Catholics in Congress: Lost in the Culture — On Pro-Life Issues, Catholic Democrats and Republicans Divide

Were ‘By their votes you shall know them’ the criterion of Catholic identity in Congress, many Catholics, and most Democrats among them, might never be known as Catholic. Where once the claim to private conscience sundered Christendom during the Reformation, today a concept of “personal choice” holds the allegiance of the vast majority of Catholics in both the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives.

The story is in the statistics. Of the 435 members of the House of Representatives, 81 — fully 28 percent — identify themselves as Catholic. But on the nine key roll-call votes on abortion during 1993, Catholics actually had a cumulative pro-life ranking below the average for the House as a whole. In the Senate, the 21 Catholics’ average ranking was just three points above the average of the Senate as a whole.

These averages can be culled from data compiled by the National Right to Life Committee (NRLC), which each year issues a scorecard on key roll-call votes on abortion. A perfect pro-life voting record registers 100 points; a perfect pro-choice voting record registers 0 points.

In the House, the average NRLC score in 1993 was 53.5; Catholics averaged 49.2. Of the 121 Catholics in the House, 81 are Democrats, 40 are Republicans. The Catholic Democrats — including Speaker Tom Foley, who provided a perfect pro-choice record of 0 — averaged 34.2. Catholic Republicans, by contrast, averaged 79.8.

In the Senate, the NRLC average for 1993 was 41. The 21 Catholics averaged 43.8, but the 13 Democratic Senators who are Catholic averaged just 18.4, while the eight Republicans who are Catholics averaged 85. Among the Catholics: Majority Leader George Mitchell, Democrat of Maine, with a perfect 0 ranking.

These figures are even more dismal than five years ago when Crisis first cited NRLC studies on voting patterns in Congress. That report prompted U.S. Rep. Robert Dornan, Republican of California, to rise on the House floor and ask his fellow Catholics: “What do [pro-abortion Catholics] know that 10 cardinals, 97 retired bishops, and 352 active- duty bishops in our Church do not know? What kind of hubris and chutzpah does someone have to say, ‘I know more than all Doctors and Fathers and leaders of my Church’?” That query prompted Rep. James Traficant, Democrat of Ohio, to remark, “I am a Catholic, but first of all a legislator.”

Whether “hubris” or “chutzpah” are explanations for the chasm between Church teaching and Catholics’ general record in Congress it is not possible wholly to determine. Pro-abortion-voting members of Congress are loath to explain themselves, though Rep. Thomas Barrett, Democrat of Wisconsin, readily complied with a request from Crisis for an interview on “What it means to be Catholic in Congress.” He was, however, the only pro-choice Catholic in Congress to grant an interview.

“They go along to get along” is how Rep. Tom Bliley, Republican of Richmond, Virginia, explains Catholic members’ support, not only of abortion, but of a wide range of generally liberal legislation enacted year-in, year- out by the Democratic majority in Congress.

“Catholics are by far the largest [religious bloc] in Congress, yet so many seem almost embarrassed to be Catholic. Many were educated — from kindergarten through college — in Catholic schools, yet they have no qualms whatsoever in voting for abortion in defiance of everything they’ve been taught. That disturbs me,” Bliley adds. “I’m very disappointed with the voting of Catholics in Congress.” Bliley, by the way, regularly posts a perfect pro-life voting record.

Rep. Chris Smith, Republican of New Jersey, likens the pro-life presence among members of Congress to “waterguns in a Tommygun fight. It’s frightening, from a Christian point of view.” Smith ran for Congress while executive director of the pro-life movement in New Jersey, so he’s often styled as a zealot on the issue. He welcomes the caricature.

“Death and those who practice it are sitting in the catbird seat in Congress,” Smith declares. “The Speaker [Foley] is totally captive of the left. The others infinitely rationalize for doing wrong.”

Smith is quick to note that he does “not judge the individual; we should judge the act. People I like and respect vote for abortion. They run from their faith. I can’t figure. . . .”

