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Faith, hope, and politics
Practicing religion in the public realm
The football game wasn’t a classic. Boston College would go on to beat Ball State 38–0. But a prominent Washington journalist sat next to the University president, who had a suggestion: convene a campus forum on the challenges to Catholics in politics and government. The conversation, between William P. Leahy, SJ, and Tim Russert, the NBC political analyst (and father of a BC sophomore), happened on October 1, 2005. By Thanksgiving, Russert was able to call Leahy to say, “I have an early Christmas present for you.”
So on the bitterly cold night of February 27, a stellar lineup of Washington hands took the stage in Conte Forum. And, by BC police estimates, some 6,000 people, from the campus and the wider community, turned out for a discussion of “Catholic Politicians in the U.S.: Their Faith and Public Policy.” The event was filmed by C-Span and was broadcast several times in March. It was also shown live on Boston College’s website.
Russert’s balanced ticket of a panel included James Carville, who helped engineer Bill Clinton’s presidential victory in 1992; Edward W. Gillespie, former chairman of the Republican National Committee; E.J. Dionne, a columnist for the Washington Post and onetime Rome correspondent for the New York Times; and Peggy Noonan, the best-selling author who served as speechwriter for Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush (for whom she turned the phrase “a thousand points of light”).
Russert, a genial, evenhanded moderator, opened by declaring his Jesuit background, having attended Canisius High School in Buffalo. Like him, all four panelists are Catholic, though surely with varying degrees of orthodoxy. Carville, who maintained that “the Church’s position on birth control in marriage is ridiculous,” termed himself “the ultimate cafeteria Catholic.” “Everybody in some way or another takes what they want,” he said. “The real thing is how we treat each other.”
When the panelists addressed the central question of balancing faith and public policy, each individually asserted that it is possible to be a good Catholic and a good Republican, or Democrat, or conservative, or liberal—whatever it was, actually, that he or she happened to be. And over the course of an hour and a half, the discussion touched, albeit sometimes briefly, on issues of gay marriage, labor unions, embryonic stem cell research, euthanasia, the death penalty, health care, social justice, and the war in Iraq.
But the great challenge to the panel, as to many American Catholics, was the issue of abortion as it arises in the public arena, and the conversation circled back to it again and again. Carville, who introduced the subject early, called abortion “the mother lode issue.” He speculated that 10 percent of American Catholics accept the Church’s uncompromising opposition to the procedure (in fact, the figure is more like 42 percent, but among young Catholics—the so-called millennials born since 1977—the figure is indeed 11 percent); and he said each politician must heed personal conscience.
Noonan noted that liberals often claim to speak for “the little guy” struggling at the lower rungs of the socioeconomic ladder, but, she said, “there’s no guy who is littler than someone who might be aborted tomorrow.”
To Dionne, the question of “how can you best protect life” has many dimensions, including the encouragement of contraception and abstinence. But for the pregnant woman, he asked, isn’t she more likely to choose life “if she has economic opportunity and health care coverage?”
Noonan acknowledged the point but stressed the need to “talk about abortion: why is it not good, why do we not want it to be legally protected in the United States.” “As a society,” she said, “you don’t feel good about it.”
Earlier in the evening, Dionne had joked that “the Church’s job in politics is to make all of us feel guilty about something.” “In the last election,” he said, “the Church did not seem to be an equal-opportunity guilt producer,” as the abortion issue overshadowed other moral concerns such as responsibility for poverty and war.
In that election, Russert recalled, two Catholic bishops said Holy Communion should be denied to the Democratic presidential candidate, John Kerry, because of his support of abortion rights, a tactic that raised concern on the dais. In Noonan’s view, “I don’t know how you can look into somebody’s soul.”
Gay marriage was another divisive topic. Gillespie at one point stated his belief that “marriage is the union between one man and one woman” and later said that while he felt compassion toward gay people, that “doesn’t mean I have to abandon the tenets of my faith.”
Dionne brought a personal dimension to the issue, telling the story of a gay cousin in Massachusetts who married his partner of 31 years. The occasion, he said, “forced me to rethink a lot of things. . . . I was happy for my cousin. I did not think that was a moral evil.”
While all Catholics in public life contend with these issues to some extent, they may be inescapable for judges. Referring to the five Catholics on the Supreme Court (John Roberts, Jr., Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, Samuel Alito, Jr., Clarence Thomas—all nominated by Republican presidents), Russert asked, “Do they have the same standard that Catholic politicians, legislators, are held to?” “Must they vote,” he asked, “to overturn Roe v. Wade?”
