The Independent Newsweekly
|Cover story -- Catholic Politicians|
Issue Date: July 2, 2004
Does GOP get a free ride?
Capitol Hill Catholic Democrats say abortion emphasis, is getting partisan and personal
By JOE FEUERHERD
On an issue-by-issue basis, Bart Stupak, D-Mich., may be the best Catholic in Congress. Hes pro-life, fights against cuts in housing programs and opposed the Iraq war resolution. He supports expanding the child tax credit and increasing assistance to African nations dealing with the AIDS pandemic.
In vote after vote after vote, Stupak finds himself aligned with the churchs lobbying efforts in Washington.
So why is 52-year-old six-term representative mad as hell at the U.S. bishops?
Because hes a loyal Democrat, which is enough, Stupak told NCR, to raise suspicions from members of the hierarchy. And despite his pro-life record, he and his Catholic colleagues in the House are getting sick and tired of getting kicked around for something that is way outside the proper application of the doctrines of the Catholic church.
A former Michigan state trooper, Stupak turned to politics in the mid-1980s. Hes well-suited to his vast Upper Peninsula congressional district -- a steady-as-you-go workhorse legislator, no headline grabber or television talking head. That steady reputation, combined with his pro-life credentials, adds credibility to his harsh critique of the hierarchy.
The view of Catholic Democrats on Capitol Hill, Stupak said, is that church leaders are increasingly partisan, all-too-ready to target pro-choice Democrats but endlessly forgiving of antiabortion Republicans who oppose the hierarchy on everything from nuclear weapons production and Head Start funding to welfare work requirements and health care reform.
And now, say Stupak and other Catholic members of Congress, its personal. At least one House Democrat has been told not to present himself for Communion in his home diocese. Others, including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California, fear they will be denied the sacrament, leading some to eschew a parish community in favor of Sunday church shopping where they are less likely to be recognized. Family weddings and funerals raise more than their usual share of anxiety for pro-choice Catholic legislators -- fearful that a priest-presider will use the celebratory or solemn occasion to highlight the politicians dissent.
The caricature of a legislator selling his or her soul -- trading a pro-choice voting record for electoral success -- is simply not the case, says Stupak.
Its not something we just vote for cavalierly for or against. Of the bishops who would deny Communion, said Stupak, I really wonder whether they have sat down with any of these individuals before lambasting them in the paper.
Stupak is not alone in his concerns.
On June 2, Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., released a report that compared the voting records of Senate Catholics with the legislative priorities of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. The scorecard includes a total of 48 actions the Senate took on 24 issues in the current Congress, plus the 2003 Iraq war resolution. The actions were divided into three categories -- domestic, international and pro-life.
Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry had the highest rating -- supporting the bishops positions more than 60 percent of the time, though his only pro-life actions were those related to the death penalty. Republicans Peter Fitzgerald of Illinois and Sam Brownback of Kansas voted with the bishops more than half the time, with most of that support coming on abortion-related issues.
Critics, including Pennsylvania Republican Sen. Rick Santorum, accused Durbin of cherry-picking -- skewing the scorecard through a selection of issues likely to favor Democrats. Further, said Santorum, domestic policy issues such as housing are of concern to the church but cannot be equated with the life-or-death issue of abortion.
Yet the most significant thing about the report is not necessarily the findings, but the fact that it was undertaken at all. That a senior member of the Senate felt compelled to use staff time and resources to defend the voting records of one religious bloc is unprecedented, though perhaps understandable, given Durbins history with the issue.
In April, the pastor of Blessed Sacrament parish in Springfield, Ill, where Durbin owns a home and where he previously attended church, said he would deny the pro-choice senator Communion if he presented himself for the sacrament. Durbin, who also owns a condominium in Chicago, said he regularly attends Mass there and not in Springfield.
Statements by some in the church about denying the sacraments to some public officials and those who vote for them cross the line in terms of what most Catholic Americans find acceptable regarding the relationship between their church and their government, Durbin said on the day he released the report. We must carefully protect both the constitutional right to religious belief and the separation between church and state. These time-honored American principles should not be compromised for any short-term political purpose.
Back on the House side of the Capitol, Catholic Democrats -- both pro-choice and pro-life -- arent issuing a scorecard, but theyre making the same point.
The public discourse winds up around one or two issues, says Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., the pro-choice leader of an informal group of Catholic legislators who are meeting regularly in an attempt to thrash out the relationship between politicians and their church. Were trying to open a dialogue with the church both in our communities and at the national level, DeLauro told NCR.
That dialogue will begin with Washington Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, chairman of the bishops task force on Catholics in Public Life. McCarrick agreed to meet with the legislators after 48 House Democrats, including approximately a dozen antiabortion members of Congress, wrote a letter in which they said they are increasingly concerned about statements made recently by some members of the Catholic hierarchy indicating that the sacrament of Communion should be withheld from certain Catholic legislators because of their votes on public issues. Such an approach, said the legislators, is counterproductive and would bring great harm to the church.
At a May 25 gathering of faith-based social workers and community activists, DeLauro, chairman of the Democratic Convention Platform Committee, made an impassioned plea. Her harsh critique of the administrations domestic agenda -- tax cuts aimed disproportionately at the wealthy, cuts in housing and Medicaid, deficits that starve the federal treasury, punitive welfare reform -- was just what the audience of church-based antipoverty workers wanted to hear.
Whether that view will have any sway with the church leaders is another question altogether.
Joe Feuerherd is NCR Washington correspondent. His e-mail address is email@example.com.
National Catholic Reporter, July 2, 2004
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