On February 28, a congresswoman from Connecticut named Rosa L. DeLauro released a "Statement of Principles." Signed by 55 members of Congressall of them Catholic Democrats, and together making up a majority of the Catholic Democrats in the Housethe statement urged...well, it isn't really apparent just from the text what the statement is supposed to be for.
According to the description from DeLauro's office, it "documents how [the signers'] faith influences them as lawmakers, making clear their commitment to the basic principles at the heart of Catholic social teaching and their bearing on policywhether it is increasing access to education for all or pressing for real health care reform, taking seriously the decision to go to war or reducing poverty. Above all, the document expresses the signers' commitment to the dignity of life and their belief that government has moral purpose."
Who could object to that? Certainly not the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, which issued a response on March 10 that declared, "We welcome this and other efforts that seek to examine how Catholic legislators bring together their faith and their policy choices,...[and] we welcome the representatives' recognition that Catholics in public life must act seriously and responsibly on many important moral issues."
A love fest, you might sayalthough that would leave you a little confused when the Washington Post reports it all under the headline "Catholic Democrats Scolded on Abortion."
But the Post seems to have it almost right, for words don't always express what we know them to be about. All the talk in the "Statement of Principles" about individual conscience is intended really as a demand that Catholics legislators not get beaten up anymore for supporting abortion: "We. . .agree with the Catholic Church about the value of human life and the undesirability of abortion," the statement reads, and that word "undesirability" leaves a peculiar taste in the reader's mouth. Abortion, murder, and thermonuclear war are undesirable, it's true. They are even unfortunate and less than optimal. But somehow one wants a little more oomph in the word chosen to describe them.
As it happens, oomph is what's missing all the way through the "Statement of Principles." Syntactical clumsiness makes the drafters conclude the statement: "we have a claim on the Church's bearing as it does on ours." But the meaning seems to be: "If the Church thinks it can order us around, it's got another think coming, 'cause we are the Church and the Church are we, and so by simple logic we get to order the Church around just as much it orders us around."
That rather makes hash of the statement's earlier claim that "we acknowledge and accept the tension that comes with being in disagreement with the Church in some areas." If you "acknowledge and accept" it, then why are you trying to change it?
In fact, why this statement in the first place? The whole thing obviously concerns abortion, as the bishops' response suggests. "As the Church carries out its central responsibility to teach clearly and to help form consciences, and as Catholic legislators seek to act in accord with their own consciences, it is essential to remember that conscience must be consistent with fundamental moral principles," the reply notes. "We encourage and will continue to work with those in both parties who seek to act on these essential principles in defense of the poor and vulnerable. At the same time, we also need to reaffirm the Catholic Church's constant teaching that abortion is a grave violation of the most fundamental human rightthe right to life that is inherent in all human beings, and that grounds every other right we possess."
But still the question remains: Why the statement now? For someone like Rosa L. DeLauroor for such signers as Bart Stupak, Patrick J. Kennedy, Cynthia McKinney, and Nancy Pelosiwhat's the political gain of claiming Catholicism at a time when the American Church is still reeling from the scandals that broke in 2002?
A general rule is that you should trust people to know their own best interestsor, at least, trust professionals to understand their own professions better than outsiders do. No one gets elected to Congress by being a complete idiot--about politics, at least. There is, I think, a glamour that attaches to Catholicism right now. A lot of mud, too, of course. But the intellectual force of Catholic analysis and vocabulary seems to have touched an awful lot of America's contemporary political debate, and the 55 signers of the "Statement of Principles" want in on it all.
In one sense, this is just another entry in the Democrats' general attempt to reclaim religion. But in its peculiar Catholic iteration, the problem of abortion wrecks the logic of the statement from its very first moment. Until the Democrats find a genuine way to be pro-life, they will not be able to deploy Catholic intellectual resourcesor claim the prestige of doing so.
In addition to which:
Three years after the invasion, George Weigel writes in the April issue of FIRST THINGS, some elementary truths are still being evaded. In an article titled "Iraq: Then & Now," he describes how the evasion is becoming ever more desperate. (This is the fifth annual William E. Simon lecture which was dedicated to the memory of Thomas K. Doerflinger who was killed with U.S. forces in Iraq at age 20.) The new "realism" of the Bush administration, Weigel contends, was in its readiness to "challenge the seemingly settled consensus that the Middle East was a region so politically volatile, economically important, and culturally retrograde that it could only be 'managed,' never transformed." Isn't it time for you to become a subscriber to FIRST THINGS?
Archbishop Timothy Dolan of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee has this to say about the new book by Father Richard John Neuhaus, Catholic Matters: Confusion, Controversy, and the Splendor of Truth:
"When it comes to 'Catholic matters,' Father Richard Neuhaus' thoughts matter a lot. He unfailingly challenges, enlightens, fascinates, inspires, humors, and occasionally even vexes me. And I would not miss reading a word he writes."