USCC Watch: Party Lines

Now that the 99th Congress is in full gear, spokesmen for Catholic interests should be making their voices heard around Capitol Hill. And they are. But with what effect?

This spring, American farmers asked for help from Uncle Sam. A few thousand farmers pulled into Washington, led by a handful of lobbyists. Within less than a month, Congress had passed a bill responding to the farmers’ demands. President Reagan vetoed the bill, of course, but the farmers had amply demonstrated their ability to force an issue onto the legislative docket. And it isn’t surprising that farmers should have that clout; there are roughly 2.3 million farmers in this country.

By way of comparison, there are roughly 52 million Catholics in the U.S.—nearly 25 Catholics for every farmer. And Catholics, like farmers, have a particular interest in certain legislative issues. Yet Catholics, unlike farmers, cannot force Congress even to consider those issues.

What are the “Catholic” issues? Well, it’s certainly true that all Catholics want to avoid nuclear war and to eliminate poverty. But since we disagree on how to accomplish those goals, it is virtually impossible to identify the “Catholic” stance on such issues. There are, however, two issues on which Catholics overwhelmingly agree. First, and by far most important, is abortion. While different right-to-life groups differ on tactical questions, all loyal Catholics agree that we must, somehow, stop the holocaust. Second, virtually all Catholic leaders agree (again, debates about tactics aside) that the government should provide some relief for parents sending their children to private and/or parochial schools.

Both of these issues figured prominently in Ronald Reagan’s 1984 campaign rhetoric. The Reagan Administration is unequivocally committed to anti-abortion legislation and to tuition tax credits. No doubt the President’s strong stand on those issues helped draw unprecedented Catholic support to the Republican Party in 1984. Yet now the 99th Congress is well under way, and the Administration has not begun to push on either issue. When the Treasury Department unveiled its proposal for tax simplification, there was absolutely no mention of tuition tax credits—nor any other similar measure. And Attorney General Edwin Meese recently assured reporters that the issue of abortion would not be a litmus test for appointees in his Justice Department.

In some respects, the Reagan Administration has been extraordinarily sympathetic to Catholic interests. President Reagan himself is an outspoken opponent of abortion; he has even written a book on the subject—while in office! He has established diplomatic relations with the Vatican. His Cabinet and White House staff have been heavily sprinkled with Catholics: Richard Allen, William Bennett, Patrick Buchanan, William Casey, William Clark, Raymond Donovan, Alexander Haig, Margaret Heckler, etc. Yet during Reagan’s tenure, the White House has devoted its energies to the budget, the MX missile, and tax cuts. And while the White House has not pushed Catholic issues, Congress has virtually ignored them.

Why is it that 2.3 million farmers can force a vote on aid within five weeks, while 52 million Catholics cannot force a vote on abortion within ten years? Oh, yes, there have been votes on related questions, such as the Hyde Amendment (restricting federal funding for abortion). But in the years since Roe v. Wade, the Senate has only had one up-or-down vote on a measure to prohibit abortion on demand (the Hatch Amendment, which failed in 1983 by a 49-50 vote tally). And the House of Representatives has never scheduled a vote on any such measure. Are the farmers doing something right? Are Catholics doing something wrong?

Answer: Yes. Farmers are organized. Catholics are not.

The U.S.C.C. is not an effective lobby for Catholic Americans. In saying that, I don’t mean to criticize the U.S.C.C., really. Practical politics is the province of the laity, not the clergy. Still, it does not seem unreasonable to wonder whether the bishops’ staff could have made some important strategic mistakes. Today, the national Republican leadership feels that the bishops have aligned themselves with the Democrats. (Indeed, the White House and the U.S.C.C. were openly antagonistic during much of Reagan’s first term.) Yet at the same time, many Democratic leaders feel that the bishops were opposing them in the 1984 election. An effective lobby cultivates friendship with leaders of both political parties. The U.S.C.C. has managed to do nearly the opposite. Nowhere is the political impotence of the bishops’ staff more obvious than in its failure—despite the expenditure of enormous resources—to generate any legislative action on tuition tax credits.

As for the bishops themselves, although the mass media enjoy portraying the hierarchy as the chief source of Catholic political activities, the reality is quite different. Lay Catholics (and non-Catholics) have consistently taken the lead in fighting against abortion and in pressing for tuition tax credits. Many bishops have been quite helpful, and the bishops’ conference in general has been a highly visible element in the political coalition, but it would be a gross exaggeration to say that the bishops have been our political leaders.

How, then, can lay Catholics begin to construct an effective political coalition? At least here in Washington, many of my Catholic friends are veering toward the position that Catholics should align themselves forthrightly with the Republican Party. After all, they reason, the Democrats have taken clear platform stands against the Catholic position on the most visible issues. It seems quite impossible (they continue) for a loyal Catholic to become the presidential nominee of the Democratic Party.

Personally, I think such suggestions are terribly premature. True enough, Geraldine Ferraro defied the Church on the question of abortion, and Mario Cuomo seems to have sold his birthright. Senators Kennedy, Moynihan, Leahy, etc. provide an unhealthy example as well. Still, it’s difficult to forget the long tradition of Catholic Democrats, notably Al Smith and John Kennedy. A party’s platform can be changed quite easily; its history cannot be changed. For generations, millions of Catholic Americans have loyally supported the Democratic Party. Those loyal Catholics will not disappear from the Party’s rolls.

Even quite recently, the Party has nominated a, string of loyal Catholics to the vice-presidential slot on national tickets: Edmund Muskie, Thomas Eagleton, and Sargent Shriver all have solid records on crucial Catholic issues. At least one pro-life Catholic (Delaware’s Senator Joseph Biden) is often named among Democratic contenders for 1988. By contrast, the Republican Party has never placed a Catholic on its national ticket. Nor are any Catholics on the list of Republicans discussed for the 1988 campaign. (Contrary to a widespread impression, Jack Kemp is not Catholic. Nor is Jeane Kirkpatrick.)

Of course, the important question is not a candidate’s religion, but his views on public policy issues. A non-Catholic can certainly espouse views compatible with the Church’s teachings, just as a Catholic can reject his religious heritage. But it is worth noticing, isn’t it, that millions of Catholic Americans are still more at home with the Democratic Party? And surely it is worth noticing, too, that the GOP has not yet delivered on its campaign promises to Catholic voters. For now, neither party has the right to assume broad Catholic support; both parties must compete for Catholic votes. And since Catholic voters account for over 25% of the ballots in a national election, that competition should be fierce. We Catholics—Democrats or Republicans—should make sure that our political leaders are well aware of the competition.

By

Philip F. Lawler, a former editor of Crisis Magazine, is the author most recently, of Contagious Faith: Why the Church Must Spread Hope, Not Fear, in a Pandemic.

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