Regular readers of this blog know I've been wringing my hands waiting for leading Democrats to put together some type of response regarding the role of religion in public life, rather than letting Republicans and their "tear down the 'wall' between church and state" interest groups hog the spotlight with only one highly distorted view of faith and religion.
Well, E.J.Dionne has a column in today's Post outlining just such a statement by Catholic Democrats in the House, 55 of them to be exact who have signed on. If the excerpts reflect the document's content, I think it could prove a useful blueprint for other Democrats and media pundits:
"As Catholic Democrats in Congress," the statement begins, "we are proud to be part of the living Catholic tradition -- a tradition that promotes the common good, expresses a consistent moral framework for life and highlights the need to provide a collective safety net to those individuals in society who are most in need. As legislators, in the U.S. House of Representatives, we work every day to advance respect for life and the dignity of every human being. We believe that government has moral purpose."
The statement is only six paragraphs, which gives it clarity and focus. After a paragraph on Catholic social teaching about the obligations to "the poor and disadvantaged," the writers get to the hard issue, insisting that "each of us is committed to reducing the number of unwanted pregnancies and creating an environment with policies that encourage pregnancies to be carried to term."
What's significant is that this is not a statement from pro-choice Catholics trying to "reframe" the abortion question. The signatories include some of the staunchest opponents of abortion in the House, including Reps. Bart Stupak, Dale Kildee, Tim Holden, James Oberstar and James Langevin.
In other words, Democrats on both sides of the abortion question worry that it is crowding out all other concerns. And in very polite language, the Catholic Democrats suggest that their bishops allow them some room to disagree. "In all these issues, we seek the church's guidance and assistance but believe also in the primacy of conscience," they write in an echo of Kennedy. "In recognizing the church's role in providing moral leadership, we acknowledge and accept the tension that comes from being in disagreement with the church in some areas."
With any luck, this statement will provoke two debates, one outside the Catholic Church and one inside.
One of the troubling aspects of 2004 was the extent to which partisan politics invaded the churches and seemed to enlist them as part of the Republicans' electoral apparatus. But there is a difference between defending the legitimate right of churches to speak up on public questions and the hyperpoliticization of the church itself.
For Catholics with moderate or liberal leanings, the argument from some bishops that they could vote only for staunch foes of abortion posed a wretched dilemma. It seemed to demand that such voters cast their ballots for conservative or right-wing candidates with whom they might disagree on every other question -- social justice, war and peace, or the death penalty. All are areas where liberals are often closer to the church's view. "Our faith does and should affect how we deal with issues," DeLauro said. "But we're rebelling against the idea of a one-issue church."
If nothing else, these Catholic Democrats will haul out into the open a discussion with their bishops, with their fellow Catholics and with their constituents that has been festering underground. "We were silent for too long," DeLauro said. "And that meant you were defined by others, not by yourselves."
These excerpts reflect what appears to be strong, yet wide-spanning statement, one that acknowledges differences of opinion about sexual issues, such as abortion, and that affirms the church's right, indeed urges it, to speak out on those as well as other issues of moral significance. Yet it asserts the rights of parishioners and church members to make decisions based on freedom of conscience, reminding church leaders, and other politically motivated members, of the wide array of moral choices that parties and candidates espouse, and from which church members are able to choose.
Even were I to hold a staunch anti-abortion position, it hardly seems reasonable to make that the one issue upon which to vote, a decision that would in effect give conservative Republican mizers a pass on every other matter of public policy, from tax cuts and health care, to worker and consumer rights, voting rights protection, the right to privacy, war and foreign policy, and a host of other important matters.
Even if one issue were to carry significantly more weight than any other, an important element or elements in making a voting decision on that issue would be the matter of whether government policy requires or allows a questionable action and what the balance of power in the relationship is. This is particularly important regarding abortion, where the "actor" or "oppressor" is either left undefined by anti-choice advocates or is misdefined to infer that the government, in the form of the courts or liberal Democratic members of Congress, is morally responsible for the behavior of medical providers and the private decisions of women. Since anti-choice legislation either penalizes no one or penalizes only the doctor (see the S.D. legislation for an example) and leaves the person getting the abortion uncharged, the anti-choice movement is essentially disregarding the moral choice of the woman, a strange policy decision in the sense that the woman is not regarded as being a relevant actor in the situation, although because penalizing the woman would no doubt cause a firestorm of protest, this decision by anti-choicers is at least somewhat understandable, however illogical.
For a church hierarchy to make this one issue (or any one issue) essentially the only one of importance for its members is to do a great disservice to parishioners and the public. Considering the backtracking church leadership has had to do on a number of issues and decisions over the course of history, from the burning at the stake of people innocent of any crime other than doctrinal heresy (such as John Huss) to the punishing of scientists such as Galileo for daring to pursue knowledge apart from the church's belief in scripturally revealed "truth", and the support of Protestant churches in the south for slavery and segregation, the church, in its Catholic and Protestant manifestations, has good reasons to be careful in the area of public policy, at least in so far as it threatens to restrict its membership to one political party or on the basis of any one issue.
This isn't to say that the "church" should only speak out on economic issues, or only on behalf of the poor, or that the church should otherwise shut up about issues of sexual morality. I doubt the church would or could be restricted in that way, and even for those of us who may vigorously disagree with conservative bishops or theologians on any particular issue, I believe its vital that the churches give us the benefit of their study and reflection.
I also recognize that churches and doctrinal belief systems are inherently conflictual and controversial, and I don't expect religious leaders and believers to avoid any and all offensiveness. Most moral choices of necessity carry with them such offensiveness and conflict. I'd hope the church would eventually start siding with have nots rather than the haves of society, but I will welcome their contributions to the realm of public policy in any case. But Democrats need to come prepared to debate these issues and provide their constituents with the information and advocacy they deserve. These issues have been forced underground, not the least of which by Democrats themselves. It's time to bring them out of the closet, and for Democrats to be more assertive about discussing, and criticizing where need be, institutions and principles of faith.
In any event, bravo to Rep. DeLauro and her co-sponsors. I look forward to reading the document in its entirety.