Bullies in the Pulpit

In late January 2001, the new administration had barely unpacked when George W. and Laura Bush paid a friendly visit to Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the recently inaugurated leader of the Washington Archdiocese. On the heels of that supper, Karl Rove, together with Deal Hudson, editor of the Catholic magazine Crisis, organized a White House meeting with some 30 Catholic leaders. Soon after, the White House established a weekly Thursday morning conference call with a national panel of Catholic leaders, who have since used it to help secure (and squelch) ambassadorial and judicial nominations.

It was the beginning of an extremely successful collaboration between a savvy White House and Catholic conservatives to reach a "core" of religious swing voters by focusing on moral issues like abortion. So far, the conservative Catholic lobby has done well with its agenda. But it has also pitted Democrats and lay Catholics against the White House, the Church's hierarchy and conservative Catholic thinkers. All of which raises a key political question: Will the White House's success with the conservative Catholic hierarchy win voters in 2004, or will it backfire by alienating the majority of less-conservative lay Catholic voters? If history is any guide, pushing too hard will send voters in the opposite direction.

Midway through the sticky Washington summer, the contentious debate over Alabama Attorney General William Pryor, nominated for a seat on the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, was in full swing. Republican senators on the Judiciary Committee were spinning the nominee's staunchly anti-abortion position as one of simple, if strict, Roman Catholic doctrine. Sens. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) in particular attempted to tar Democrats— including Catholic committee members Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Dick Durbin (D-Ill.)—with a patina of anti-Catholic bias. Right-wing groups—including the Committee for Justice and the Ave Maria List, the latter funded by Domino's Pizza tycoon Thomas Monaghan—ran print and television ads that solemnly displayed closed courtroom doors and the historically heavy phrase "Catholics need not apply." The fight over Pryor was the loudest, but by no means the only, fight over Catholic identity this year. In mid-January, the Vatican released a "doctrinal note," timed to coincide with the 30th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, stating, "Those who are directly involved in lawmaking bodies have a grave and clear obligation to oppose any law that attacks human life."

In the wake of the Vatican statement, bishops and archbishops publicly chastised a number of Catholic Democrats for diverging from Catholic doctrine. The first volley came from Sacramento Bishop William Weigand, who took abortion-rights Gov. Gray Davis (D-Calif.) to task. "Anyone," Weigand stated, "politician or otherwise, who thinks it is acceptable for a Catholic to be pro-abortion is in very great error, puts his soul at risk and is not in good standing with the church." Weigand suggested that Davis should refrain from taking communion until his position on abortion changed.

Then in March, a letter purportedly from Bishop Robert Carlson to Sen. Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) was leaked to The Weekly Standard. In it, the bishop reportedly appealed to Daschle to remove all references to being a Catholic from the latter's campaign literature. Neither the bishop's office nor Daschle would confirm or deny the letter, but anti-abortion groups were thrilled. Soon after, Baltimore's Cardinal William Keeler publicly rebuked Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) after she voted against a bill banning "partial-birth abortions." Rumors—fueled, it seemed, by the Catholic right—swirled through Washington about other Democrats running afoul of their Catholic heritage.

Is this political intervention appropriate for Church leaders? The Rev. Robert Sirico—president and co-founder of the Acton Institute, a conservative think tank that teaches the clergy about free-market economics, and a participant in the Thursday morning White House conferences—believes that these are not political denunciations but spiritual ones. "These politicians who dissent from teaching on the dignity of human life and protection need to accept … that they are not authentically Catholic," he said in an interview.

Other conservative Catholics agree. "The bishops have the canonical right to control the use of the word 'Catholic,'" explains Deal Hudson. "[T]hey can tell an organization or a person not to use the word 'Catholic' because they are representing something that is antithetical to the faith."

But not all Catholics believe that to be true. "There is an enormous effort under way to try to bring politicians in line with official Catholic positions on abortion and homosexuality," says Frances Kissling, president of Catholics for Choice. "However, the fact of the matter is that the Catholic Church cannot demand this of politicians and has no enforcement power if politicians choose to ignore these suggestions. ... [I]t is not a sin to disagree with the church on public policy."