Smith suggests that the woman who obtains an abortion is “the co-victim. She is reinforced every step of the way. She may even be well-meaning. Unborn life is cheap. But abortion is an abomination.”

President Clinton, a Southern Baptist, is, Smith continues, another anomaly, religiously, on the abortion issue. “Clinton is a master deceiver — a phony in terms of his word. He says he wants abortion to be rare, then he tries to export it globally — and domestically through health care, even Veterans Administration health care.” So disgusted with the President is Rep. Smith that he did not attend the 1994 National Prayer Breakfast. “I could not go and hear Clinton preach. So I missed Mother Teresa.”

Though the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (NCCB) is “helpful” on abortion and many other issues, the bishops are “almost too kind,” in Smith’s judgment. “Speaker Foley responds to the slash-and-burn types — the National Abortion Rights Alliance, the National Education Association. The Church comes in and makes a reasonable position and it is ignored because of that. In Congress, kindness is seen as a weakness.”

For inspiration to carry on, Smith relies on prayer, Scripture, the fellowship of other Christians in Congress, including evangelical Protestants, and the example of Henry Hyde, the Republican of Illinois who is the acknowledged pro-life leader on Capitol Hill. “When I came here, Henry told me, `Don’t let this place break you. It will if you are not prepared.’ Henry is my inspiration. He brings no attention to himself. In our society, Henry Hyde is the William Wilberforce [Smith’s allusion is to the British advocate of the emancipation of slaves in the nineteenth century]. He is not as recognized as he should be. He is hated, but he doesn’t hate back.”

Thomas Barrett is an interesting contrast to the pro-life crusader from New Jersey. Young and affable like Smith, the 40-ish Democrat from Milwaukee combines an unflinching pro-choice voting record with a flexible approach to the application of Church teaching to public policy. Whereas pro-life members like Smith derive much of their public-policy emphasis more or less directly from Church teaching, Barrett says the faith “provides a framework for looking at legislative issues. I wouldn’t say, The Church taught me `this,’ so I will vote ‘that’ way. It’s never that conscious. But obviously the faith, the Church, has shaped the way I view things.”

Abortion is to Barrett “a question of morality” rather than of Church teaching. By “a question of morality” Barrett means, he explains, “the circumstances surrounding” an issue, even abortion. “The major difficulty” in such circumstances “is to say `This is OK, that is not OK’.” And he adds, “I try to do what I believe is right. The faith has shaped that. The philosophical question is, What is the right thing to do? I don’t know that there is one answer to that question, so I take recourse to concrete circumstance.”

For example, Barrett believes “the circumstances” which prompt women to seek an abortion generally define a legislator’s response to the issue. He notes that, “When I see the number of abortions going down, I’m happy about that.” But as long as there are circumstances in which women wish to terminate an unwanted pregnancy, he believes the government has an obligation to “provide the support system. She should be able to get the abortion in a legal setting with medical personnel.” Barrett cites the dilemma he would face were one of his loved ones to be raped. “If she were a victim of a rape, she’d go to a hospital and have a D&C. For some, that is considered an abortion. I for one would not object.” At the same time, Barrett concedes that, “philosophically, the pro-life person who opposes abortion in all cases [including rape] is the most philosophically consistent. Politically, however, they have the least following.”

While noting that Catholics in Congress espouse views that are “all over the spectrum ideologically,” he notes that many pro-life Catholics in Congress are advocates of the death penalty for certain crimes. “The Church opposes capital punishment. So the divisions are not pure and perfect.” And, by way of illustrating the nuances in his own views, Barrett points out that, as a state legislator in Wisconsin, he was instrumental in gaining passage of a model parental notification bill.

Because Henry Hyde bears a name synonymous with the pro-life presence in Congress, whose principal legislation on the issue is termed “The Hyde Amendment,” one might expect him to be a zealot on the issue. Yes, and no.

Hyde has always maintained a perfect pro-life ranking from the Right to Life Committee. But he is statesmanlike — as most would expect him to be — even in speaking of pro-abortion colleagues.