Gillespie, who said he’d served as an advisor to Roberts and Alito as they prepared for their Senate confirmation hearings, responded that from what he’d learned of the men, “their faith is something they would set aside in their application of the law.”
Perhaps because the panelists follow elections closely and live by them, it was a night to examine not only the Catholic politician but also the Catholic voter. Much was made of defections by Catholics from the Democratic Party and of the Republicans’ relative strength among voters who attend church frequently. According to Gillespie, upwards of 80 percent of the Catholic presidential vote went to the Democratic candidate in 1960 (the Catholic John F. Kennedy), a number that fell in 2004 to 47 percent as Catholics chose George W. Bush over the Catholic Kerry. Gillespie recalled a bygone era when the proverbial Mrs. O’Reilly, upon hearing a young man had become a Republican, said it couldn’t be: “I just saw him at Mass yesterday.”
While the Catholic vote may have once belonged to the Democrats, Dionne said, now “there is no Catholic vote.” With roughly 40 percent of Catholics declaring themselves Republican and 40 percent Democrat, “the fight is for the 20,” he said, adding that “they live in rather important places in large numbers, such as Ohio. . . . We’re going to be fighting for this Catholic vote for a long time.”
In Noonan’s view, much of the defection that took place from the 1960s to 1980s involved social issues. “The Democratic Party almost seemed to have some kind of odd leftism imposed on it,” she said.
The event was sponsored by BC’s Church in the 21st Century Center, which grew out of a University initiative in 2002 to serve as a catalyst for renewing the Church in the wake of scandal and for handing on the Catholic faith to young people. Some 1,200 students claimed tickets before the deluged organizers ceased counting, a turnout that “exploded all expectations,” said Timothy P. Muldoon, director of the center. Students got their own section up front, a wedge of white folding chairs that was guarded by student ushers. Undergraduates packed in at the last minute, pulling out cell phones to track down their friends.
An unscientific sample of student opinion by an infiltrator into the section yielded high marks for the speakers and the program. Soren Lagaard ’08, who is Catholic and a political science major from Cambridge, Minnesota, said he was taken with the assertion made by James Carville that there is but one teaching, that “three thousand times” in the Gospels Jesus told us how we should act toward the poor. Lagaard also held out Carville’s contention that Jesus “was so concerned about the issue of homosexuality that he uttered not a single word on it.”
Sitting next to Lagaard, Kate Gazzaniga ’09, a Congregationalist from Glastonbury, Connecticut, said, “Regardless of whether you’re Catholic or not, it’s important to see that ultimately religion will come into politics.” Alicia Perez ’09 noted that the more liberal panelists stressed economic issues while “the Republicans and conservatives emphasized black-and-white issues like gay marriage.” She is from Bastrop, Texas, where, she said, “I’m considered pretty liberal. But here. . . .” Yousef Mustafa, a freshman from Jersey City who is Muslim, said one thing that stayed with him was Gillespie’s assertion that someone who favors abortion rights could address a Republican convention but that speakers at a Democratic convention could not diverge from the party line.
BC faculty members also gave the evening high grades. “It was thoughtful, it was relevant, it was well attended,” said Alan Wolfe, professor of political science and director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life. Fr. Robert Imbelli, an associate professor of theology, too was pleased by the crowd’s interest, but he went on to say, “The event was a bare beginning,” that it ended just as the panelists were moving toward a “more personal engagement with issues of personal faith and theological vision.” A follow-up, smaller-scaled event is being planned by the C21 Center “to try and deepen the conversation,” according to its director, Muldoon. Details will be posted on the C21 website. An annotated list of background reading on the subject can also be found at the website.
In his concluding remarks before the crowd at Conte, Russert observed that the distillation of faith and politics may come down to “What do you emphasize?” For the Democrats, he said, it might be the Sermon on the Mount; for the Republicans, the Ten Commandments. Whatever was resolved this night, if anything, “We did it in a civil way.”
One of the evening’s most memorable lines had come from Noonan. “I’m not sure it’s easy to be a Catholic and a Democrat or a Catholic and a Republican,” she said, “just because it’s hard in general to be a Catholic. But I think it’s worth the struggle.”
Michael Molyneux is a writer based in Sharon, Massachusetts.
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