Catholic Proposal Draws Mixed Reaction

Posted November 26, 2003 at 2:25pm

Roman Catholic lawmakers on Capitol Hill reacted with a mix of disdain and indifference to the possibility that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops might seek to penalize those who support abortion rights or go against church teachings on other issues such as the death penalty.

“It would be a huge mistake … because there should be separation of church and state,” Sen. John Breaux (D-La.), a Catholic, said of the conference’s proposal. “An individual person’s decisions should be between him and God, and that’s how [people] should be judged.”

At issue is a proposal presented at this year’s mid-November meeting of the conference that suggests coming up with guidelines to punish errant lawmakers. The penalties could include denying lawmakers honorary degrees from Catholic institutions, prohibiting them from speaking at those institutions or even excommunicating them from the church if they advocate abortion rights or other positions that violate church teachings.

Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), who has been criticized by his own bishop in South Dakota for supporting access to abortion, also opposes the idea of penalties for lawmakers.

“I think actions like [those of the Conference of Catholic Bishops] are very counterproductive,” Daschle said. “I think religion should be a private matter. It ought not be publicly debated.”

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), a Catholic and leading abortion-rights supporter, said the Catholic Church should “seriously consider” the potential repercussions of their actions and the impact it could have on Catholic voices in government.

“It’s tough enough to get anyone to run for office. It will be increasingly more difficult to get good Catholic candidates to run, when they think the Catholic bishops are looking over their every vote,” Durbin noted.

But other “pro-choice” Democratic lawmakers preferred to remain mum.

“I respect their position,” said Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.).

While Catholic Democrats likely have the most to be worried about, given the bishops’ primary focus on the abortion issue, the inclusion of the death penalty among the issues on which elected officials could be penalized could bedevil many Republicans and conservative Democrats.

Prominent anti-abortion Catholic Sen. Rick Santorum (Pa.), who chairs the Senate Republican Conference and supports the death penalty, declined to speak directly to the issue of whether he agreed with the bishops’ decision to consider penalties for Members.

“As long as the bishops are following what the teachings of the church are, we have to live with the consequences of our actions,” he said. “I think they have the right to do that.”

Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) said he would likely run afoul of the bishops’ guidelines on the death penalty issue, but said the Catholic Church does give more leeway in its opposition to capital punishment.

“Under Catholic teachings, the death penalty is not always wrong. Abortion is always wrong,” King explained.

Still, King said he would not be cowed by any sanctions the bishops might throw his way.

“If I feel strongly about an issue, I have no problem disagreeing with the Catholic bishops,” he said.

Meanwhile, Rep. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), who is hoping his anti-abortion record will help attract religious conservatives to his effort to defeat moderate Sen. Arlen Specter (Pa.) in next year’s Senate Republican primary, said he welcomed the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ entry into political debates.

“It is legitimate and important and constructive for them to weigh in,” he said.

Yet, like King, Toomey is a death penalty supporter and believes the church tolerates capital punishment in some cases.

Besides abortion and the death penalty, the proposal’s primary sponsor, Bishop John Ricard, indicated that lawmakers could also come under scrutiny by the Catholic Church if they support certain wars, oppose private school vouchers, block social programs for the poor or fail to advocate open immigration policies.

In a speech given at the bishops’ conference on Nov. 10, Ricard said, “Some Catholic politicians defy church teaching in their policy advocacy and legislative votes, first and most fundamentally on the defense of unborn life, but also on the use of the death penalty, questions of war and peace, the role of marriage and family, the rights of parents to chose the best education for their children, the priority for the poor, and welcome for immigrants.”

Ricard continued, “Every believer, every Catholic, especially those in public life, needs to ask, ‘Does our faith shape our politics or the other way around?’”

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops could vote as early as next November on whether to adopt any guidelines, according to their spokesman, Bill Ryan.