Politics & Policy

Unprincipled Statement

55 House Democrats have religious issues.

The 2004 presidential election isn’t quite over yet. Reverberations from John Kerry’s loss are still being felt by the Democratic party (not being in power tends to do that) and so is the Massachusetts Democrat’s issues with his Church. Or so the statement issued by some Catholic Democrats in the House of Representatives this week suggets. Fifty-five of them, including a few who are genuinely pro-life, issued a “Statement of Principles” in which they maintain their pride in being “part of the living Catholic tradition–a tradition that promotes the common good.”

The recent resurgence in theological and religious orthodoxy challenges the modern Democratic party, at least that part of it which still maintains a residual attachment to Catholicism. John Kerry’s failure to resolve his theological and political problems, not just over the question of receiving Communion, but also on the underlying policy matters involving abortion and marriage, have prompted Democrats “to reorient themselves on the moral-values plane,” as Peter J. Boyer put it in the May 16 issue of the New Yorker.

Previously, they could count on political cover from Church leaders such as the late Cardinal Joseph Bernadin of Chicago, author of the “seamless garment” concept and the “consistent ethic of life” rationale which elevated prudential matters of policy–most of dealing with economics, welfare, and war–to the same level of concern as inherently immoral acts such as abortion or euthanasia.

Contrast this view with that of Bernadin’s successor, Francis Cardinal George, OMI, Archbishop of Chicago, who states, bluntly, “Do all Catholic politicians understand their obligations in conscience? Apparently not, which means that their pastors have to take the time to speak with them personally.” Moreover, “the objective ‘disconnect’ between professing the faith and voting ‘pro-choice’ creates tension in the community of faith, even at the altar.” According to Cardinal George, objectively, no “pro-choice” politician should receive Holy Communion. But “subjectively a politician may have convinced himself he is in good conscience.”

Cardinal George concedes that a conversation between pastor and politician about personal conversion “is hard to have in the midst of the pressures of electioneering.” Nevertheless, as the conversations continue, pro-choice politicians will “inevitably find themselves ever more estranged from their own community of faith. This is tragic, not only for politicians, most of whom went into public service for generous motives, but for the faith community itself,” maintains the Cardinal.

Returning to the 55 Catholic House Democrats, they state, “[W]e work every day to advance respect for life and the dignity of every human being. We believe that government has moral purpose.” They are committed to “making real” the basic principles of Catholic social teaching which they identify as “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.”

Abortion? “We envision a world in which every child belongs to a loving family and agree with the Catholic Church about the value of human life and the undesirability of abortion–we do not celebrate its practice.” One might question whether the death of millions of innocent unborn Americans merits only recognition of its “undesirability” or the good manners not to celebrate such a catastrophe. Recall that abortion is routinely described as “a grave sin” in Vatican pronouncements.

The Catholic Democrats also claim, “[W]e seek the Church’s guidance and assistance but believe also in the primacy of conscience.” They “acknowledge and accept the tension that comes with being in disagreement with the Church in some areas.” Yet, they believe they can speak to the fundamental issues that unite them as Catholics.

They state, with unintended irony, “We believe the separation of church and state allows for our faith to inform our public duties.” Why they take so little advantage of this allowance, especially on matters that are gravely sinful in the eyes of the Church, is not addressed.

There is much to be said about the theology and the politics behind this remarkable document. But the most interesting question is why a number of truly pro-life Democrats, who signed on to this document, would provide this sort of political camouflage for the pro-choice advocates among them. One can only imagine how precarious their position is in the party once embraced by the majority of Catholic Americans, that they would feel compelled to legitimize members who cannot find it in their consciences to actively support the right to life of the unborn. Unfortunately, this statement only calls into question just what their principles are.

G. Tracy Mehan III, was assistant administrator for water at the U.S. E.P.A. in President Bush’s first term.

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