How to be P.C. (politically Catholic)

MEDIA AND POLITICAL FOCUS ON THE "CATHOLIC VOTE" has become part of the ritual of presidential elections as both parties woo the one voter in four who is Catholic. But there's a new twist this year. The Christian Coalition—the conservative political organization founded by televangelist Pat Robertson—has launched a group called the Catholic Alliance to increase its Catholic membership.

The creation of the Catholic Alliance in the fall of 1995 sparked a strong response from Catholic bishops and church officials, who are very uncomfortable with any group, let alone an archconservative one, that claims to speak for Catholics.

This controversy highlights a variety of issues related to religion and politics: Should religion and politics be mixed? How influential is the Religious Right? How do politicians generally treat religion? What do individual Catholics think about the church's role in politics? What should the church's role be?

In some ways Catholics are just catching up with the reaction many Protestants had around 1980 when groups called the Moral Majority and Christian Voice emerged claiming to represent the Christian position on political issues. They put out voting records that, for example, cited an obscure Bible verse on justice as the reason for claiming that Christians should support the Contras in Nicaragua.

The whole debate reminds me of a conversation I had at a meeting on ethnic minorities and neighborhoods held at the White House in 1976 during the Ford administration. I was chatting with Thomas Melady, a self-described Rockefeller Republican who later became U.S. ambassador to the Vatican for President George Bush. Melady reminisced about 1968 when he headed "Catholics for Nixon" and Matt Ahmann, a prominent activist, headed "Catholics for Humphrey."

I often think about how refreshing that was: There were some Catholics for Nixon and some for Humphrey. How much healthier this was all around than trying to claim that all Catholics or all Christians have to vote for or against a particular candidate or party.

As it turned out, 1976 was a very controversial year for the U.S. Catholic bishops. It was the first presidential election after the U.S. Supreme Court Roe v. Wade decision legalized most abortions, and the bishops grappled with the best way to deal with the issue.

They met with both presidential candidates to discuss a wide range of issues, but all that seemed to matter was that they said they were "disappointed" by Jimmy Carter's opposition to a constitutional amendment on abortion and "encouraged" by President Gerald Ford's support for such an amendment. Most people interpreted that as an endorsement of Ford.

Finally, the bishops reaffirmed their new statement, "Political Responsibility," which urges Catholics to study important issues and vote according to their consciences. The bishops made it clear that they did not endorse or oppose candidates for political offices.

The bishops have updated their "Political Responsibility" statement for every presidential election year since 1976. It has served them well. The only other major political controversy came in 1984, when Cardinal John O'Connor of New York attacked Democratic vice-presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro, a Catholic, for her statement that Catholics did not have a "monolithic" position on abortion. O'Connor was talking about church teaching; Ferraro was talking about Catholic voters. The debate was pretty messy.

At a related level, there was tension between those, such as Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston, who said abortion should be the decisive issue for Catholics and those, such as Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago, who supported a "consistent ethic" that focused on various issues, including peace and poverty as well as abortion.

The consistent-ethic argument seemed to prevail, and the bishops as a body avoided charges of partisanship in 1988 and 1992.

A new alliance?
The bishops were in the process of updating their political-responsibility statement when Pope John Paul II made his October 1995 visit to the U.S. On this visit, the media focused on the pope's strong social-justice message. The Christian Coalition was particularly tactless in launching the Catholic Alliance just after the pope returned to Rome.

The Christian Coalition sent out 1 million direct-mail letters claiming that the Alliance "provides America's 50 million Catholics with the information and knowledge they need to make sure Catholic votes are heard in government"; "represents Catholics before the U.S. Congress, state legislatures, and local governing bodies"; "registers Catholics to vote and makes sure they cast ballots on Election Day"; and "protests unfair and biased treatment of Catholics by the news media, the entertainment industry, and officials in government."

There are three main reasons why the Catholic Alliance has provoked such sharp reaction among Catholics.

First, the Catholic Alliance claims to speak for Catholics. But the bishops and their representatives speak for the Catholic Church. "To our knowledge," Law says, " the Catholic Alliance leadership has never asked nor received from any bishop permission to use the term Catholic. Therefore the group has no official recognition as a Catholic organization."

