Pope Benedict, on a plane headed to Brazil, made news last night when he suggested that Catholic politicians who vote in favor of abortion (or, presumably, other Catholic doctrine), would be subject to ex-communication from the Church. The Pope was apparently referring to Mexican politicians who recently liberalized abortion rights in that country, but his comments must be read in the context of a Church increasingly calling Catholic politicians to account (in Italy in 2005, with John Kerry in the 2004 Presidential race) when they vote -- or support -- abortion rights.
Kerry struggled with the abortion issue, and his Catholic faith, throughout the 2004 campaign. While he continued to go to Mass and stated his personal opposition to abortion, was he considered (and is) a reliable pro-choice vote. In the Spring of 2004, a number of bishops stated that he should not continue to receive the sacrament of communion if he were to continue to vote against Church doctrine.
Kerry's position -- personal belief against abortion, but political support of pro-choice legislation -- harkens back to the Catholic politician's "position-of-choice" since 1960, when John Kennedy faced anti-Catholic sentiment in his bid for the White House. The original JFK felt that he needed to address the concern that, if President, he would be subject to instruction from the Pope or other church leaders. Speaking in Houston, in September of 1960, he said:
But because I am a Catholic, and no Catholic has ever been elected President, the real issues in this campaign have been obscured -- perhaps deliberately, in some quarters less responsible than this. So it is apparently necessary for me to state once again -- not what kind of church I believe in, for that should be important only to me -- but what kind of America I believe in.
I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute; 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; where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference, and where no man is denied public office merely because his religion differs from the President who might appoint him, or the people who might elect him.
I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant nor Jewish; where no public official either requests or accept instructions on public policy from the Pope, the National Council of Churches or any other ecclesiastical source; where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials, and where religious liberty is so indivisible that an act against one church is treated as an act against all.
The original JFK put the 'religious issue' behind him once and for all. (To be sure, Kennedy had tried to deal with the issue earlier in the campaign (e.g., a speech to the American Society of Newspaper Editors in April, 1960), but the Houston speech was the one that is remembered as effectively ending the issue in the general election.) His Houston speech has become part of the American political experience: of course the Leader of the Free World may consult with the Pope from time-to-time, but as one head of state to another, not as a Catholic seeking, in Kennedy's words, "instructions."
So what does all of this have to do with Mitt Romney?
Mormons (or Latter Day Saints) stand in a somewhat parallel position today to Catholics in 1960. The religion, while wide-spread in the United States, is not well-understood and has suffered a history of persecution; the current PBS series "The Mormons" highlights some of the mis-understandings.
Analagous to the Pope for Catholics, Mormons are led by a sole individual (the President of the Church, the most senior member of the Apostles (a select group of 12 individuals)). The (Mormon Church) President's views, while perhaps not perceived as 'infallible', undoubtedly carry great weight for Latter Day Saints.
If the Pope continues to press the issue with the Catholics in the Presidential race (Dodd, Biden, et al), it will make them uncomfortable. But the attention that the Pope (or other Catholic bishops) bring to the Catholic politicians will -- sooner or later -- raise the Romney/Mormon President issue. And while Catholic politicians may reference JFK's Houston speech, Romney have to define his own relationship with his church, and its leaders.
Update: Another potential politican with a "Catholic doctrine" problem: Rudy Giuliani, who yesterday decided that he will run a 'pro-choice' GOP campaign.