Late Edition: Where Have All the Catholics Gone

The estimated Catholic population of the United States stands at 62.4 million, roughly 23 percent of the whole. Of the current 107th Congress, 150 members, or 28 percent, identify themselves as Roman Catholics (91 Democrats, 59 Republicans; 24 senators, 126 representatives). Proportionately, Rhode Island is the most populous Catholic state, at 64 percent; Massachusetts is next, at 49.2 percent. In absolute numbers, California, Texas, and New York boast the most Catholics and jointly account for a third of the national total.

These facts ought to ensure a certain safety for Catholic teaching on the most critical social and moral issues of our time. Alas, they do not. For example, can you name a senator or representative from any of these prominent Catholic states who has ever been conspicuous in his defense of the unborn? Only one comes to mind: former senator James L. Buckley of New York, who introduced the original Human Life Amendment in 1975 and defended innocent human life with unfailing courage throughout his tenure.

More facts: The National Right to Life Committee (NRLC) issues a congressional scorecard on critical votes on abortion and related issues. In its most recent assessment, the NRLC rated 23 Catholic senators from the 106th Congress (1998 to 2000), all of whom continue to serve in the 107th. Nine scored 100 percent, and one scored 77 percent.

The remaining 13 scored as follows: Joseph Biden of Delaware, 22 percent; Tom Daschle of South Dakota, 11 percent; Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, 11 percent; Patrick Leahy of Vermont, 11 percent; Susan Collins of Maine, 0 percent; Chris Dodd of Connecticut, 0 percent; Dick Durbin of Illinois, 0 percent; Tom Harkin of Iowa, 0 percent; Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts, 0 percent; John Kerry of Massachusetts, 0 percent; Barbara Mikulski of Maryland, 0 percent; Patty Murray of Washington, 0 percent; Jack Reed of Rhode Island, 0 percent.

Some random notes on Catholic politicians: Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who succeeded Buckley in 1977 and was one of the Senate’s most powerful and eloquent members, stood mute for a quarter-century in the face of increasingly barbaric assaults on life in the womb and, with rare exceptions, voted pro-choice. Former senator Connie Mack of Florida, who voted regularly with pro-lifers when in office, surfaced in the editorial pages this summer with a morally obtuse defense of human embryo manipulation that bore not the slightest trace of Catholic understanding.

Leahy and Mikulski recently led a move in the Senate Appropriations Committee to overturn President George W. Bush’s denial of federal funds to organizations that provide and promote abortions abroad. Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson, who considers himself pro-life, has been a leading proponent of human embryo research. Daschle, the Senate majority leader, has announced that if Bush banned funding for embryo research, he would seek a legislative override of that decision.

The short and sad story of most—not all—prominent Catholics in national public life is that their policy positions reflect almost nothing of Catholic teaching.

A similar pattern prevails among Catholic voters, whose poll numbers on abortion-related issues are indistinguishable from, and in some respects worse than, those of Protestants. Whether this condition arises from ignorance or willful indifference, the record underscores the abysmal failure of Catholic formation and education, both formal and informal, over the past generation. This is worse than folly; it is a scandal.

Question: Where have all the bishops been?

Right-to-life issues are not the only measure of Catholic fidelity. But as Pope John Paul II constantly reminds us, no other issues are closer to the heart of the Christian message or to our responsibilities as citizens. Legalized abortion lowered the legal bar 30 years ago and made the culture of death morally respectable. Today, faced with the prospect of government-supported human cloning and embryo research, we find ourselves at a truly horrific turn in human history. Catholic moral teaching may be our last best hope before we tumble into the abyss. Yet Catholic politicians not only feel free to ignore that teaching; they have become a powerful hindrance to its dissemination.

Question: What do the bishops intend to do about it?

  • Michael M. Uhlmann

    Michael Martin Uhlmann (1939-2019) served as professor of government in the department of politics and policy at Claremont Graduate University and Claremont McKenna College. Prior to teaching at Claremont, Dr. Uhlmann was a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, Vice President for Public Policy Research at the Bradley Foundation in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and taught at the George Mason University Law School.

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