Bishop Howard Hubbard of Albany says the Alliance would "undermine our heretofore united efforts" to protect human life at every stage.

Bishop James McHugh of Camden, New Jersey takes a more conciliatory approach. "The initiation of the Catholic Alliance," he says, "offers an opportunity for Catholics to discuss critical issues with the Alliance leaders and with the Christian Coalition. In the face of the secularization of our political landscape and the trivialization of religion by some of our most prominent political leaders, Christians should strive to find many more ways of agreement in developing political strategies."

The second reason the bishops are concerned about the Catholic Alliance is that the Alliance is partisan and the bishops are not. Hubbard says, "The Christian Coalition, and apparently its subsidiary the Catholic Alliance, make no apologies for their close alliance with the Republican Party and House leadership. Their stated goal is to become a powerful force within the Republican Party." Cardinal Law says, "Because the Alliance is an explicitly partisan group, it would be inappropriate to allow them, as well as any other political group, use of church facilities."

The bishops' updated political responsibility statement says: "The challenge for our church is to be principled without being ideological, to be political without being partisan, to be civil without being soft, to be involved without being used. Our moral framework does not easily fit the categories of right or left, Republican or Democrat.

"We are called to measure every party and movement by how their agenda touches human life and human dignity. A key question is where are 'the least of these' in any national agenda?"

Finally, while the bishops and the Catholic Alliance may agree on abortion and one or two other issues, they are at odds on a number of other important issues rooted in Catholic social teaching. Bishop Thomas O'Brien of Phoenix says the Catholic Alliance's agenda "fails to do justice to the teaching of Pope John Paul II about the importance of protection of life at every stage and condition and about the preferential, but not exclusive, option for the poor."

The Colorado bishops say in a recent letter, "While the Catholic Church and the Christian Coalition (or other similar organizations) find agreement on issues such as abortion, euthanasia, and pornography, we sharply disagree on issues such as welfare reform, capital punishment, and health-care reform. The most significant difference between the Catholic Church and the Christian Coalition is what is not on the Coalition's agenda—legislation and policies to protect poor children and families, immigrants, and the active pursuit of international peace."

Hubbard and other bishops are particularly angry about the Christian Coalition's position on welfare reform, which directly opposed the bishops' positions on several key issues. The most important was a proposal to require states to deny additional benefits to a woman who becomes pregnant while on welfare. The bishops were strongly opposed to this measure.

First, they argued, the provision would harm children—both the newborn baby and the mother's other children. Second, the bishops argued that the so-called "family cap" would encourage abortion. In November 1995 Cardinal William Keeler of Baltimore, then president of the bishops' conference, said it wasn't credible to argue that the family cap, which was designed to discourage births among welfare mothers, would do so without encouraging abortion.

Hubbard says, "The [Christian] Coalition helped persuade Majority Leader Robert Dole to include the family cap in his welfare-reform bill after Dole told the nation's governors he agreed with the bishops that such provisions restrict state flexibility and encourage abortion. (The Senate subsequently deleted it after intense advocacy by bishops and others.)"

Lobbying by the bishops played a major role in the Senate vote against a mandatory family cap. Catholic Charities USA praised Republican Senator Pete Domenici of New Mexico and Democratic Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York for their leadership in opposing the family cap. Interestingly enough, Moynihan—a Catholic who has won his share of awards from Catholic organizations, including the University of Notre Dame—scored 0 on the Catholic Alliance's voting scorecard.

Add Catholics to the mix
The question of how to mix religion and politics is not new to American Catholics. Anti-Catholicism was a major factor in the defeat of New York Governor Al Smith, the 1928 Democratic presidential candidate. In 1960, John F. Kennedy was elected by a narrow margin only after he reassured American Protestants that, as president, he wouldn't take his marching orders from the Vatican.

A candidate, Catholic or otherwise, who gave Kennedy's speech today, however, would be criticized for taking too narrow a view of religion. It's one thing to say that no public official should impose his religion on others. But that doesn't mean that religion has no place in the public debate. Kennedy himself saw this when he praised Pope John XXIII's 1963 encyclical, "Peace on Earth."

