What to do about defiant Catholic legislators

Published December 24, 2003

The Catholic Difference

Writing with an eye toward the 2004 election, a friend had the following, arresting thought: “The sad fact of the matter is that, if every Catholic elected official in the United States were to drop dead tomorrow and be replaced by a Mormon, we’d see more, not less, Catholic teaching become law.” Dyspeptic? Arguably. Inaccurate? Alas, no.

Last month’s all-night brawl in the U.S. Senate over blocked Bush administration judicial nominees illustrates the point. Anyone paying the slightest attention knows what this fight is about: it’s about abortion, and the fear among pro-abortion forces that the Federal judiciary will “erode” the abortion “right” summarily decreed in 1973, and confirmed in 1992, by the Supreme Court. Who had the integrity to admit that this is what the whole argument’s about? Utah’s Senator Orrin Hatch, a Mormon. Who refused to wrestle with the abortion license as the issue-beneath-all-other-issues in the war over President Bush’s judicial nominees? Senator Kennedy (who described the Bush nominees, which include fellow Catholics like Alabama attorney general Bill Pryor, as “Neanderthals”); Senator Mikulski; Senator Durbin; Senator Leahy – Catholics all.

Catholic legislators have been off the reservation for years, but I sense an increasing anger with the situation as I make my way around the country. Why? Perhaps because it’s no longer a question of Cuomoism (“I’m personally opposed, but won’t impose my views…”); it’s now a question of legislators who identify themselves as Catholics attacking fellow-Catholics who believe that the right-to-life, as the first of human rights, must be constitutionally affirmed in the law of any civilized society. Moreover, those Catholic legislators who attack fellow-Catholics as pro-life “Neanderthals” are now in bold and open defiance of a recent, authoritative statement on the moral obligations of Catholic public officials, issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. No pro-“choice” Catholic legislator can plausibly claim that he or she doesn’t know what the Church’s teaching on the issue, or on their obligations, is.

The anger I’m describing is often directed to bishops, which seems to me the wrong target, at least in the first instance. The bishops of Illinois didn’t elect Senator Durbin; the bishops of Massachusetts didn’t elect Senator Kennedy; the bishops of Maryland didn’t elect Senator Mikulski. Who did? The friends, neighbors, co-workers, and relatives of those stalwart Catholics who are angry at the bishops for not publicly condemning the senators in question. So the first people to work on, it seems to me, are those friends, neighbors, co-workers, and relatives. I sometimes get the impression that angry Catholics want the personal satisfaction of seeing a local bishop publicly condemning an erring Catholic politician. I sympathize emotionally. But the politician in me says that it’d be a lot more satisfying – and a lot more useful in the defense of the right to life – to defeat Senator X at the next available opportunity.

On the other hand, angry Catholics have an important point that the bishops need to hear: the Church’s moral witness is compromised when the ordained leaders of the Church do not publicly address brazen, sustained defiance of the moral law by elected public officials. Bishops often respond that public condemnation would produce a sympathy vote for the politician in question. Perhaps it would, in some instances. But is it the bishop’s job to calculate political probabilities? Or is it the bishop’s job to teach the truth, in charity but without compromise, leaving it for lay Catholics to handle the electoral consequences of that unapologetic defense of the Gospel of life?

Local bishops could get some useful reinforcement from their national conference on this question of what-to-do about Catholic legislators who defy Church teaching. The argument that “public condemnation will only make matters worse” often turns on (not unimportant) local considerations. What if the bishops’ conference, as a national body, issued a statement that made unmistakably clear the conference’s common disapproval of Catholic legislators who refuse to promote the inalienable right to life – and named names in doing so?

An increasing number of bishops know that the current situation is unacceptable. Perhaps the first step toward more forthright local episcopal activism is a bishops’ conference action that creates a national context for local cases.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.

Most Read

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

Sign up to receive EPPC's biweekly e-newsletter of selected publications, news, and events.


Your support impacts the debate on critical issues of public policy.

Donate today