In late February a group of pro-life and pro-choice Roman Catholic Democrats in the US House of Representatives issued a joint statement explaining how faith shaped their views on public policy. These Democrats differ amongst themselves on the hot button issue of abortion but find common ground on issues concerning poverty and war. They wrote:
In recognizing the Church's role in providing moral leadership, we acknowledge and accept the tension that comes with being in disagreement with the Church in some areas. Yet we believe we can speak to the fundamental issues that unite us as Catholics and lend our voices to changing the political debate -- a debate that often fails to reflect and encompass the depth and complexity of these issues.
As legislators, we are charged with preserving the Constitution, which guarantees religious freedom for all Americans. In doing so, we guarantee our right to live our own lives as Catholics, but also foster an America with a rich diversity of faiths. We believe the separation of church and state allows for our faith to inform our public duties.
The US Conference of Roman Catholic Bishops responded to the Democrats this week with a statement of their own. Much of it was appropriate :
A recent public statement by 55 Catholic and Democratic members of the House of Representatives offers an opportunity to address several important points about the responsibilities of Catholics in public life.
We welcome this and other efforts that seek to examine how Catholic legislators bring together their faith and their policy choices. As the Catholic bishops of the United States said in our June 2004 statement, "Catholics in Political Life":
We need to do more to persuade all people that human life is precious and human dignity must be defended. This requires more effective dialogue and engagement with all public officials, especially Catholic public officials. We welcome conversation initiated by political leaders themselves.
Therefore, we welcome the Representatives' recognition that Catholics in public life must act seriously and responsibly on many important moral issues. Our faith has an integral unity that calls Catholics to defend human life and human dignity whenever they are threatened. A priority for the poor, the protection of family life, the pursuit of justice and the promotion of peace are fundamental priorities of the Catholic moral tradition which cannot be ignored or neglected. We encourage and will continue to work with those in both parties who seek to act on these essential principles in defense of the poor and vulnerable.
My only critique thus far is that many Roman Catholic bishops clearly crossed a line during the 2004 elections and used church resources to work for the defeat of pro-choice Democrats and in support of anti-choice Republicans (Republicans who also supported the war and the death penalty). Pro-choice Republicans were left alone by the bishops. I doubt the sincerity of people like Archbishop Burke of St. Louis to work with people of both parties.
In any event, here is the real heart of the bishop's statement:
At the same time, we also need to reaffirm the Catholic Church's constant teaching that abortion is a grave violation of the most fundamental human right - the right to life that is inherent in all human beings, and that grounds every other right we possess. Pope John Paul II's apostolic exhortation on the vocation and mission of the laity, Christifideles Laici, which the Representatives' statement cites, declares:
The inviolability of the person which is a reflection of the absolute inviolability of God fínds its primary and fundamental expression in the inviolability of human life. Above all, the common outcry, which is justly made on behalf of human rights -- for example, the right to health, to home, to work, to family, to culture -- is false and illusory if the right to life, the most basic and fundamental right and the condition for all other personal rights, is not defended with maximum determination.... The human being is entitled to such rights, in every phase of development, from conception until natural death; and in every condition, whether healthy or sick, whole or handicapped, rich or poor (# 38).
While it is always necessary to work to reduce the number of abortions by providing alternatives and help to vulnerable parents and children, Catholic teaching calls all Catholics to work actively to restrain, restrict and bring to an end the destruction of unborn human life.
The hypocrisy is that the bishops hold Republicans and Democrats to different standards.
The bishops are free to try and influence public policy - I support that freedom 100%. But they are not free to engage in partisan political activity. The law forbids it.
As Americans, we should appreciate that the Roman Catholics House Democrats support the Constitution over papal authority.