On Saturday, Nov. 6, it will be the whisper heard around the world. From thousands of confessionals across the United States, from the lips of millions of practicing Catholics, will emanate the same plaintive plea: “Bless me, father, for I have sinned: I voted for John Kerry.”

It was bad enough when a couple of bishops refused to serve communion to John Kerry. Now it’s worse. Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of Denver has declared that any Catholic who votes for Kerry is committing a serious sin. “If you vote this way, are you cooperating in evil? And if you know you are cooperating in evil, should you go to confession?” Chaput told the New York Times. “The answer is yes.”

Evil? That’s how the church treats a former altar boy who carries a rosary and Bible with him on the campaign trail. This is the religious intolerance the Pilgrims came here to escape. This is what Thomas Jefferson and James Madison fought all their lives. This is what the First Amendment was designed to prevent.

There’s nothing wrong with a religious leader giving his advice at election time. But for a priest or minister to tell people how they must vote – under pain of sin! – is un-Christian, un-American, and just plain wrong. How ironic. We’re fighting a war against Muslim extremists who want to put their religious beliefs over the law of the land, while a handful of Roman Catholic extremists try to do the same thing in this country.

Archbishop Chaput, of course, applies a very selective test. It’s a sin to vote for Kerry, he says, because Kerry supports a woman’s right of choice and embryonic stem-cell research, both of which the Catholic Church opposes. Yet it’s not a sin to vote for Bush, who supports the death penalty and the war in Iraq – which the church also opposes. Who gave Chaput the power to decide which issues count and which ones don’t?

Abortion, birth control, stem-cell research and the death penalty are all issues on which the church’s teaching is clear. But in the past, respecting America’s religious freedom, priests have always trusted church members to vote their conscience. That’s the way it should be. Otherwise, the Catholic Church becomes nothing more than an arm of the Republican National Committee.

But the archbishop’s stand is even more dangerous than that. Since the Supreme Court has ruled that abortion is protected by the Constitution, which every president takes an oath to defend – by Chaput’s logic, no Catholic could be elected president of the United States until the Constitution is amended or the court changes its position. Is that really what Catholics want?

In telling people to vote for one candidate only, the archbishop is also trashing over 200 years of separation of church and state. He insists that Catholics must vote the way the pope tells them – and elected officials must put their religion first, and their country second. That’s exactly what Americans worried about when John F. Kennedy ran for president. And Kennedy gave what is still the best answer to those, like Ayatollah Chaput, who don’t understand what America’s all about.

On Sept. 12, 1960, Kennedy affirmed that his allegiance was to the American people, not the pope. “I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute,” Kennedy told an audience of skeptical Protestant ministers in Houston. “Where no Catholic prelate would tell the president (should he be Catholic) how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote. An America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant nor Jewish. Where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from any ecclesiastical source. Where there is no Catholic vote, no anti-Catholic vote, no bloc voting of any kind.

“I am not the Catholic candidate for president,” Kennedy concluded. “I am the Democratic Party’s candidate for president, who happens also to be a Catholic. I do not speak for my church on public matters, and the church does not speak for me.”

Thank God, despite the efforts of some bishops, Catholics still can make up their own minds on Election Day. As a Catholic, I will never let any politician tell me how to worship. As an American, I will never let any priest tell me how to vote.

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