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Antiabortion stance hurts Catholic candidates


When Republican presidential hopeful Bob Smith announced recently that he was so disillusioned with his party that he was leaving it to seek an independent one that more properly fits his conservative ideals, few Republicans stepped up to support him.

For one thing, Smith had virtually no chance of ever winning the Republican nomination or rounding up enough votes to be a serious threat to take the nationwide election. Second, George W. Bush has raised so much money that it is becoming more and more inevitable that he will be the Republican party’s appointed front man going into 2000.

Nevertheless, one Republican who has publicly praised the courage of Smith’s decision is Pat Buchanan, who along with Smith has tried to garner the support of the conservatives of his party and move it evermore to the right. Buchanan has some traits in common with Smith, including the fact that he himself has never really been more than a long shot to be the Republican nominee, though he continues to try. However, a more interesting similarity is that the two are Catholic. They are joined by Alan Keyes as the only Catholics making a run at the presidency for the 2000 election.

The fact that these three ultra-conservatives are the only Catholics in the bidding is a telling manifestation of the state of the hierarchy of the church and elected Catholic public officials. Abortion is the defining issue of each of these men’s political platforms. Obviously, abortion has a serious effect on how all potential candidates run for office, but particularly for Catholics, for the U.S. bishops have basically called for a no-tolerance stance on Catholic legislators who support abortion rights. Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge, though a Republican, supports abortion rights and has been asked to refrain from speaking at Catholic functions. In the 1980s Mario Cuomo had infamous run-ins with the archbishop of New York, Cardinal John O’Connor, over the same issue.

Undoubtedly Catholics seeking the White House must think twice about running because of this, for how can they make believers of their fellow citizens when their own religious leaders will outright oppose their candidacy? Moreover, it seems inescapable that even if a Catholic were elected to the highest office in the country today, unless he or she is antiabortion that very Catholicism would be called into question by the bishops, and what then would have been a triumph will be riddled with tension and embarrassment for Catholics around the country.

Could this be why Catholics with political clout sit out amid speculation about their potential ability to win?

Ray Flynn, the former mayor of Boston and ambassador to the Vatican, admitted recently in a television interview that the dynamics of the Catholic vote have changed since John F. Kennedy became the only Catholic to occupy the White House, particularly in regard to how Catholic legislators and voters respond to their bishops’ directives. In turn, the fact that legislators don’t have the support of their bishops does not signify that they would not have the support of rank-and-file Catholics, for it was they who provided the major swing in the election and re-election President Clinton, who is adamantly in favor of legalized abortion.

Furthermore, the abortion stance of the bishops is disheartening and puzzling to many old-school Catholics who wonder how such a position is tenable because it is based solely on one issue while ignoring a candidates’ voting record on such things as welfare reform and defense spending. Indeed, Congressman Charles Rangel expressed such an opinion to O’Connor when the cardinal harshly criticized his and other Catholic leaders’ position on the banning of a controversial late-term abortion procedure.

It is conceivable that such dissension among rank and file Catholics and legislators may one day provide a spark for a future Catholic candidacy, or perhaps the bishops will find other issues more pressing. For now, however, when the only Catholics seeking the presidency are those that detest anything but an antiabortion stance, the U.S. bishops appear to have been successful in not only deciding which Catholics will speak on behalf of the faith, but also in defining what Catholics can hope for as far as a future Catholic president.

With the chances of the three that are making a run for the year 2000, it appears that Catholics don’t have much to hope for at all.

Thomas Coffey is a former Senate aide. He is currently studying for a master’s degree in religion.

National Catholic Reporter, October 8, 1999