e-mail us


Time to rework politics of Catholic leaders

In the wake of the recent presidential election, one has to wonder if certain bishops and their friends among the religious right will convene for an assessment of what happened to the vaunted "Catholic vote."

It appears that once again all the gambles taken on behalf of opposing abortion above everything else came up empty.

The bishops rallied in Washington and led a massive post card campaign after President Bill Clinton vetoed the late-term abortion bill.

Cardinal John O'Connor of New York refused to invite Clinton, as is the long-standing tradition, to the Al Smith dinner because of that veto.

O'Connor and fellow Cardinal James Hickey of Washington lent their weight to a conservative Catholic group, the Catholic Campaign for America, which was basically organized to raise the antiabortion ante in the presidential election. The Catholic Campaign, in turn, was intimately tied up with the rather intolerant, radical right politics of Ralph Reed and the Christian Coalition, the Protestant evangelical group that this year made a highly touted but largely unsuccessful bid to lure in a contingent of Catholic voters.

Reed, of course, runs the political arm of the theologically fundamentalist empire of TV evangelist Pat Robertson. The good cardinals, along with some other high profile and distinguished Catholic conservatives, were all wrapped into this rather unseemly political juggernaut.

One presumes all of that helped set the atmosphere for extremists like the priest who did radio spots or retired New Orleans Archbishop Philip Hannan of Louisiana, who boldly pronounced that Catholics could not vote for Clinton.

It all made for more embarrassing episodes of misspent political capital and squandered moral authority.

In the end, Catholic voters largely ignored all the hot button rhetoric and were one of the largest factors in the Clinton victory.

The vote does not mean that Catholic voters dislike their bishops, or simply act contrary to whatever they say. It does not mean they are not appalled at the number of abortions annually or the horror of late-term abortions. It does not mean they are necessarily enamored of the Clinton presidency.

What it means, however, is that they, along with much of the rest of the populace, see little hope for any solution in the absolute legal measures demanded by the radical right. Many Catholics once based their votes on the abortion issue and helped put Presidents Reagan and Bush into office. They got little for it and apparently no longer base their presidential choice on that issue. They see little hope for any progress on abortion in the political arena. And they have been given precious little leadership from their bishops on how to counter abortion in other ways.

The '96 vote was but the latest episode in a lesson, now 23 years long, on how the politics of the Catholic leadership has done little but neutralize and marginalize the Catholic presence in U.S. society.

National Catholic Reporter, November 15, 1996