“We human beings have an enormous capacity for self-deception,” Hyde reflects. “When there is the need for illusion, we are masters at kidding ourselves about what the fact is.” His allusion is to Catholics in Congress who vote the straight pro-choice line.

“’Catholics for Free Choice,’ he muses.” What an oxymoronic title! But they really believe that the popes are wrong — with as much conviction as I have that the popes are right.” Of pro-choice colleagues, Hyde remarks, “I don’t want to judge them. I would never accuse them of bad faith. Maybe Catholics want to ‘belong’ — to not be different, not assert Catholic hegemony. We want to be accepted by the American elite — and many Catholics in America are conscious of their humble antecedents, who were bricklayers and so forth. And now that we’ve `made it’ in America, I think we’re a little embarrassed about being Catholics.

“We are the products of our own experiences and background,” Hyde adds. “Take Senator Kennedy [a Catholic with a perfect pro-abortion voting record]. If I had the money he has, I’m not sure I would be the same person I am in values and goals. It must be terrible to be a celebrity — a wealthy, tragic figure. I’m not sure I could stand up to it.

“My religious beliefs and feelings were generated by my mother — a nice little Irish lady,” Hyde continues. “And here in Congress, it is important that you not just get swamped by the minutiae of legislation and the legislative process. You constantly need to refer to your moorings — to your moral compass. Belief helps me focus on what’s essential and what’s not. There’s not a lot of meaning to much of what we do without putting it into the perspective of ‘how does it help to save my soul?’.”

Immediately, Hyde catches himself and adds, “I am not a ‘religious zealot.’ But I am certain of the centrality of religion.”

Though a Republican from the Chicago area, Hyde was a Democrat when young. “But I saw my government getting close to Stalin, and Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt embracing aspects of Soviet foreign policy, installing in important positions persons whose views were pro-Soviet, at any rate. I became concerned about the leftward drift of our government.” Over ensuing decades, including two full decades in Congress, Hyde has seen, firsthand, “the effects of liberalism on our culture. We are paying an awful price today for the cultural debasement that began with liberalism’s dominance. We live in the Condom Culture. To live up to the Sixth Commandment is tough enough whether you are married or single, but our culture has catered to the softening. We are giving up.”

Hyde worries that the Church has been affected by the allurements of liberalism’s emphasis on mere compassion. “We used to eat fish on Fridays. What a mistake it was to give up [such customs]. Tell me, Why did we do it? I grew up with Latin at the consecration. We destroyed the liturgy. The Twenty-third Psalm [in the new translation] is an abomination. We bowdlerized it! And church music: guitars and tambourines instead of Mozart Masses. We don’t have the great preachers we used to have. I can hear a gripping sermon — preaching — in Protestant churches, but not often in the Catholic Church. The Church [homilies] offer nice little socially acceptable empty `feel-good’ messages.”

“I’m not meaning to criticize the Church,” Hyde immediately emphasizes. “The Church is great, and does a lot of good. Think of Cardinal O’Connor of New York. I’d walk barefoot backwards down the block if he asked me to. And in government, there are men like Governor Bob Casey of Pennsylvania. He said we’ve turned our back on the littlest guy of all — the unborn. He must be a reproach to the members of his own [Democratic] party. How they must loathe him. He belongs on Mount Rushmore. But then there is Mario Cuomo. He is as smart as they come, he is fairly well read, and he has found a Father McBride — someone who will justify him on most issues of his political career. . . . The Church has been busy bending the knee to the world.”

At 70, Hyde more and more views even congressional issues from the perspective of eternity, not least because the death of his wife on July 28, 1992, “had a profound effect on my assessment of what is important and what isn’t. And the most essential thing is doing what God wants you to be doing. Everything else is trivial. But we Catholics have got to run faster just to keep up [in contending with American culture] today. We are losing ground.”

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David A. Bovenizer was formerly the Executive Editor of Crisis.

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