Monday, October 18, 2004

A Catholic canon lawyer who filed heresy charges against Sen. John Kerry in June says he has received an unofficial green light from the Vatican to press his case for the Democratic presidential nominee’s excommunication over his pro-choice stance on abortion.

“The often-cited ‘Cuomo defense’: ‘I am personally opposed but I support the right to choose’ has now been cut in half,” Mark Balestrieri said.

“A pro-choice Catholic politician who says he is ‘personally opposed’ to the act of abortion itself still commits heresy by publicly supporting the civil right to choose abortion,” he said, characterizing the letter from the Rev. Basil Cole, a moral theologian at the Dominican House of Studies in Northeast Washington.

But the informal, private letter, which Mr. Balestrieri made public on his Web site last week, has been downplayed by Father Cole.

In June, Mr. Balestrieri sent an 18-page document to the Archdiocese of Boston, Mr. Kerry’s home diocese, asking that the senator be charged with heresy for his pro-choice views.

In late July, he traveled to Boston, where he said archdiocesan officials assured him the case had not been rejected. In August, he traveled to Rome to submit documents to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican’s chief doctrinal enforcement arm.

Mr. Balestrieri received the letter from Father Cole on September 11, saying the Rev. Augustine DiNoia, undersecretary for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, had asked Father Cole to give an unofficial opinion on the matter.

Which was, Father Cole added, that “if a Catholic publicly and obstinately supports the civil right to abortion, knowing that the Church teaches officially against that legislation, he or she commits that heresy envisioned [by canon law].” And thus, “one is automatically excommunicated.”

Father Cole is lamenting the fact that his missive was brought up Friday on the Catholic cable channel EWTN and is being discussed widely on the Internet since Mr. Balestrieri posted it on his Web site,

“It’s a letter about an abstract question,” the priest said. “It’s not from the Vatican at all. It has no authority at all. None. Zip. Zero. It’s not the teaching of the church; it’s me implying what I think are the teachings.”

Father DiNoia, who taught at the Dominican House before he became the No. 2 man in the office that is the church’s principal watchdog for orthodoxy, had simply asked Father Cole to respond unofficially to the letter because the Vatican never responds officially to requests from laymen, Father Cole said.

The congregation accepts requests only from bishops and any replies are delivered in secret.

“The Vatican has stuff up to their eyeballs,” Father Cole said. “So they call [one of us] and say, ‘Would you answer this one for me?’”

The case has received mixed reviews from other theologians, who point out that church officials, not politicians, usually are the ones accused of heresy.

“This strikes me as very odd,” Monsignor Ronny Jenkins of Catholic University said. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”

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