Politics & Policy

Life of The Party

The Democrats' silencing of Bob Casey continues to rattle through our political halls today.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Earlier this week, William McGurn delivered the first Bob Casey lecture in the Catholic archdiocese of Denver. The text of the speech follows.

How honored I am to be asked to deliver the first of what will be your annual Bob Casey Lectures.

I make no claim for knowing Governor Casey. Nonetheless fate put me within a few feet of the Governor for what may have been his defining moment in public life: In 1992, at Madison Square Garden, for the Democratic National Convention. The night he was humiliated by the party he’d devoted his life to.

Make no mistake: Humiliation is the word. At the time, Governor Casey was coming off a reelection as governor that he’d won by the margin of a million-plus Pennsylvanian votes. Yet the party officials who refused the governor his chance at the podium and lacked the courtesy even to respond to his letters seeking a slot–these same officials managed to find room for six pro-choice Republican women to speak.

To ensure this message was delivered, one of these women was pro-choice activist Kathy Taylor. Not only did Miss Taylor hail from Pennsylvania, she had worked in the campaign of Governor Casey’s Republican opponent.

Later Al Gore would call the governor to apologize, and to say that neither he nor Bill Clinton had any role in the snub. In his autobiography Governor Casey says that when reporters asked Ms. Taylor how she had been invited, she told them she’d received the invitation from NARAL, after which the Democratic National Committee brought her in as an honored guest. Sort of shows you who rules.

It was an extraordinary thing to watch. I was standing only a few feet from Governor Casey in the Garden. As the Republicans onstage were cheered for their pro-choice positions, what I remember most was the governor’s gritted teeth.

At the time, I confess, I hadn’t realized what a watershed moment it would prove. Then it seemed no more than the latest in a long series of indignities heaped upon pro-life politicians. In retrospect, however, it brings to mind the protagonist of “A Man for All Seasons.” Faced with a Thomas More who steadfastly refused to give him the answer he wants, a frustrated Thomas Cromwell complains how this silence of More’s was “bellowing up and down Europe.”

Ladies and gentlemen, the silencing of Bob Casey continues to rattle through our political halls today. It does so because even three decades after the Supreme Court believed it had dispatched of the issue once and for all, we see the hubris of the assumption: Blackmun locuta est; causa finita est.

The idea that Roe is the last word has been echoed in follow-up High Court rulings, and even Attorney General John Ashcroft, during his confirmation, declared Roe v. Wade settled law. The problem is that no one believes him. In fact Roe is arguably the least settled law in the country. Probably most politicians wish it would disappear, and therefore happiest when the courts take over for what should rightfully be their responsibility. Which fact is why Roe remains at once the most disruptive and brittle force in the life of the American commonweal. Far from fading away, it has now reached our communion rail.

Let me be clear: I do not intend this evening to parse the candidacy of John Kerry any more than any examination of abortion politics in today’s Democratic party makes necessary. Manifestly it simply no longer matters which name is on the Democratic ticket, because on this issue the party has spoken: At Boston the party spoke of its “pride” of Roe in principle, while every day everywhere else it demonstrates that will brook no dissent. Even the armed forces have a category for conscientious objector. Not so what was once the party of Al Smith. In fact the ground continues to shift, with this year’s Democratic platform eliminating even the nod it made last time out to differing opinions.

Senator Kerry is simply a byproduct. And my proposition this evening is that Bob Casey’s life and witness suggests it might have been different–that it might still be different.

Notwithstanding Republican accusations of flip-flopping, the Democratic party is frank about where it stands. Here is the relevant language from the 2004 platform:

Because we believe in the privacy and equality of women, we stand proudly for a woman’s right to choose, consistent with Roe v. Wade, and regardless of her ability to pay. We stand firmly against Republican efforts to undermine that right.

I will spare a reading of the contrasting plank from the Republican party, because my object here is not to declare between Republicans and Democrats but to highlight the cleavage between the Democratic party whose mission Hubert Humphrey defined as standing for “those in the dawn of life, those in the shadows of life, and those in the twilight of life” and the Democratic party of this platform, whose first sentence thumps for the most extreme of all abortion positions: abortion on demand with taxpayer funding. Thumps for it clearly and without apology.

