Can Catholics Reclaim Clarity?

Those interested in “the Catholic vote” in the approaching presidential election should take a look at this month’s happenings in New Jersey, because they may signal the beginning of a new national trend.

On May 4, the Catholic bishop of Newark, John Myers, had the rare courage to state plainly and publicly what the Catholic Church demands of the faithful who serve in public life:

    Catholics who publicly dissent from the Church’s teaching on the right to life of all unborn children should recognize that they have freely chosen by their own actions to separate themselves from what the Church believes and teaches. ??¢â???¬ ¦ The Church cannot force such people to change their position; but she can and does ask them honestly to admit in the public forum that they are not in full union with the Church. One who practices such dissent, even in the mistaken belief that it is permissible, may remain a Catholic in some sense, but has abandoned the full Catholic faith. For such a person to express ‘communion’ with Christ and His Church by the reception of the Sacrament of the Eucharist is objectively dishonest

Myers stated later in a television appearance that Catholics can have legitimate disagreements about most issues — for example, when the death penalty should apply, or how the government can help the poor. Abortion, on the other hand, is always wrong — an inherent evil.

Thanks to Myers’ straightforwardness, one out of his flock — Democratic State Senator Bernard Kenny of Hudson — was suddenly faced with a clear choice: to fulfill or to abandon his duty as a Catholic citizen. Sen. Kenny responded by exercising his God-given right to say, “Adios, Padre.”

And what happened next? Nothing. No burnings at the stake, no thumbscrews or racks — not even a nun with a ruler to give him the good sharp rap on the knuckles that he probably deserves.

As long as he can live with his choice, Sen. Kenny won’t even have to think twice — at least not until he dies. But in the meantime, no more of this “church-attendance-as-a-public-relations-event” business. No more pretending. Suddenly, being Catholic actually means something in Jersey, even for politicians.

Kenny Today, Kerry Tomorrow?

This could become a political nightmare for Catholic politicians in both parties. Does anyone want to apostatize in the middle of an election? If enough bishops follow Myers’ example, a certain Sen. Kerry could be the next to face that same clear choice, along with twelve other senators and dozens of U.S. House members. One governor — Jim McGreevey (D.), also of New Jersey, as it happens — was taken to the woodshed last month by another bishop, and it hasn’t helped his already anemic popularity rating.

This is how religious freedom is supposed to work in the United States. You can do whatever you want — just don’t expect Church leaders to let your poor public example stand without an equally public contradiction. After all, they owe us that moral clarity.

Yet Catholic bishops in this country rarely speak truth to power when it matters. A few are beginning to do so, and its effect on the Catholic electorate in places such as Sacramento, Denver and St. Louis will be worth watching. For example, Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver has already drawn fire from Senate candidate Ken Salazar, a stridently pro-abortion Democrat, for calling such Catholic politicians as him “phony” in a diocesan newspaper column.

“They may try to look Catholic and sound Catholic, but unless they act Catholic in their public service and political choices, they’re really a very different kind of creature,” wrote Chaput. Sounds reasonable enough, but Salazar (who was not mentioned by name) immediately accused Chaput of trying to influence the election. Salazar conveniently ignores the flipside of his own accusation: he expects his Catholicism to enhance his electoral appeal. If Chaput calls him to the mat in public, by name, it will give him and all of his supporters an incentive to make the clear choice as well.

And yes, it may influence the election, which would be a good thing.

Despite the protestations of Salazar and others, this is not a case of religion profaning itself in politics or interfering with matters in which it has no competence. After all, this is not a dispute over a bike path, but a real matter of life and death. Maximilian Kolbe knew that it was immoral for Catholics to support the Nazis. He spoke out against them and was rewarded with a slow, painful death in Auschwitz.

What great irony that today, in a political environment where it’s never been easier to speak out, most bishops would rather not suffer the embarrassment. This is why, even before the recent wave of sex scandals, the Catholic Church had already suffered a devastating loss of its moral authority in the United States.

Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, asked about this recently at a “Theology on Tap” gathering at a bar in Northwest Washington D.C., said there was no need for Church leaders to level direct, public criticism of Catholic politicians who flaunt their opposition to Church teaching even on such serious matters. After all, he explained (and I paraphrase since I did not take notes), no one could possibly be confused about where the Church stands on key issues of human life.

I respectfully submit that only someone who spends too much time around clergymen could give this ridiculous answer.

First of all, look at the exit polls. They show just how well our bishops get the message out: Catholics do not support pro-life candidates. In 2000, when 26% of voters self-identified as Catholic, pro-abortion candidate Al Gore won their votes, 50% to 47% — by a wider margin than among non-Catholics.

Second, I encourage His Eminence to talk to some ordinary folks, like U.S. Senator Tom Harkin (D.-Iowa). During a discussion about the judiciary, I asked Harkin last August in HUMAN EVENTS if he would ever consider voting to confirm a Supreme Court justice who agrees with the Pope that abortion should be illegal.

“I don’t think the Pope said that,” Harkin replied, giving me a look of genuine concern and confusion. “I am a Catholic, and the Pope has not said that.” I mentioned Evangelium Vitae — a 1995 document in which Pope John Paul II states that politicians who vote for permissive abortion laws are just as responsible for abortions as are the abortionists who perform them. Harkin responded with what is actually a very common point of view among Catholics: “That has to do with belief and moral teachings; it has nothing to do with legality.”

His argument boils down the secularist axiom that religion must be separate from politics, a view shared by John Kerry. This view is, of course, totally absurd and untenable. It would place Catholics on a rung below citizens who hold other beliefs — say, in gun rights, gay rights, universal health care, or universal suffrage. Those folks are free to pursue public policies to achieve their ends through our political process. Christians, meanwhile, must check their principles at the door.

So there is plenty of confusion out there. That would surely change if a few more bishops become worthy of their divine commissions and start giving us the clarity we deserve — which is, in fact, just about the only thing they owe us in the end.

(An version of this column first appeared in Brainwash, the weekly web magazine of the America’s Future Foundation.)