Ensnaring the mackerel-snappers

William F. Buckley
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Posted: Oct 11, 2000 12:00 AM
The vote of American Catholics is hotly pursued. There is nothing among Catholics approaching the unity of Jews (Democratic) or blacks (ditto). Their fluidity (a slight majority went GOP for Reagan, and Democratic for Clinton in 1996) make them prime targets of political recruiters. The Bush campaign is, we learn, attempting to woo uncommitted Catholics. The big question now arises: How is this done?

Although the most prominent full-time opponents of abortion are not Catholics -- e.g., Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, Charles Colson -- the public identification of the anti-abortion cause is generally held to be Catholic. This is so because Catholic bishops are united on the proposition that abortion involves the taking of (unborn) life.

From this one would assume that the anti-abortion plank of the GOP, inherited from non-Catholics Ronald Reagan and George Bush, would draw heavily Catholic voters. The trouble here is that this is simply not self-evident. If the church were to act against Catholics who voted for pro-abortion candidates, practically the whole of Massachusetts would be excommunicated. Indeed, within the Democratic Party, the problem is for a pro-life candidate to wedge his foot in the door, as the late governor Robert Casey of Pennsylvania discovered when attempting to make a statement at the Democratic convention in 1992. To sway voters, the Catholic Church has to do other things. Again: Like what?

The most obvious, one would think, would be to break the stranglehold of the First Amendment establishment-clause absolutists who ban prayer at school, but recent polls seem to be telling us that the movement to restore prayer is equally strong with Protestants and Catholics, and anaemic among both.

Along come the Catholic bishops.

Joseph Califano, the prominent attorney and Democratic powerhouse, Cabinet secretary of health, education and welfare under Jimmy Carter, relentless foe of any liberalization of drug laws, crops up in the current issue of America magazine, a publication sponsored by liberal Jesuits. Joe Califano is a very shrewd Democratic cookie. What he does is enumerate positions on a number of issues which have been cited by the bishops as responsibilities of dutiful Catholics.

These positions have been advanced in "Faithful Citizenship," a pamphlet issued by the administrative board of the U.S. Catholic bishops. This pamphlet, one learns from Mr. Califano (not from our local priest), has been sent to 20,000 parishes "to encourage priests, liturgists and parish councils to undertake activities to bring 'Catholic assets (to) the public square.'" Where Mr. Califano is decorously careful is in dealing with the church/state question. No religious group in America is supposed to argue in favor of any one political party.

On the other hand, Mr. Califano correctly says, you cannot expect a religious association to decline to adopt a position merely because (like abortion) it is associated prominently with one political party. What Mr. Califano does is dance around that subject, because he wouldn't want to find himself on the other side from Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. So the net effect of his advice to American Catholics is: Wake up to your parishioners' moral obligations in respect of public policy. And if you don't know what these are, ask your nearest bishop.

Now here is Mr. Califano's transcription of the bishops' statement on civic responsibilities of Catholics:

  • Health care is a fundamental human right. (The derivative question immediately arises: What does "fundamental" mean? Government-guaranteed?)

  • Affordable housing is in the same category.

  • The minimum wage should be "more than doubled."

  • Everybody has an inalienable right to a quality education (even if you have to attend a non-public school to get it?).

  • The death penalty should be abolished.

  • Debt relief should be granted to poor nations. (That of course is another way of saying that aid should be given to poor nations.)

    Now these are thoroughly defensible positions, but the question before the house is: Are they in any arresting way, Catholic positions? Is Mr. Califano saying, or for that matter, are the Catholic bishops saying, that in order to be a Catholic compliant in the faith, one must favor doubling the minimum wage, abolishing the death penalty, and making government the primary health provider?

    If the Catholic Church is going to get choosy about what constitutes tolerable political behavior, it would obviously begin by putting pressure on Catholics engaged in promoting the welfare of the Democratic Party to rush forward to be shriven. Would they, traveling the road to penitence, bump into American Catholics who oppose a government-ordained rise in the minimum wage?