The political consequence of this position is evident every day in our headlines: war on anything that threatens this absolutist stance, whether it be restrictions on federal funding or partial birth abortions, to the maligning and political destruction of judicial nominees deemed to show insufficient piety for the view that Roe is sacrosanct while at the same time every other precedent is for grabs depending on the social or political exigencies of the moment.

John Kerry did not create the abortion test that is today operates to push faithful Catholics off the public square on the grounds that their Catholicity may be deeply held. But John Kerry, like all national Democratic contenders, must be defined by it or become, a la Governor Casey, a stranger in his own land.

As it happens I find myself mustering a certain sympathy for Senator Kerry. To begin with, he must be wondering why he has attracted such attention from his clergy today for beliefs, votes, and practices that he has enthusiastically pursued with no church sanction for nearly his entire political life. More broadly, at times I wonder if the demand for fidelity to Catholic teaching in politics would be stronger if we saw more of that fidelity in the pulpit.

How easy it is to blame everything on politicians blowing with the wind. Whereas the real question is, How was it this wind gathered such a head?

That wind is what I mean to talk about tonight: the failure not just of Democratic politicians but of a Catholic culture that once contributed so richly to this party but today takes a back seat to NARAL. Republicans, to be sure, are not without their own pro-choice culture, though its character is less NARAL than a tweedy, historic Planned Parenthoodism with all the cold WASPy baggage that implies.

But even among Republican pro-choicers, the position generally shows itself willing to accommodate restrictions favored by large numbers of Americans, notably but not exclusively over the issue of taxpayer funding. In contrast, such is absolutism in the Democratic party today that Democrats for Life, a tiny group, could not persuade the DNC to include their website among the 2oo or so other links on the party page; after a meeting with the party’s Catholic chairman, Terry McAuliffe, the Solomonic decision was to have no links at all. Democrats for Life are right to regard this as progress, but it is also true that it is compromise designed to ensure that one good deed would not be allowed to corrupt the whole.

For the most part, the Democratic party’s Catholics, Mr. Kerry included, publicly declare either that they accept that life begins at conception or are otherwise “personally opposed” to abortion, or both. Tonight I shall take them at their word. Yet it is a political fact that, if these same Catholics could bring themselves to act on this belief merely to the extent of protesting, vigorously and publicly, when pro-life voices within that party are squelched, Democratic candidates would not today be at war with their bishops across the country. Ironically it is a distinctly post-Vatican II failure, in that it is one for which we Catholic laymen and women and the institutions we run are as much to blame as our shepherds.


The bishops. Some of you will have read a story in a certain metropolitan newspaper earlier this month featuring an interview with a certain American archbishop. The implication of the article was to suggest that by speaking out on conscience, politics and Catholic teaching, this archbishop was guilty of a rank partisanship that violated the much venerated but almost completely misunderstood “wall of separation” that is located not in the Constitution but in Thomas Jefferson’s letter to the Danbury Baptists.

This archbishop deserves more sympathy than he will ever get. Vain it is to attempt to speak to the American press of the integrity of the Eucharist, the considerations that define material cooperation in abortion, the Catholic view of conscience and proportionate response, etc. The reason is not simply that the gentlemen and gentlewomen of today’s press generally harbor social views uncongenial to those of the Catholic Church, though that is undeniably the case. It is that the press, especially in an election year, tends to see these issues as its front pages do, that is, from an exclusively politicized angle: Who whom?

The bishops have compounded the dissonance with the press by their past failure to speak clearly when they still had a hearing in the Democratic party and when American Catholics themselves understood more of their own social and moral vocabulary. The situation today is much like the parents who show up at a pastor’s door when their son is 13 and ask Father what might be done about their little spoiled brat. There are answers, but the one that Father longs to say but doesn’t is that what the parents need to do needed to be done back when their child was 3.

The parallel is to what we saw in the sex-abuse scandal. For too many years, American bishops simply closed their eyes, paying off a victim here, transferring a serial abuser there, and above all absolutely refusing to address the culture of dissent that fed and escalated these dysfunctions from individual failings into a crisis that now unfairly maligns every man with a Roman collar. Worse, when the truth of what had been done was finally put before the faithful, we didn’t get it from our shepherds. We got it from the Boston Globe.