Religion and politics mix in different ways at different levels: the religious institution, individual religious leaders, public officials, government, and laypeople.

Religious leaders speaking for their church have the right—many would say the duty—to bring their moral concerns into the public arena. They fit in when they argue their case on the basis of the merits, not on the basis of religious authority. The bishops made this point well in their pastoral letters on peace in 1983 ("The Challenge of Peace") and the economy in 1986 ("Economic Justice for All") when they acknowledged that they must speak in a way that was persuasive to people who did not share their faith. To use Kennedy's speech as an example, it's improper to argue for government support of church-run schools merely to impose the church's position. But it is proper to argue for government support on the basis that they serve the common good.

The bishops have chosen to act as teachers, not as political operatives, in the political arena. That's the gist of the political-responsibility statement.

As individuals, religious leaders have the same rights—including the right to the secret ballot and the right to free speech—as every other American. They are free to endorse or oppose candidates as long as they make it clear that they are speaking for themselves and not for their institutions.

As for politicians, the bishops are right that their agenda does not fit neatly into that of either party. That makes it harder for politicians, but, on the other hand, no politician runs for office claiming to represent the Catholic Church or any other religion. Elected officials must strike a balance between their personal beliefs and the beliefs of the people they represent. There are no easy answers.

Former New York Governor Mario Cuomo provides a good example. Cuomo strongly opposes the death penalty, which was highly popular in his state. Cuomo addressed the issue clearly. He persuaded voters that he was tough on crime despite his opposition to the death penalty, and they elected him three times. Then he was defeated. Did his position on the death penalty contribute to his defeat? Yes. Was it the only reason? Most likely not.

Lay Catholics have mixed reactions about the bishops' involvement in politics. A CBS-New York Times poll conducted on the eve of Pope John Paul's 1995 visit to the U.S. found that two thirds said the bishops should address moral issues. But two thirds also said that the bishops should not endorse or oppose candidates.

The new abortion issue
As is often the case, abortion will provide a test case in 1996 for the bishops, politicians, and lay Catholics. The 1992 election showed that 65 percent of voting Catholics voted for a prochoice candidate—44 percent for Clinton and 21 percent for Ross Perot. But a new issue emerged for 1996.

Prolife groups supported legislation to ban third trimester "partial-birth abortions" except to save the mother's life. Doctors and prochoice groups say the procedure is used only rarely when the absence of fetal brain development or physical threats to the mother are discovered late in pregnancy. Bishop Anthony Pilla of Cleveland and eight cardinals wrote in a letter to Clinton that the term health can mean "virtually anything that has to do with a woman's 'well-being.' As you know and we know, an exception for 'health' means abortion on demand."

Both houses of Congress passed the ban, but Clinton vetoed it. He urged Congress to allow an exception for "serious, adverse health consequences to the mother." He held a White House press briefing with five women who had the procedure for health reasons. Most described situations in which their babies were dying inside them and doctors said they had no choice but to abort in order to prevent infection or hysterectomy. One woman said, "I didn't make the decision for my child to die; God made the decision for my child to die. I had to make the decision to take him off life support."

The bishops attacked the veto, arguing that a health exception would lead to abuse. "Most partial-birth abortions are done for reasons that are purely elective," the letter to Clinton said. Cardinals Bernardin, Law, and James Hickey of Washington said that voters should consider the president's veto when they go to the polls.

"In the coming weeks and months, each of us, as well as our bishops' conference, will do all we can to educate people about partial-birth abortions," Pilla and the cardinals told Clinton in their letter. "We will inform them that partial-birth abortions will continue because you chose to veto H.R. 1833. We will also urge Catholics and other people of goodwill—including the 65 percent of self-described 'prochoice' voters who oppose partial-birth abortions—to do all that they can to urge Congress to override this shameful veto."

Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole says he would sign the bill.

Mixing religion and politics isn't simple, and it often isn't consistent. The 1996 election year will be no different. When the bishops criticize Clinton's veto, they will be portrayed as pro-Republican. When they criticize congressional budget cuts in safety-net social programs, they will be portrayed as pro-Democrat.

And when Election Day comes, only one thing is certain. There will be some Catholics for Clinton, and there will be some Catholics for Dole.

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