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A Church Divided By: Kathy Shaidle
FrontPageMagazine.com | Friday, October 31, 2008

Every presidential election reignites longstanding feuds between Democratic and Republican Catholics. This year is no exception. As the campaign draws to a close, abortion is once again the issue that divides both camps.

According to Princeton professor Robert George, “Barack Obama is the most extreme pro-abortion candidate ever to seek the office of President of the United States. He is the most extreme pro-abortion member of the United States Senate. Indeed, he is the most extreme pro-abortion legislator ever to serve in either house of the United States Congress.”

George points out that Obama opposed protections for infants who were born alive as a result of a botched abortion, a practice inseparable from infanticide. George continues that Obama supports repealing the Hyde Amendment, which “protects pro-life citizens from having to pay for abortions;” has vowed that his first act as President would be to “sign the Freedom of Choice Act,” which declares abortion a “fundamental right”; has opposed the ban on partial birth abortion; and even refused to endorse legislation that provides assistance for pregnant women in crisis.

One would think Catholic voters would be united in their opposition to the Democratic candidate on the issue of abortion alone. However, in spite of these facts, many self-described Catholics insist that Barack Obama is “really pro-life” in ways they feel truly matter. Along with established liberal organizations such as Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, a new group called Catholics For Obama just endorsed the Democratic candidate, making the familiar charge that staunch pro-lifers were narrow minded “single issue voters.”

“Is Barack Obama really pro-life?” the group’s website asks. “The answer is ‘yes.’ Looking through the lens of Catholic Social Teaching, Senator Obama has spent his entire career striving for the common good. He supports health care programs that will cover all Americans, a living wage for working families, and solutions that allow distressed families to stay in their homes.”

Another group, Catholics United, mailed a pro-Obama voters guide to 50,000 Catholic households in the bellwether state of Ohio.

Similarly, Douglas Kmiec, a Catholic law professor and former legal counsel in the Reagan administration, released the book Can a Catholic Support Him? Asking the Big Question About Barack Obama. He too argues that the Obama campaign is premised on other aspects of Catholic social teaching like care for the poor.

“Democratic efforts to tackle social and economic factors that contribute to abortion hold more promise,” Kmiec said, “than Republican efforts to criminalize it.”

Critics accuse these Obama advocates of misrepresenting Catholic social teaching, which singles out abortion as “intrinsically” evil – a sin that, unlike (a very few) others, can never be justified by circumstances. For example, the Church promulgates a “just war” doctrine with strict criteria. There is, however, no “just abortion” counterpart in Catholic theology.

As George Neumayr, editor of Catholic World Report, told FrontPage Magazine, pro-choice Catholics are the ones who could more accurately described as “single issue voters.”

“They seem to operate on the premise that Obama is wrong on just one crucial moral issue,” that of abortion, says Neumayr. (The Democratic candidate has consistently voted against mandatory medical treatment to fetuses who survive abortion, for example, and shrugged off the question of when human life begins by saying the matter was “above my pay grade” – a response even Time magazine characterized as “an artful dodge.”)

However, Neumayr continues, in terms of Church teaching, Obama is “wrong on multiple ones, from his support for gay civil unions to his support for Planned Parenthood-style sex education in elementary schools.”

Statements by lay groups like Catholics United only carry so much weight, however. In the hierarchy of the Church, bishops are considered the authoratative teachers of the faith in each diocese. Unfortunately, American Catholics who look to their bishops for guidance on abortion and electoral politics encounter ambiguous statements that can confuse rather than clarify.

For example, in its 2007 document Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) reaffirmed the primacy of abortion while obliquely referring to the far right’s narrow approach to voting and condemning “indifference or inattentiveness to other important moral issues involving human life and dignity.” The Faithful Citizenship document is held up by Catholic Democrats to justify their support of Obama.

Archbishop Raymond Burke, on the other hand, has bluntly referred to the Democrats as “the party of death”, and chided Vice Presidential candidate Joe Biden and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi for publicly misrepresenting Catholic teaching on abortion.
Similarly, Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput labeled Barack Obama the “most committed” pro-abortion rights candidate since the Roe v. Wade decision in 1973.

“To suggest – as some Catholics do – that Senator Obama is this year’s ‘real’ pro-life candidate”, said Chaput in a recent address, requires “a peculiar kind of self-hypnosis, or moral confusion, or worse.”

In terms of outspokenness, Scranton Bishop Joseph F. Martino has yet to be outdone, and may well affect the outcome in that Pennsylvania election battleground. Recently, the Bishop of Biden’s own hometown made what one veteran Catholic journalist called a bellicose “surprise cameo” at an election forum being held at a local parish church.

He addressed the USCCB’s Faithful Citizenship document directly.

“No USCCB document is relevant in this diocese,” said Martino. “The USCCB doesn’t speak for me.”

“The only relevant document,” he said, was his September pastoral letter, advising ‘public officials who are Catholic and who persist in public support for abortion’ to refrain from presenting themselves to receive communion. “There is one teacher in this diocese, and these points are not debatable.”

Scranton has been called “the town where a vote for Obama is an offence against God” – where voting Democrat is often a marker of social class and family tradition rather than ideology. Now that their bishop has forbidden them to support pro-choice candidates, some Scranton Catholics, like their counterparts across the nation, are conflicted.

Canon lawyer, journalist and author Pete Vere has worked for the Scranton diocese, among others. Speaking in his capacity as a canon law professor, he explains why clarity on the abortion issue matters in the 2008 election.

“Catholics are the biggest block of swing voters in the U.S.,” he told FrontPage Magazine, “and have generally determined the outcome of every U.S. presidential election for the last generation. However, neither party truly represents Catholic teaching, so every election cycle Catholics begin weighing issues” again.

He explains that “evangelicals take a more horizontal view of the issues,” whereas “for Catholics the issues are hierarchical” with abortion at the top of the list.

Papal biographer George Weigel has emerged this year as a widely quoted voice for anti-Obama Catholics, explaining these “inside baseball” nuances in Newsweek and elsewhere.

Last week, he predicted the Catholic hierarchy’s response should Barack Obama win the White House, and raised the specter of American bishops leading, of all things, a tax revolt:

It seems unlikely that the bishops, having found their voices after discovering the limits of their patience, will back off in an Obama administration...And should an Obama administration reintroduce large-scale federal funding of abortion, the bishops will have to confront a grave moral question they have managed to avoid for decades, thanks to the Hyde amendment: does the payment of federal taxes that go to support abortion constitute a form of moral complicity in an “intrinsic evil”?

“And if so,” Weigel ended ominously, “what should the conscientious Catholic citizen do?”

Kathy Shaidle blogs at FiveFeetOfFury.com. Her new book exposing abuses by Canada’s Human Rights Commissions, The Tyranny of Nice, includes an introduction by Mark Steyn.

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