This same dynamic is true on the life issues. For too long the bishops sat on the sidelines as prominent Catholics scandalized the faithful by declared themselves for Roe with no effect on their standing within the church and its institutions: I watched the other night a clip of Senator Tom Daschle enthusiastically telling fellow Democrats that Roe was “sacred ground” that he would never surrender–and then he complains about being tagged as prochoice. We saw the most dismal consequence last year in the Senate, when pro-choice Democratic Catholics provided the margin for the filibuster to defeat a judicial nominee cited as unfit for the bench expressly because of his Catholic beliefs.

And when two men finally stood to complain about the bigotry inherent in that line of argument, it is telling that they were not Catholic Democrats but Morman and a Methodist Republicans.

In the summer before 9/11, I wrote a column for the Wall Street Journal called “Preach to the Choir” pegged to the issue of embryonic stem cells, noting that if our eminences ever hope to make their position embryonic stem cell research intelligible to the larger American body politic, they needed first to make it intelligible to the Catholics, beginning with those still–remarkably–sitting in their churches.

Here and there, there have been individual stabs. When Geraldine Ferraro ran for vice president, New York’s John Cardinal O’Connor quite correctly pointed out that she was misrepresenting the church’s position when she claimed that she could favor abortion rights and remain comfortably within church teaching.

Not long after, the Bishop of Camden, James McHugh, would tussle with New York’s Governor Mario Cuomo. Bishop McHugh ultimately would back up his criticism of pro-choice Catholic politicians with a pastoral sanction, declaring they would henceforth be denied platforms on church property.

But these remained scattered and isolated voices. Throughout the 1980s the bishops issued letter after letter on issues upon which Catholics may in good conscience render very different prudential judgments. But on the great issue of life, the bishops failed America’s unborn children at about the same time they were failing the living American children molested by the priests under their charge.

Today it is encouraging to see the bishops beginning to recover. And as they do another unfairness surfaces: As we see, the bishops who do take their duties seriously are the ones who pay the price for the neglect that defined their predecessors.

Among the first signs of the bishops’ new engagement was the pastoral letter “Living the Gospel of Life: A Challenge to American Catholics.” At one point, in the section devoted to Catholics in public life, the bishops invoke the example of Sir Thomas More, who gave his life rather than betray his faith. As the bishops dryly noted, “in the United States in the late 1990s, elected officials safely keep their heads.”

The bishops are right to cite Thomas More, and as a newspaper man I rather envy the lawyers who claim this Englishman for their patron saint. But surely even More is not the whole story.

In September I was at the Tower of London, where More was kept prisoner. Bishop John Fisher was not far away–according to one source, his cell was right below More’s–and we know that the two exchanged communication because that fact would later be used against them. At one point, the Catholic bishops who had accommodated themselves to the new English political consensus as defined by Henry VIII, visited Bishop Fisher’s cell, hoping to persuade them to come over to their side. His reply was that had the bishops stuck together, the church and Britain and Henry would not be in the predicament in which they now found themselves. “The fort is now betrayed,” he said, “even of them that should have defended it.”

Not long after, Bishop Fisher was taken to the scaffold where, some time later, Thomas More too would be deprived of his head. Surely there is a message here about public life in that the church has seen fit to pair the two–one a layman, the other a bishop–with the same feast day.

Yet in their letter on living the Catholic life the bishops did not mention Fisher. As welcome as that letter was, surely America will not have its Thomas Mores and Bob Caseys without more John Fishers.


But we cannot lay all the blame at the feet of our shepherds. Too often we lay Catholics have been equally acquiescent in winking at where the culture of abortion was taking America and, at its most extreme, has now landed the Democratic party.

We all have our examples.

Tonight I will focus on one. It was not in my original plans; and to cite it now makes for some real personal pain, because it is an institution that for all its faults remains near and dear to me: The University of Notre Dame. There are sound reasons for me to love it still, and sound reasons look to the future with optimism, which I shall mention in a minute. Yet on this one issue it unhappily provides a metaphor for how it has been the wealthiest and most accomplished segments of our American Catholic culture which have helped bring us to the point where the first Catholic candidate for president in nearly a half century finds himself.

