National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  August 29, 2003

Dangerous to play with anti-Catholic fire

The Senate Judiciary Committee is a bastion of not-so-subtle anti-Catholicism, an unholy venue where believers must meet an unconstitutional religious test of office.

That shrill accusation is making the rounds in newspaper advertisements financed by the misnamed “Committee for Justice” and pizza magnate Tom Monaghan’s Ave Maria List, a Catholic political action committee. The theme has been echoed by others, including Sens. Orrin Hatch and Rick Santorum, and Catholic pundit Michael Novak.

The charge does not withstand serious scrutiny. Rather, it is a tactic in the judicial nominating battles that have become a hallmark of our closely divided government.

Why is the accusation so wrongheaded?

First, it’s not true (more on that in a moment).

More significant, perhaps, the accusation is designed to make certain senators politically untouchable. To charge that a prominent elected official is anti-Semitic, or anti-African-American, or anti-Catholic is a way of making them radioactive, not worthy of serious consideration on a range of issues, a pariah to polite society, and certainly not entitled to a leadership position. Just ask Trent Lott.

The attempt to marginalize Judiciary Committee Democrats -- including Catholics Patrick Leahy of Vermont, Richard Durbin of Illinois, Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts and Joseph Biden of Delaware -- comes as both Democrats and Republicans (and their respective interest groups) prepare for the battle royal that will ensue upon the next Supreme Court vacancy. The anti-Catholic canard is a marker: Right-wing interest groups and their supporters in Congress will do whatever it takes to push the next nominee through the Senate, or, failing that, will exact a high political price from those who would dare oppose a Bush high court appointment.

It’s about politics (the “Catholic vote”), not principle or prejudice.

In the particular case in question -- the nomination of Alabama Attorney General William Pryor, a Catholic, to a seat on the federal appellate court -- those who claim bigotry at work argue that any judicial nominee who opposes legal abortion is automatically suspect by pro-choice legislators.

Well, they are right about that. We live in a country where the majority supports access to legal abortion; any judicial nominee who argues that the most common surgical procedure in the country should be illegal is going to be subject to intense scrutiny. Further, interest groups affiliated with the Democrats have made abortion a litmus test for key nominations.

There is a lot at stake.

But none of this occurs because Pryor, or other nominees facing filibuster, is Catholic. (In fact, the question of Pryor’s religious affiliation was raised by Republican Orrin Hatch, not by those who opposed the nominee.) It is evident that an Orthodox Jew, a Presbyterian, a Methodist, a Christian Scientist or an atheist who held the same public policy views as Pryor, and expressed them in a similarly provocative manner, would face exactly the same level of opposition.

Rather than argue the merits (and we’re among those who believe that unwavering allegiance to the nation’s liberal abortion laws should not be a requirement to wear the robe) some conservative activists would prefer to throw rhetorical gasoline on the smoldering flame.

It is a cynical and dangerous game -- and those who ignite the fire are as likely to get burned as their targets.

National Catholic Reporter, August 29, 2003

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