National Catholic Reporter
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


On an issue-by-issue basis, Bart Stupak, D-Mich., may be the best Catholic in Congress. He’s 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 church’s lobbying efforts in Washington.

So why is 52-year-old six-term representative mad as hell at the U.S. bishops?

Because he’s 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. He’s 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, it’s 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 politician’s 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.

“It’s 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 Durbin’s 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 -- aren’t issuing a scorecard, but they’re 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. “We’re 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 administration’s 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

Abortion is a fundamental issue, says House pro-life leader

So what should the bishops do about legislators who reject church counsel on abortion?

“The church needs to be willing to bend into the wind, even if it is a hurricane force, and risk being profoundly hated by society” as it pursues its antiabortion agenda, says New Jersey Republican Christopher Smith. If such a stance makes the hierarchy “persona non grata with The New York Times, it’s worth it.”

Smith, a longtime leader of House pro-life efforts, says abortion is qualitatively different than other issues on which he has worked, including such humanitarian efforts as support for international immunization and anti-hunger programs, anti-torture legislation, or -- here at home -- support for low income housing.

Asks Smith, “If the actual deed of abortion is what I and Catholics and Protestants and so many others say it is -- an act of violence against children -- then why wouldn’t you want to treat it as a severe act of child abuse and exploitative of women, rather than something you can disregard?

“Life,” says the 11-term Republican “is the most fundamental of human rights.”

“If Kerry or someone like him were to say ‘I am for abortion’ then they would have my opposition and I will argue against them, but I will at least respect them,” Smith told NCR. “But I find it very hard to respect someone who says I’m against it, but I’m going to vote for it, I’m going facilitate it, I’m going to defend it, I’m going to fund it [and] I’m going to try to make it reach the four corners of the globe by repealing the Mexico City policy [which restricts U.S. foreign aid funds to countries with liberal abortion laws].”

Asks Smith: “How hard would any of us fight if it was our child at risk? Well, these are our children. We are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers.”

-- Joe Feuerherd

Pro-life Dems represent key districts, swing vote

Antiabortion Democrats, it is said with more than a little justification, are an endangered species. But that doesn’t mean they are insignificant. Rep. Bart Stupak notes, for example, that the roughly 35 Democrats with strong pro-life records are essential to passage of any antiabortion legislation in the House.

Eighty percent of these pro-life House Democrats are Catholic. And a high percentage represent districts in swing states thought to be key in the upcoming presidential election. Their number include four Pennsylvania representatives (Mike Doyle, Tim Holden, Paul Kanjorski and John Murtha), two from Michigan (Bart Stupak and Dale Kildee), an Ohioan (Tim Ryan) and a Minnesotan (James Oberstar).

For the current Congress, Catholic University sociologist William D’Antonio (see related story, Page 7) used NARAL Pro-Choice America’s legislative scorecard to differentiate between pro-choice and pro-life Catholic House members. Of the 70 Catholics in the House, 41 received a 100 percent pro-choice rating, while 29 voted against NARAL’s position at least 70 percent of the time; 14 Catholic Democrats had 100 percent pro-life voting records.

The Senate is a different story. John Breaux of Louisiana. was the only Catholic Democrat who voted pro-life more than pro-choice. Democratic Sens. Christopher Dodd of Connecticut, Richard Durbin of Illinois, Tom Harkin of Iowa, Barbara Mikulski of Maryland., Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts, John Kerry of Massachusetts, Jack Reed of Rhode Island, Patty Murray of Washington, and Maria Cantwell of Washington received perfect pro-choice ratings from NARAL.

With the exceptions of Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski and Maine’s Susan Collins, the Senate’s 11 Catholic Republicans voted 100 percent antiabortion.

On economic and foreign policy issues, however, the pro-choice Catholic senators overwhelmingly favored the position advocated by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and Network, the Catholic social justice lobby. Their Republican Catholic counterparts in the Senate, meanwhile, provided little support to the bishops’ economic agenda. On average, reports D’Antonio, Senate Republican Catholics supported only three of the 11 issues lobbied by Network, while Catholic Democrats gave tremendous support to the Catholic agenda.

In the House of Representatives, meanwhile, Catholic Democrats generally supported the Catholic position on social welfare, economic and foreign policy questions, while Republicans did not. Rep. Michael Castle of Delaware received the highest rating among Republicans, favoring less than half of the Network agenda.

-- Joe Feuerherd

National Catholic Reporter, July 2, 2004

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