The immediate cause of my attention was, as is so often the case, something that ran in the New York Times. This in itself makes for no small irony. The Times, of course, is the principal and unrivalled organ of the abortion culture and all it implies for everything from the destruction of embryos for research to same-sex marriage. And yet it is the same people who pride themselves on their disdain for the teaching competence of the bishops who look to the Times each day for edification on the grounds that it is “authoritative.”

The article was by the university’s dean of the College of Arts and Letters. If American Catholics “honestly examine” the issues, he offered, they would find the Democratic ticket more in consonance with Catholic teaching than the Republican alternative. Since Dean Roche has thrown the Notre Dame name into the public arena–and let me be clear, as a former op-ed editor I know all too well that it the name the Times was eager to have attached to this view is Notre Dame and not Mark Roche–I should not think he would find it amiss to my discussing what he wrote as publicly as he has. The dean’s motivations are beyond my read. And I take his opposition to abortion at his word. I do not even question his right to write.

What I do question is his judgment. And tonight I intend to point to the consequences which I believe are there for all to see.

I need, however, first to point out, as Dean Roche would undoubtedly do himself if he were here, that he does not speak for Notre Dame. There is much I admire about Notre Dame, and with particular regard to these issues I find that–in sharp contrast with my own years there–that the student pro-life movement on the Notre Dame campus today alive, intelligent and spirited. That augurs great hope, and speaks to the possibilities that still exist in a unique way at Our Lady’s school. It should help explain too why I will be donating tonight’s honoraria, as I do all my speaking fees, to a scholarship at Notre Dame in my father’s name.

However, though Dean Roche’s op-ed by no means speaks for all Notre Dame, unfortunately it does speak for more just one dean. In the three decades since Roe rent asunder the laws and legislative compromises that had defined and limited abortion in America, Notre Dame, in its most public on this issue, has sadly been distinguished for an astonishing ability to come up with, at critical moments in this debate, convenient pretexts for the look-the-other-way crowd.

And just as we now see that abortion is not simply a procedure but the lynchpin in an entire culture given to death, the nature of the Democratic argument to American Catholics has shifted steadily downhill, to the point where it has been largely reduced to the They Are Just As Bad As We Are line of attack.

The rationales, which carry the Notre Dame label, are not merely academic musings that disappear in the faculty lounge ether. They may and do irritate those of us who believe differently. But the consequences do not fall on me. They fall heaviest on pro-life Democrats who are working, with little internal support and virtually zero favorable publicity, to grow little blades of pro-life grass through the party concrete. Of articles such as Dean Roche’s, Brian Golden, a Massachusetts Democratic state representative, told me, “They cut us off at the knees.”

Alas, this is nothing new. Now, I am an admirer of Father Hesburgh. But I well remember the line he liked to feed us back when I was an undergraduate, the gist of which is that while Republicans who were against abortion agreed with only 5 percent of Catholic teaching, Democrats who were pro-choice were on the Catholic side in 95 percent of the other issues.

We see some of this numbers game today in the dean’s piece for the Times, a crude calculus in which unequivocal Catholic teaching on the intrinsic evil of the taking of most innocent life is weigh against judgment calls on the Iraq war, capital punishment, the environment, etc. On the issue of 40 million American abortions since Roe, those who reason this way tell us in one breadth that the issue is complex to be put into categories of right and wrong while in the next presume to know exactly where He would stand on Arctic drilling and Kyoto. Surely it is telling that when Father Ted’s 5% language is deployed, it is not by those who are interested in advancing Father Ted’s values or share his horror at abortion. Frances Kissling, who runs the pro-abortion front group Catholics for a Free Choice, seems to find it particularly useful for her articles, and you can find it today, as I did, up on her website.

Much worse was to come. And when it did, it came in a much more dramatic and public way, when Mario Cuomo delivered a nationally televised address at Notre Dame on more or less the same topic I speak to here in Denver: how the Catholic politician can be true to the legitimate demands of his public service as well as his faith. Again I will leave intentions to others. But the consequence of Governor Cuomo’s speech was that it became the rationale of choice–no pun intended–for the “personally opposed but” crowd.

