Testing the Church's Influence in Politics

By Robin Toner
New York Times
January 26, 2003

WASHINGTON — In many ways, this should be a moment of peak political influence for the American Catholic Church.

The abortion-related issues it has championed for so long are once again front and center in the new Republican Congress, along with new ethical conundrums, like cloning, posed by the biomedical revolution. The church retains an infrastructure in its parishes and schools that can still produce an impressive grass-roots lobbying campaign, as last week's "March for Life," protesting legalized abortion, demonstrated. Moreover, the Bush administration is solicitous of the church and its leaders, mindful of the size of the Catholic vote.

Yet the limits of church power in the secular realm — on issues from abortion to immigration to Iraq — are also apparent now. While the Catholic laity holds some of the most influential positions in American politics, and Catholic voters continue to be a much sought-after constituency, neither group behaves monolithically.

Moreover, the influence of American bishops in the broader political debate stems largely from their moral authority; the days when they were considered brokers who could deliver the Catholic vote are long gone.

This moral authority has almost certainly been diminished by the church's handling of the sex abuse scandals, many Catholics and outside analysts say.

"Before the crisis," said R. Scott Appleby, a professor of Catholic and religious history at the University of Notre Dame, "the greatest asset of the U.S. Catholic Conference was the presumption of moral integrity and authority that was given to them by Catholics and non-Catholics alike. That's been squandered to some degree and eroded to some degree by the current crisis."

Even before the scandal, the church had limited sway over American Catholic politicians and voters. No longer the cohesive urban ethnic voting blocs of years past, they have become so assimilated and suburbanized that some analysts dismiss the whole idea of a "Catholic vote." The Vatican's recent proclamation that Catholics in elected office must promote church teachings on matters like abortion served to underline how many prominent American Catholic politicians disagree.

Citing that proclamation, an anti-abortion group ran newspaper ads last week denouncing Senator Edward M. Kennedy and 11 other Catholic senators who support abortion rights, and calling on the church hierarchy to punish them. Senator Kennedy, the Massachusetts Democrat, responded: "I take my religion very seriously and my faith very deeply, and I also take my oath of office very seriously as well. And I am pro-choice."

He noted that his brother, President John F. Kennedy, outlined the distinction a Catholic politician draws between his faith and his civic duties. "I do not speak for my church on public matters — and the church does not speak for me," Kennedy declared in the heat of his 1960 campaign, which made him the first Catholic president.

In fact, the church's role in modern American politics has rarely been simple; to begin with, it fits neatly in neither party. The bishops' teaching on abortion, for example, puts the church in line with the Republicans, whose platform calls for a ban on the practice.

But their teachings on "economic justice" and many social welfare issues, like a higher minimum wage, expanded access to health care and better benefits for immigrants, are often far more in line with the Democrats. Their reservations about the prospect of a pre-emptive war with Iraq exceed those voiced by many Democrats.

"We think we're the ones who are consistent," said Richard M. Doerflinger, an official with the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. Catholic analysts note that the church is simply reflecting what Joseph Cardinal Bernadin described as a "consistent ethic of life" that calls it to oppose both abortion and the death penalty, straddling left and right.

CATHOLIC liberals often complain that the church's emphasis on abortion tilts it toward the Republicans. "There is this enormous co-dependency between the Republican Party and the institutional church, its allies and affiliates," said Frances Kissling, president of Catholics for a Free Choice.

Catholic conservatives, over the years, have occasionally bristled at the church's stands on foreign policy and social welfare; the bishops conference was sometimes described as "the Democratic Party at prayer." Depending on the issue, the church manages to form alliances on Capitol Hill across the continuum.

Officials with the bishops' conference say that they have no plans to pull back from political involvement in the wake of the sex-abuse scandal, which clearly took a toll. Peter D. Hart, the Democratic pollster, said surveys he conducted for NBC News/The Wall Street Journal showed that of all the scandals that have racked institutions in the past few years, "the one most poignant that the American public points to is the sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church."

The church's positive ratings in a survey in June, when the sex abuse scandal was dominating news, had declined significantly and were well below those of the two political parties.

But Mark E. Chopko, general counsel to the bishops' conference, said, "It's an unstated assumption here that we don't withdraw from our obligation to the great issues of the day, that we have an obligation to address these issues, whether it's convenient or not."

In the end, though, Catholic voters exercise the church's greatest political influence.

It has become a truism that on issues like abortion, self-identified Catholics do not move in lock step with the hierarchy and in fact hold views similar to those of non-Catholics, just as many stalwarts of the anti-abortion movement are not Catholics but conservative evangelical Protestants. Catholic conservatives dispute those polls, saying they reflect the views only of nominal, not observant, Catholics.

But some analysts say that Catholic voters do show some differences.

David C. Leege, an emeritus professor of political science at Notre Dame and the principal author of "The Politics of Cultural Differences," said, "They are more sensitive on human life issues and social justice issues than the run-of-the-mill voter." Compassionate conservatism, "partial birth" abortion and "faith-based initiatives" are all effective Republican strategies in pursuing those Catholic voters, Mr. Leege said.

The administration has also cultivated the Catholic clergy to signal its respect for those voters. Church leaders gathered here at a mass Tuesday night, on the eve of the March for Life to protest Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision recognizing a constitutional right to abortion. And a White House official was on hand to read a message from President Bush.

Whatever the subtleties and complications of Catholic political power, the administration is clearly intent on building allegiances with a group that split its vote in 2000 — 49 percent to Al Gore, 47 percent for Mr. Bush.


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