Suddenly, the surprise resignation of Pope Benedict XVI has forced the world's 1.2 billion Catholics to confront the reality of a great debate that is on many minds but few lips about their religion's role in making public policy.
This debate centers not on just how Catholics will rule themselves but how the world sees potential political leaders who are Catholic. It begins with a fundamental question that used to be asked in America by bigots. Until it was courageously answered in 1960 -- for all time, we thought -- by a young Catholic running for president.
Question: Can Americans vote for a Catholic for president and be assured that their president will decide public policy based on principles of U.S. law and the U.S. Constitution -- and not directives from the pope?
But at the start of the 21st century, that old question was raised anew, not by the worst of bigots but by the truest of believers: the church itself. It has been heard before and is debated here today by two famous Catholics.
Debating for the affirmative: the late John F. Kennedy. His words today are from his September 1960 presidential campaign appearance before the Houston Ministerial Association. His assurances that day eased many concerns and he was narrowly elected as America's first, and so far only, Catholic president.
Debating for the negative: Benedict. His words today are from his June 2004 letter, written when he was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger of Germany, to Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington, D.C. John Kerry, a Catholic, was running for president; abortion was a public issue. The cardinal outlined how the Catholic Church would treat politicians who didn't conform to church dictates.
Let the debate begin.
KENNEDY: "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 ... ."
BENEDICT: "The church teaches that abortion or euthanasia is a grave sin. ... In the case of an intrinsically unjust law, such as a law permitting abortion or euthanasia, it is therefore never licit to obey it, or to 'take part in a propaganda campaign in favor of such a law or vote for it.'"
KENNEDY: "I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant nor Jewish -- where no public official either requests or accepts 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. ..."
BENEDICT: "Christians have a 'grave obligation of conscience not to cooperate formally in practices which, even if permitted by civil legislation, are contrary to God's law. ... This cooperation can never be justified either by invoking respect for the freedom of others or by appealing to the fact that civil law permits it or requires it.'"
KENNEDY: "I ask you tonight ... to judge me on the basis of my record of 14 years in Congress ... instead of judging me on the basis of these pamphlets and publications we all have seen that carefully select quotations out of context from the statements of Catholic church leaders, usually in other countries, frequently in other centuries. ..."
BENEDICT: "Regarding the grave sin of abortion or euthanasia, when a person's formal cooperation becomes manifest (understood, in the case of a Catholic politician, as his consistently campaigning and voting for permissive abortion and euthanasia laws), his pastor should meet with him ... informing him that he is not to present himself for Holy Communion until he brings to an end the objective situation of sin, and warning him that he will otherwise be denied the Eucharist."
KENNEDY: "Whatever issue may come before me as president -- on birth control, divorce, censorship, gambling or any other subject -- I will make my decision in accordance with these views, in accordance with what my conscience tells me to be the national interest, and without regard to outside religious pressures or dictates. And no power or threat of punishment could cause me to decide otherwise."
In 2004, Kerry's bid to become the second Catholic president fell short because he lost Ohio. And he lost Ohio because, opposed by the Catholic Church, he lost Ohio's Catholic vote.
Now, as the Roman Catholic Church's cardinals prepare to select the next pope, world Catholics must weigh which debater's vision should guide the decision that will shape their religion's future influence on global governance.
(Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service.)