Of course, it more nuanced than that. The road to today’s absolutist Democratic platform on abortion has been paved with nuance. Governor Cuomo’s argument is that, in the absence of an American consensus, it would be constitutionally unseemly for him to do anything to see that his views on the evil of abortion were manifested in any public policy.

Needless to say this nuance and reservation was altogether absent when the same Governor Cuomo–in clear opposition to the American consensus–commuted all death sentences that came to him during his years in Albany. Yet place that aside, for most of us are not asking the Governor to substitute his own views for a public consensus but to help us change that consensus in, say, the way William Wilberforce did over so many years on slavery in Britain. And here I find most telling is what Governor Cuomo has done to advance an abortion consensus more in keeping with what he says is his belief that this is a horrible thing: Nothing.

Again, he has an argument. But the practical effect of this argument was not to reach a conclusion of what might be done within the realm of the possible to mitigate the evil of abortion. To the contrary, the consequence of Governor Cuomo’s reasoning was to prolong an argument that would guarantee that nothing would be done–as well as to provide an excuse for Catholic Democrats to stand aside as an aggressive and completely uncompromising culture of abortion raised the Jolly Roger over their party and American law.

And it is an excuse that publicly bears the Notre Dame name, because the truth is that Mario Cuomo apologia would be forgotten today had it been given at, say, Yale instead of Notre Dame.

Twenty years after Governor Cuomo comes Dean Roche. Unlike Governor Cuomo, he did at least include a line likening abortion to slavery and torture. But once again this piece, timed as it was in the last weeks of a close election, is significant not for its reasoning but for what the New York Times was looking for: a Catholic fig leaf–in this case Our Lady’s name–on a rationale for Catholics to wink at the Democratic party’s repeatedly declared determination to fight any compromise tempering abortion.

The dean attacks those us who disagree with him for sacrificing realism to an “abstract desire for moral rectitude.” An interesting phrasing. It is much the same argument the 16th century go-with-the-flow crowd put to Sir Thomas More when he refused he King’s Oath.

Former Congressman John LaFalce–a pro-life Democrat–puts it this way. “My problem with the ‘personally opposed, but’ approach,” he told me, “is that the people who make it devote 99 percent of their time talking about the ‘but’.” Read the article and see if the LaFalce formula does not fit: one line on abortion, many many lines about everything else but abortion.

Yes all these positions are arguable. And again I leave intentions out of it. But what of consequences?

One permits a wild thought: Where would their party be today if the Father Hesburghs, Governor Cuomos, and Dean Roches had devoted as much of their public commentary to the “personally opposed” as they have to the “but”?

In the 1970s, after all, when Father Ted was making his 95% argument, it was neither clear nor inevitable that the Republicans would seize the pro-life mantle. In 1972, even George McGovern had not embraced legalized abortion, and both his running mates–first Tom Eagleton, then Sargent Shriver–were stout pro-lifers. Four years later, the presidential contest pitted a moderately pro-choice Gerald Ford over a Jimmy Carter who had at least made some welcome pro-life noises and opposed to the key abortion issue of the day: taxpayer funding.

One wonders: Would there be more Bob Caseys in the Democratic party if Father Hesburgh had looked at abortion–and its politics–as the beachhead for an alien culture than as a mere 5 percent issue?

Ditto for Governor Cuomo. As late as 1989–five years after his speech–Congressman LaFalce had 50 Democratic House members send a letter to DNC Chairman Ron Brown calling on the party to jettison its “morally indefensible and politically harmful” stand, one that had transformed the Democratic party “the party of abortion.”

Again one wonders: Al Gore, Richard Gephardt, even Teddy Kennedy all started out public life in Congress pro-life. There was a day that Jesse Jackson railed against abortion as black genocide. That was, of course the day before he sought the Democratic nomination for President. And we saw the same from our Catholic brother Dennis Kucinich this year, who switched to the pro-choice position the same moment he too became a candidate for the Democratic nomination. Might they not have remained pro-life had leaders like Governor Cuomo held? As Governor Casey so prophetically put it, “Other causes demand commitment, abortion demands complicity.”

