of intense discussion among Catholic leaders, says:
"A Catholic would be guilty of formal cooperation in evil, and so unworthy to present himself for Holy Communion, if he were to deliberately vote for a candidate precisely because of the candidate's permissive stand on abortion and/or euthanasia. When a Catholic does not share a candidate's stand in favor of abortion and/or euthanasia, but votes for that candidate for other reasons, it is considered remote material cooperation, which can be permitted in the presence of proportionate reasons."
Some of those opposing Kerry have focused on the quote about "cooperation in evil," while Kerry's backers have said the document provides permission for a Catholic to vote for an abortion rights supporter.
"The Republicans have done a much more diligent, comprehensive regular outreach job to Catholics than the Democrats," said Frances Kissling, president of Catholics for a Free Choice, which describes itself as a nonpartisan group that has dissented on some church policies, including abortion rights. "One reason is that in general the Republican Party is much more comfortable with religion, whether dealing with the Christian Coalition or evangelicals. It is a much more overt part of Republican agenda."
In addition to the jabs at Kerry's stand on Catholic issues, the GOP has been pursuing a controversial program of asking church members to provide membership lists in an effort to register more churchgoers, whom the party believes are more likely to support President Bush.
Monsignor Francis Maniscalco, spokesman for the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, said a parish that formally provides a mailing list to the Republican National Committee would endanger its nonprofit status because that is "a valuable property which would be considered a contribution." But Maniscalco said, "this advice is not applicable to individual parishioners."
A GOP memo urging collection of church directories has been published on the website of the National Catholic Reporter. It quotes an official of the Republican Party's Catholic Outreach as writing: "Access to these directories is critical as it allows us to identify and contact those Catholics who are likely to be supportive of President Bush's compassionate conservative agenda. Please forward any directories you are able to collect to my attention. . . . It is critically important in the 2004 election that faithful Catholics turn out to vote in record number." A Republican National Committee official verified the quotation is accurate.
"It is outrageous that they organize by asking for church membership lists," Meehan said.
Gillespie, the committee chairman, confirmed that the GOP is trying to collect church membership lists from members. "There has always been an ongoing effort to get whatever lists we can," Gillespie said.