Robert Drinan, an ordained Jesuit priest, a professor at Georgetown University Law Center and a former Massachusetts congressman, says the Church's leaders "are out of line. … [T]hey have no right to judge in public the culpability of [a] particular person. That's Inquisition stuff. If you are denied the sacraments, it's a prejudgment, and furthermore, it's imposing an ecclesiastical norm on a political question. You can't do that."

More important politically is that, contrary to conventional wisdom, such attacks on Catholic politicians who don't follow Vatican teachings to the letter haven't helped Republicans in the past. In October 1996, when Mary Landrieu, then Louisiana's state treasurer, was running for a U.S. Senate seat, Archbishop of New Orleans Philip Hannan went on the offensive. If "a person actually believes in Catholic doctrine, then I don't see how they can vote for Landrieu without a feeling of sin," he told parishioners. When Bill Richardson ran for governor of New Mexico in 2002, Archbishop Michael Sheehan endorsed the distribution of fliers from pulpits across the state that chastised the former energy secretary for his position on abortion. And there was the famous 1984 clash between Archbishop John O'Connor and then-Gov. Mario Cuomo (D-N.Y.) over abortion rights.

Though these public denunciations are humiliating, they have also been ineffectual. Polls taken around the 2000 presidential election showed that Catholics tend to ignore their religious leaders on political issues. In fact, when the church takes a stand against a candidate, it almost always helps ensure that the candidate wins. "These are huge strategic mistakes, to try to set up stringent criteria about who has the right to call himself Catholic," says Dr. Mark Rozell, professor and chairman of the politics department at Catholic University in Washington. "The majority of American Catholics have ambivalent feelings on [a variety of] doctrinal issues," he explains, "The tactic tends to backfire when leaders in the church or political community ... set up a stringent standard that requires someone to agree 100 percent or get out of the church."

Mary Landrieu is a good example. "Sin" or no sin, she won her seat in 1996 and actually took New Orleans, garnering crucial votes in a tight election. California state Sen. Lucy Killea is another example. In 1989, Bishop Leo Maher of San Diego told the candidate that she was not welcome to receive communion because of her abortion-rights position. When Killea came from behind to win the election, her opponent groused to newspapers that if only "the bishop had stayed out of it, I would have won." And Richardson, of course, found himself in the New Mexico governor's mansion despite his run-in with the church.

So why should the Catholic Church engage in such political mudslinging if it isn't likely to succeed? For the Church it may be about trying to find a moral center. Even before the recent sex-abuse scandals, the Church had spent the last three decades grappling with a diminishing priesthood and a lay population that has, since the contraception debates of the 1960s, selectively adhered to or ignored Vatican doctrine. Of 60 million Catholics in America, only about one-third, or 15–20 million, are currently considered "core" Catholics—meaning they frequently attend mass and are committed to the centrality of religion in their lives—down from 75 percent or higher in the 1950s. It is this core, which still represents the largest single religious group in America, that began leaving its historic home in the Democratic Party for the anti-abortion Republican Party in the mid-1970s. These voters constitute a juicy voting block if you can get them past their historic affiliation with the labor-loving, social-justice side of the Democratic Party. Hudson believes this core to be "social-renewal" voters whose "top priority is a bundle of issues including life, family, moral decline." In other words, compassionate conservatives.

Most non-core Catholics, however, diverge from Church teachings on issues of abortion, contraception and sexuality, and for them Catholic faith and political affiliation are not so neatly linked. Politicians and lay people alike tend to adhere to a doctrine perfected by Cuomo in 1984, when he claimed in a speech at Notre Dame University that he was personally opposed to abortion but politically supportive, a position derisively called "Cuomism" by Church leaders.

That means that while Hudson and other participants in the Thursday morning calls with the White House may be marketing conservative social-renewal Catholics to the Republican Party, the base might not take so kindly to some of the rhetoric in Washington this past year.

"Questioning people's piety or adopting religious labels or saying someone is not sufficiently religious or sufficiently Catholic [are] appeals that don't play well with Americans," says Catholic University's Rozell. "If Republicans play some of these issues too hard, there is the possibility they could alienate a significant segment of Catholic voters, who are closer to the Republican position on abortion but are uncomfortable with heavy-handed rhetoric on calling themselves Catholics—or have an open enough view on alternative interpretations, even if they themselves disagree."