And one wonders: What if Dean Roche had used his platform in the Times to draw attention to the efforts of a tiny but determined group called Democrats for Life? What, for example, might have been the effect even at Notre Dame itself, where I read that when the campus pro-life group attempted to take out an add for a “Mass for Life” in the school newspaper the Observer–a newspaper I once had so much joy writing for–it was rejected for being “politically charged.”

Ladies and gentlemen, let me read you the text deemed political:

You are called to stand up for life! To respect and defend the mystery of life always and everywhere, including the lives of unborn babies.

The words were a quote from a homily–a homily — given by Pope John Paul.

And what of our own platforms?

Yes, Bob Casey was awarded an honorary degree at Notre Dame–and would come back to deliver an extraordinary speech, full of affection for what the institution had meant to his family. Yet when it came to the highest Catholic honor, the Laetare Medal, Governor Casey does not appear on Notre Dame’s rolls. That of Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a staunch abortion supporter, does. And he shares that distinction with Supreme Court Justice William Brennan, whose Laetare Medal at least came before he voted with the majority in Roe. This strikes me as out of balance, awaiting as I do the article or speech contenting that a Supreme Court vote to up-end the restrictions on abortion in all 50 states is in fact more complex, nuanced and arguably more pro-life than a votes to keep those restrictions.

Catholic institutions such as Notre Dame are not going to change the Supreme Court or the New York Times. But what would happen if they used their not insignificant platforms to raise the stature and profile of those fighting the good fight.

I don’t even mean recognizing Republicans, although treating pro-life Republicans as though they might actually have a moral claim would be a fabulous thing indeed on Catholic college campuses.

I mean Democrats. Wouldn’t it be nice to see Governor Cuomo castigating his party for the treatment of Joy Hearn, a Palm Beach Democrat who was told to remove her “Choose Life” license plate if she wanted to run for a nonpartisan, nonpolicy-making position of property appraiser?

Or what about seeing Notre Dame or Georgetown raise the profile of Bart Stupak, a Michigan Democrat who has a “O” rating from NARAL, or Kristen Day, the bright young lady with the thankless task of running Democrats for Life?

And far from accepting the assumptions of the 5-percent/95-percent argument, I say it ought to be turned on its head: When people are so obviously blind to the brutal taking of life at its most innocent helpless–and so willing to justify a political war of aggression on anyone who might try to temper the practice–by what logic ought we expect morally superior judgment on any other issue?

I say this with no pleasure and much sadness. For those of us who regard Notre Dame as what it’s name implies, it is not easy to speak critically about one’s mother in a public forum, even when we believe ourselves right, conscious of the estrangement that often leads us to remain quiet. All I can say is that I hope I have made it clear that my greatest anxiety is not for the outcome of next week’s election but for the integrity of something so much larger.

Let me conclude with a quotation from a politician whose views on the subject of private faith and public policy are much closer to mine:

More and more people shrink from drawing bright lines and making moral judgments, which are critical to the functioning of a free society. The line between church and state is an important one and has always been critical for us to draw, but in recent years I fear that we have gone far beyond what the Framers ever imagined in separating the two.

It was part of a speech that in most ways was far superior to the explanation of faith and politics given by John F. Kennedy to the Baptist ministers in Houston. And this was delivered at Notre Dame. But the speaker was not George W. Bush, or even Ronald Reagan. It was Joe Lieberman.

What Senator Lieberman said was remarkable, especially his express disagreement with those who assert the Constitution requires that an American’s religious values must be totally divorced from his public persona. Just as remarkable, however, was what Senator Lieberman could not say: That his party is the only place where the most virulent form of this orthodoxy has found a home. “Devout men and women,” he says, “can and do have disagreements on difficult moral questions.” He’s right. They’re not allowed to have them in the Democratic party.

In his autobiography, Bob Casey wrote how proud he would be that his epitaph would read “Planned Parenthood v. Casey”–a reference to the Supreme Court case upholding the legal restrictions on abortion he helped pass and sign into law in his home state.

In the days ahead, when the issues of Catholicism and public life are discussed, the emphasis will all be on the choice in next Tuesday’s election. But I ask a another question: How different the choice might have been if the silencing of Bob Casey had not itself been met with silence, acquiescence and now encouragement by the men and women who share his party and profess to share his faith.


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