[R-G] Why the Catholic hierarchy pushes political buttons in Washington
shniad at gmail.com
Tue Nov 24 14:15:01 MST 2009
November 24, 2009
CHURCH AND STATE
*Why the Catholic hierarchy pushes political buttons in Washington
kyakabuski at globeandmail.com
WASHINGTON -- When the House of Representatives passed a health-care reform
bill this month that included a watertight prohibition on federal funding
for elective abortions, outraged American feminists wondered just how one of
their own - House Speaker Nancy Pelosi - could have countenanced such a
The answer many came up with lay in a brief encounter between President
Barack Obama and Cardinal Sean O'Malley, the Archbishop of Boston, at the
funeral of the patriarch of America's first family of Catholics, Ted Kennedy
- who, incidentally, was a strident crusader for abortion rights.
Beantown's Catholic primate boasted later on his blog that he warned Mr.
Obama that "the bishops of the Catholic Church are anxious to support a plan
for universal health care, but we will not support a plan that will include
a provision for abortion or could open the way to abortions in the future."
For Mr. Obama, who needs all the allies he can get if he is to succeed where
Bill Clinton and others failed, the cardinal's admonition was considered
neither out of place nor dispensable. It was just another example of how
religion looms large in the politics of a country that purportedly considers
the separation of church and state sacrosanct.
U.S. church leaders do not hesitate to call politicians out on their beliefs
with a vehemence that might be considered abusive, if not irrelevant to
their functions, in Canada. It happened again on the weekend when the bishop
of Providence confirmed that he had instructed Mr. Kennedy's nephew, Rhode
Island congressman Patrick Kennedy, to stop taking communion at mass in
light of his support for abortion rights.
The same Catholic pressure tactics are playing out in the nation's capital,
where the District of Columbia city council is preparing to vote on a bill
to legalize same-sex marriage. The Archbishop of Washington, Donald Wuerl,
is warning councillors that church charities might withdraw from the
publicly funded initiatives they run to feed and house the city's poor if
the bill is adopted.
In Canada, such warnings might not go far. But the political heft of U.S.
church leaders is so pervasive that Mr. Obama - whose own faith became a
campaign issue when he had to deny suggestions he was a Muslim and renounce
his Christian pastor - felt obliged to personally sell his health-care
reforms in a conference call with religious organizations in August. In
particular, the President tried to debunk perceptions that a government-run
health plan would cut costs by favouring euthanasia by setting up the
so-called "death panels" evoked by Sarah Palin and others.
"The reason the Catholic Church, or parts of the Catholic Church, are
attempting to influence policy is because they have a sense that they can
actually effectuate some kind of change in the American political
structure," said Lucas Swaine, a professor of government at Dartmouth
College in Hanover, N.H. "That's one real difference between Canada and
Of course, bishops in Canada have not shied away from expressing their
opposition to public policies that run counter to Catholic doctrine. And a
few have even pushed the envelope. In 2005, Calgary Bishop Frederick Henry
mused that then-prime-minister Paul Martin might be a candidate for
excommunication over his government's plan to legalize same-sex marriage.
But the influence of religious groups is rarely considered a determining
factor in Canadian policy outcomes, or at least not anywhere near the extent
to which it remains an integral part of the fabric of American politics.
U.S. Supreme Court decisions in the past two decades have emboldened
religious leaders' resolve to engage in politics, noted John Witte, director
of the Center for the Study of Law and Religion at Emory University in
Atlanta. Those decisions served to weaken the U.S. Constitution's so-called
"establishment clause," which has traditionally been seen as the legal
underpinning for the separation of church and state.
"There is now less risk of jeopardizing the constitutionality of any given
initiative just because religious fingerprints are on that initiative,"
Prof. Witte said. "The Catholic Church has become much more vocal . . . and
the church has made a concerted effort through the U.S. Conference of
Catholic Bishops to be more overt and uniform in its advocacy."
Even so, the health-care reform bill now before the Senate demonstrates the
divisions that exist within the U.S. body politic over abortion and the
competing interests vying for influence. The bill tabled last week by Senate
Majority Leader Harry Reid differs from the House version in that it would
allow Americans receiving subsidies to procure health insurance to buy
policies that cover elective abortions, as long as they pay separate
premiums for the procedure. The bishops' conference called the bill "an
Rather than throw in the towel, however, the bishops and their allies are
only stepping up their pressure on senators to reinsert the House provisions
on abortion into their own bill. And no one is underestimating the bishops'
ability to prevail.
Their Canadian brethren can only dream of such clout.
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