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Issue Date:  March 10, 2006

On faith and politics

Politicians talking seriously about the interplay of their faith and politics? A group of Catholic Democrats in the House did just that last week. They deserve credit for the exercise -- their “Statement of Catholic Principles” was months in the making -- even if the execution left something to be desired.

But first some context.

During the 2004 presidential campaign we waited for months for someone, anyone, Republican, Democrat, Independent, other, to come forward and articulate a serious and credible position on the place of religion in politics. It was a largely futile wait.

Yes, the U.S. bishops, in 2003 issued a statement, “Faithful Citizenship: A Catholic Call to Political Responsibility” that did a masterful job of articulating Catholic social justice teaching in the current political climate. But that document was largely ignored, replaced in the popular consciousness by the “Voter’s Guide for Serious Catholics,” a product of the right-wing group Catholic Answers. The guide was widely distributed in parishes nationwide. It didn’t help that a relatively small but highly vocal group of bishops subverted the national effort to educate Catholics and others about church teaching when they decided that the real issue facing the country was whether John Kerry should be allowed to receive Communion.

While the political landscape was being shaped by a narrow and sectarian notion of what it means to be both a believer and a public servant, most other voices were mum. Particularly distressing to observe were Catholic legislators, beneficiaries of one of the richest and most compassionate social traditions ever articulated, who appeared tongue-tied before those who would reduce that legacy of thought to a single issue and who would turn our sacraments into tools of political blackmail.

At the same time, many Catholics were equally alienated by the disdain for religious conviction shown by some political forces, and the flip fashion in which some Catholic candidates appeared to dismiss the idea that their faith ought to have any consequences at all for their public roles.

Back in October 2004 we pleaded on these pages with Democratic candidate John Kerry to “talk religion … not in a way that panders to those who misuse religion, grotesquely distorting it to provide political traction and easy answers, but in a manner that recognizes the complexities that come with claiming a faith in a transcendent God, while trying to discern how that faith informs the actions of a public servant in a pluralistic society.” Instead, when asked about abortion during the presidential debates, the Massachusetts senator reminded us that he had been an altar boy.

Meanwhile, President Bush went on about “the culture of life,” plagiarizing papal rhetoric in ways that seemed sufficient to placate the easy-to-please religious right.

Apparently the message has gotten through to some politicians that cowering from the challenge of explaining themselves as people of faith as well as legislators, or attempting to avoid the challenge, is bad politics as well as bad religion. So we welcome the statement by 55 Catholic members of the House of Representatives (see story) and hope they don’t shrink from continuing to explain themselves, especially in light of the challenges they are bound to receive from some who prefer that religion equate very simply to a partisan program.

“We are committed,” the legislators write, “to making real the basic principles that are at the heart of Catholic social teaching: helping the poor and disadvantaged, protecting the most vulnerable among us, and ensuring that all Americans of every faith are given meaningful opportunities to share in the blessings of this great country. That commitment is fulfilled in different ways by legislators but includes: reducing the rising rates of poverty; increasing access to education for all; pressing for increased access to health care; and taking seriously the decision to go to war. Each of these issues challenges our obligations as Catholics to community and helping those in need.”

Still, the “Statement of Catholic Principles” falls short on several counts. “We … agree with the Catholic church about the value of human life and the undesirability of abortion,” say the legislators. In fact, the church’s objection to abortion is far more severe than the term “undesirable” would suggest. Given that this is a political document, and that their partisan opponents get a free pass from the church’s theocrats on a whole range of life issues (war, torture, economic opportunity to name a few) it’s understandable that the pro-choice Democrats who were among those signing the statement would downplay their disagreement with the church. But it would be remiss not to note that there is some distance between what the church teaches and what they’ve said in the statement.

Further, the implication in the statement that restrictions on abortion would somehow violate the separation of church and state is, at best, a weak analysis. Granted, an antiabortion argument based on a theology of ensoulment has little chance for serving as the basis for changing U.S. law. However, there are significant public policy reasons for advocating restrictions on abortion. Whether the arguments for such policies are persuasive in a republic such as ours is, of course, an entirely different question. But the question shouldn’t be clouded by the church-state straw man.

Where the House Democrats really hit the mark, then, is in recognizing that there are various means beyond legal restrictions to achieve a reduction in the abortion rate. They are worth pursuing, even as others pursue a reversal of the law.

We have argued consistently over the years that there is a difference between applying an absolute standard in a religious setting and getting something done in real-world political arenas where compromise is the working principle. The effect of social policy on the abortion rate has been measured, and there are steps that lawmakers can take, short of criminalizing abortion, to cut into the numbers performed.

The Catholic imagination in its fullness has too much to offer the wider culture to be pigeonholed in service to narrow partisan and religious agendas. Catholic social teaching in the broad and powerful sweep of its content is too rich to have to take a back seat to a squabble over political tactics.

National Catholic Reporter, March 10, 2006

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