Catholics Silencing Catholics
US Conference of Catholic Bishops Forms
Task Force to Monitor Catholic Politicians
by Bill Berkowitz
January 15, 2004

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(This story is dedicated to the memory of Father Bill O'Donnell, the longtime pastor at St. Joseph the Worker Church in Berkeley, California, who died December 8, 2003.)

Calling it "a historic step forward in dealing with the problem of pro-abortion Catholic political figures," American Life League president Judie Brown expressed her gratitude to Bishop Raymond Burke of La Crosse, Wis., for "using the authority of his office to deal with a grave public scandal. By issuing a formal decree barring pro-abortion Catholic politicians from receiving Holy Communion, Bishop Burke is not only enforcing Church law but is courageously stepping forward in defense of innocent human beings." Bishop Burke will be installed later this month as the new archbishop of St. Louis.

-- American Life League Press Release, January 8, 2004

While The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown's historical mystery novel about the Catholic Church, has topped the bestseller lists for months, and Mel Gibson's controversial upcoming movie portraying the last day of Jesus Christ has garnered much media coverage, a real-life battle for the hearts and minds of Catholic voters may have recently tilted a few more degrees to the right.

In November, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops announced the formation of a task force aimed at holding Catholic politicians accountable for their political positions. For years, only fringe and far-right Catholic organizations demanded the heads of Catholic politicos who broke with the Vatican on such issues as abortion and gay rights. Now, it looks like the new Bishops-sponsored task force will be exerting pressure to bring wayward legislators in line.

At its November 2003 annual meeting, the Bishops announced that Washington Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick, Chairman of the Domestic Policy Committee of the Conference of Catholic Bishops, will head up a task force that, according to the Washington Times' Julia Duin, "will produce guidelines on how to deal with recalcitrant politicians."

The main goal of the newly created task force is to put an American footprint on a mid-January 2003, 17-page "doctrinal note" issued by the Vatican which, the Associated Press reported, "reminded them [politicians] to heed the church's 'nonnegotiable' teachings on abortion, euthanasia, same-sex marriage and other issues when making public policy."

The guidelines, entitled "DOCTRINAL NOTE on some questions regarding The Participation of Catholics in Political Life," was prepared by the Vatican's orthodoxy watchdog, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. It states that "those who are directly involved in lawmaking bodies have a grave and clear obligation to oppose any law that attacks human life. For them, as for every Catholic, it is impossible to promote such laws or to vote for them."

The document maintains that laws concerning abortion and euthanasia "must defend the basic right to life from conception to natural death. In the same way, it is necessary to recall the duty to respect and protect the rights of the human embryo."

"The family needs to be safeguarded and promoted, based on monogamous marriage between a man and a woman, and protected in its unity and stability in the face of modern laws on divorce: in no way can other forms of cohabitation be placed on the same level as marriage, nor can they receive legal recognition as such," the doctrinal note states.

On the issue of "peace" the document is more ambiguous, stating: "Certain pacifistic and ideological visions tend at times to secularize the value of peace, while, in other cases, there is the problem of summary ethical judgments which forget the complexity of the issues involved. Peace is always the work of justice and the effect of charity."

Currently, 150 Roman Catholics serve in the 108th U.S. Congress, and three Catholics -- Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich of Ohio, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts and Wesley Clark, a retired general -- are vying for the Democratic presidential nomination.

The American Life League (ALL), which has been involved in a campaign it calls the Crusade for the Defense of Our Catholic Church, applauded the Bishops' move. ALL's campaign, according to its Web site, "has focused attention on... elected officials and the fact that their political positions are at odds with crucial Church teachings." According to ALL, there are 70 Catholic members of Congress and several hundred Catholics in state legislatures across the country out of step with Catholic teachings on abortion.

Established in 1979, the American Life League is headed by Judie Brown, who has been characterized as "the grandmother of the modern anti-choice movement," in a People for the American Way profile. ALL is committed to "end all forms of abortion without any exceptions made for the health and life of the mother, rape or incest," the report says.

In 1996, the Lincoln, Nebraska-based the Most Rev. Fabian W. Bruskewitz tried to concretize adherence to church doctrine by putting together a list of 12 groups -- including Planned Parenthood, Call to Action and several Masonic groups -- "in which membership meant automatic excommunication for Catholics," the Washington Times' Duin reported.

Like the 2000 presidential election, the Catholic vote will be up for grabs in 2004. An October 2002, Catholics for a Free Choice (CFFC) report maintained that Catholic voters were increasingly independent minded, refusing to be identified with either the Democrats or Republicans. The report, entitled "Beyond the Spin," analyzed the voting patterns of Catholic voters -- who make up nearly 25% of the electorate -- and found that "Despite a convergence of concern for social justice and the value of the family, they show an increasing independence and volatility in voting."

Catholics "are most concerned about bread-and-butter issues of personal economic security [and] [t]hey are influenced more by what the candidates will do about preserving Social Security and Medicare, improving health care and education, and fighting crime, than by church-defined issues of morality," the report read. On three highly charged issues, the majority of Catholic voters stray from the Vatican's line: 80% support the death penalty, 66% percent support legal abortion, and 56% percent support the practice of allowing doctors to assist in the suicide of terminally ill patients.

And, as they did in 2000, both parties will spend a great deal of money courting Catholics, particularly in the so-called swing states. The GOP will focus on attracting more churchgoing Catholic voters "by stressing moral and religious themes and 'compassionate conservatism.'" Jennifer Bernstein, director of public policy at Catholics for a Free Choice said that "Catholics don't go to church to hear political statements. A majority of Catholics are not influenced by the political recommendations of their priests, their bishops or even the Pope."

Although it is unclear whether the task force will be fully operational in time for the 2004 elections, right wing Catholics have been strengthening its position within the Church for quite some time.

Last year, when the Vatican announced its opposition to the then-impending war in Iraq, conservative Catholic leaders, including Deal Hudson, a top Catholic advisor to President Bush and publisher and editor of Crisis, a conservative Catholic monthly, claimed there was a legitimate difference of opinion within the Church over the definition of what constitutes a "just war." Hudson claimed the Vatican's opposition to war was a "contingent question," and not a fundamental doctrinal issue.

Hudson was also involved in the campaign that accused Catholic and non-Catholic Senators opposed to President Bush's far right judicial appointments of anti-Catholic bias. According to Conscience magazine's Jennifer Block, Hudson "launched a 'major initiative' to 'expose these phony 'Catholics.'" In a four-page fundraising letter, Hudson wrote: "We have a plan for exposing these so-called pro-choice 'Catholic' politicians for the hucksters they are." However, "exposing error and standing up for truth is expensive, very expensive... unlike the pro-abortion groups, we don't have millions of dollars at our disposal."

Hudson and other Catholic GOP organizers should be buoyed by the results of a recent poll released by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press: Catholic voters, once considered loyal Democrats, are now more evenly divided, the poll found. While in the late 1980s, 41 percent of Catholics identified themselves as Democrats and 24 percent as Republicans, today, the gap has closed significantly, as 31 percent now claim to support Democrats and 29 percent Republicans.

Bill Berkowitz is a longtime observer of the conservative movement. His WorkingForChange.com column Conservative Watch documents the strategies, players, institutions, victories and defeats of the American Right.

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