Archbishop Chaput's comments on JFK's legacy
Today's Catholic Herald includes a story by Nancy Frazier O'Brien about Denver Archbishop Charles J. Chaput's talk at Houston Baptist University on "The Vocation of Christians in American Public Life." The Archbishop bemoaned how, since JFK's talk to the Baptist Ministerial Alliance, Catholic politicians have been putting a wall between their religious beliefs and their political duties. O'Brien interviewed the Archbishop by email on the talk, included coverage of an editorial in the Los Angeles Times criticizing the talk and sought comments from Catholic scholars on both sides of the issue. Those who criticize the Archbishop point to a decline in anti-Catholicism in the public square and an increase in pluralism while those who support his comments think that they may be part of a move to call Catholic politicians to task on support for abortion and gay rights.
As a Catholic politician, I agree that we must discuss life issues. What the Archbishop does not seem to realize is that Catholic politicians really don't wall off their beliefs. Indeed, support for health care reform while walling off federal funds from abortion services is an example of putting the Magisterium into law to a very great extent. While Catholics talk about pluralism on the issue, what they are really saying is that they don't want to get into a public discussion on the issue with the Church. For some, this is out of respect for the bishop's office, especially for those of John Kerry's generation. Others fear alienating the portion of Catholic voters who would resent such disrespect, even if they agree with the argument made by the politician. Resorting to pluralism allows some Catholic Democratic politicians to have their cake and eat it too.
Disagreement is not without its risks as well, since many bishops have a nasty habit of excommunicating politicians that agree with them publicly, even (and especially) if those politicians are right. Many bishops, especially A/B Chaput and his ally on this issue, Arlington Bishop Paul S. Loverde, mistake the nature of the public law on abortion in the United States. In most Catholic nations, legalized abortion was done legislatively. This is not the case in the United States. While they understand that, they are not quite ready to concede that most Catholic politicians have no say in the question - including state governors - since the right to privacy in abortion services has been constitutionalized. Indeed, former governor, now Secretary of HHS, Kathleen Sebelius has still been advised to avoid Communion for her quite correct veto of an abortion ban in Kansas, since the ban proffered was, in fact, unconstitutional. The Secretary has been treated most unfairly and the bishops have been cutting themselves off from the wise counsel of Catholic politicians who disagree with them on abortion law.
This lack of knowledge allows the Republican Party to politicize the issue while at the same time making it unsolvable, since even the last two Republican justices appointed to the Court upheld Roe while also supporting the Partial Birth Abortion Law. If overturning Roe were really important, Roberts, Alito and Kennedy would have been told to avoid Communion. It is odd that Catholics are told to make abortion the primary issue - but when they do and support a President who runs on this issue nothing happens. I smell a rat called coalition politics.
Even if abortion and gay marriage were not, at heart, constitutional issues, there is a big difference between not fining doctors who perform abortions and active participation in providing or paying for abortion services. Telling young girls that they should have abortions if they get pregnant out of wedlock would be wrong (in view of the Magisterium), however making sure that they do not die in a back alley abortion is not (no matter what the Magisterium says) since the remedy offered by the pro-life movement does not pass the smell test as public policy. Catholic Democrats who think so should explain why and what to do instead.