Sed Contra: The Bishops’ Conference in a Political Season

Deal W. Hudson
July 1, 2004

Catholic pundit Kate O’Beirne famously called the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) the “Democratic Party at prayer.” In an ongoing series on the bishops in CRISIS, we only slightly amended that by noting the USCCB’s commitment to the defense of innocent life—a stance not shared with the Democratic Party.

Soon the USCCB will deliver its presidential questionnaire to candidates George W. Bush and John F. Kerry. All of us will then have a chance to see whether or not we were correct in drawing so close a line between the bishops and the Democrats. Indeed, the rumor here in D.C. is that the questionnaire will mirror the letter the 48 pro-abortion Catholic Democrats in Congress sent to Theodore Cardinal McCarrick, as well as the already-infamous Senator Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) analysis of the Catholic voting record in the Senate. (Just to remind you, Durbin’s analysis listed Kerry as the most Catholic senator, and put Rick Santorum near the bottom!)

Common to both the “Letter of the 48” and the Durbin report is the ridiculous assumption that a vote for the ban on partial-birth abortion is of equal importance to a vote for Congressional bills like the Collins Mercury Reduction Act, which limits the use of mercury in thermometers. (The USCCB lobbied against both.) In other words, the Democratic approach is to group all of the USCCB’s legislative actions together, giving each equal weight with the others. And so the defense of innocent human life equals regulating mercury thermometers, equals the Dorgan Joint Resolution rejecting “the rule submitted by the Federal Communications Commission with respect to broadcast media ownership.”

Obviously, there isn’t the slightest basis for this approach to public policy anywhere in Church teaching.

Will the questionnaire adopt this dodge? Will it ask a long list of policy questions that allows Kerry to get away looking like the Ideal Catholic Senator? Or will the questionnaire actually reflect the priorities of Catholic teaching by focusing on the central life issues—abortion, euthanasia, the death penalty, stem-cell research, cloning, and judicial nominations?

For the 2000 presidential election, the USCCB questionnaire was designed in a way that allowed candidate Al Gore actually to describe himself as “pro-life” without any editorial comment by Catholic News Service or the USCCB. Let’s hope the same mistake isn’t made again.

A few weeks ago I was part of a group of religious journalists who interviewed the president at the White House. At the time, I asked why he thought he was being criticized for expressing his faith in public. He replied that he simply didn’t know what motivated people to criticize him about this and added that as a Christian, he believed he had a responsibility to “let the light shine.”

This statement captures what I myself have observed about the president’s faith. He is neither a religious zealot nor an ideologue from the religious right. He reads the Bible through every year and sees no reason to deny that it influences him. He freely admits that letting “the light shine” is part of his reason for signing legislation to protect innocent life, as well as supporting the federal marriage amendment.

Catholics deserve a real look at the candidates—one that respects the Church’s hierarchy of values. Senator Durbin and the 47 other pro-abortion Catholics in the Congress have ignored that hierarchy. Let’s hope the conference doesn’t do the same.

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