National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  April 30, 2004

Who's-a-Catholic flap hits congress

Catholic Democrats say Republicans seek partisan gain


The who’s-less-or-more-Catholic-than-the-pope controversy, until recently focused on John Kerry, ricocheted around Washington last week and finally came to rest on the south side of the Capitol building.

It began when The Hill, a twice-weekly publication that acts as Congress’ community newspaper, reported that a group of Catholic House Democrats were planning to unveil a “scorecard” demonstrating that they -- and not antiabortion Republicans -- were the true keepers of the Catholic flame on Capitol Hill. The idea, said The Hill, was to show that Democrats in the House vote with the church on most economic issues and on social policy questions such as immigration.

The discussion went downhill from there.

Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., and Nick Lampson, D-Texas, leaders of the Catholic “fellowship,” explained that the story was somewhat overblown. DeLauro told NCR that the group’s discussions began “several months ago” as an exploratory effort where a “small group of us really were trying to talk through some things [and] open a dialogue with the church both in our communities and at the national level.”

The half-dozen members of the group represent diverse views on abortion, said the pro-choice DeLauro, but all are concerned that “we are not having a full and open conversation about the whole range of social teachings that the church has been a leader on.”

The effort was not designed to garner short-term political gain, said DeLauro. Instead, she said, the group was exploring how their religious beliefs and cultural backgrounds intersect with their public responsibilities.

In a joint statement released April 20, DeLauro and Lampson said any “research” the group was conducting was done “for our own edification,” and was not meant to be a public document.

That clarification, however, came after House Republican campaign operatives pounced on the Catholic legislators.

The National Republican Congressional Committee charged that Lampson is “trying to redefine Catholicism to hide his record.”

Lampson, said the Republicans, “routinely votes against the teachings of the Catholic church.” Those teachings, said the Republicans, in what might be news to many Catholics, include support for tax cuts (some of which Lampson opposed) and funding for “community-based abstinence education programs.”

In addition to his pro-choice abortion record, the committee charged, Lampson is “promoting a same-sex lifestyle” through his votes on such issues as allowing gay couples in Washington to adopt children and his support for legislation that would prohibit employment discrimination based on sexual preference in federal agencies. Further, his opposition to legislation to permit “the public display of the Ten Commandments in government buildings” demonstrates the four-term Democrat’s insensitivity to “religious liberties,” charged the Republicans.

“When Catholic leaders lambaste lawmakers who ignore their own Catholicism, Nick Lampson is the exact type of lawmaker they have in mind,” said Republican Congressional Committee spokesman Carl Forti. Lampson, said Forti, “has about as good a Catholic voting record as John Kerry.”

In their statement, DeLauro and Lampson said the Catholic lawmakers “have been meeting informally to discuss how our faith guides our legislative priorities and our political agenda. We have met primarily for educational purposes with the hope of gaining a better understanding of the nexus between our work as elected officials and our Catholic tradition and values.”

The Catholic Democrats “question why some bishops take an absolute position on abortion but then turn their heads away” from Republicans who take positions counter to the church on economic issues and the death penalty, said a Washingtonian familiar with the thinking of the group. “The Catholic church says it has a special concern for the poor,” but that message is lost, said the source, when bishops make abortion a litmus test issue of Catholic fidelity and allow “no breathing room” for those who vote otherwise.

Said DeLauro and Lampson: “We believe we have the right to engage in private, informal discussions about our faith without being subjected to such political attacks. Our group’s intent is not to engage in partisan warfare, but to discuss ways to call attention to aspects of Catholic social teaching which instruct our public service and are often neglected in the national political discourse.”

Meanwhile, Washington Cardinal Theodore McCarrick -- fresh from a 45-minute no-pictures-taken sit-down with Kerry -- rejected a request to meet with the Catholic lawmakers. The House Democrats asked for such a meeting, said a Washington archdiocesan spokesperson, but McCarrick “does not have any plans to meet with them since he’s already met with Senator Kerry.”

McCarrick chairs a bishops’ committee charged with developing guidelines for the hierarchy on their interactions with Catholic legislators. The Washington Cardinal was to arrive in the Vatican April 24 for his ad limina meeting with the pope and members of the Roman curia, where his interactions with Kerry are likely to be a topic of discussion.

Nationally, Kerry’s candidacy -- he’s the first Catholic major party nominee in more than four decades -- has ignited controversy over the hierarchy’s role in the political process. Among Kerry’s critics is St. Louis Archbishop Raymond Burke, who told reporters during the Missouri Democratic primary that if Kerry presented himself for Communion while in St. Louis, he would refuse him the sacrament. Burke, as bishop of the LaCrosse, Wis., diocese last year, barred all pro-choice Catholic legislators in the diocese from receiving Communion.

Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput weighed-in with an April 14 newspaper column. “Candidates who claim to be ‘Catholic’ but who publicly ignore Catholic teaching about the sanctity of human life are offering a dishonest public witness,” wrote Chaput. “They may try to look Catholic and sound Catholic, but unless they act Catholic in their public service and political choices, they’re really a very different kind of creature.” And, concluded Chaput, “Real Catholics should vote accordingly.”

The controversy reached somewhat comic proportions over Easter Sunday, when reporters mounted a “Communion Watch” on Kerry amid reports that he would be denied the sacrament in his home diocese of Boston. Kerry attended Mass at Boston’s Paulist Center and received Communion without incident.

Joe Feuerherd is NCR Washington correspondent. His e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, April 30, 2004

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