If Catholics were barred from public office, our politics might be greatly improved. Such a harsh assessment would be unthinkable if Catholic politicians had identifiably Catholic voting records, but on the whole they do not.
In fact, when it comes to defending unborn life, our purportedly Catholic legislators do more evil than good. According to the Pew Research Center, more than 30 per cent of the US House and Senate is Catholic – 22 senators and 141 representatives, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. This concentration appears all the more impressive when one considers that only 20 per cent of the US adult population is Catholic.
But how do these Catholic politicians actually vote? In Evangelium Vitae, St John Paul II states that every person has “the inescapable responsibility of choosing to be unconditionally pro-life” and that responsibility for the killing of the unborn falls on “legislators who have promoted and approved abortion laws”. Have Catholic legislators heeded these warnings, or disregarded them?
I calculated the average NARAL Pro-Choice America approval ratings for Catholic and non-Catholic congressmen. Because ratings are not available for all congressmen, these figures are necessarily approximate. But the results are stark enough. On average, Catholic senators have a 57 per cent NARAL approval rating, compared with 47 per cent for non-Catholics. Catholic representatives have an average NARAL approval rating of 58 per cent, compared with 46 per cent for non-Catholics.
If every Catholic were removed from Congress tomorrow, the unborn would have less cause for fear; if the Senate and House were suddenly purged, the defenders of life would enjoy better odds against their enemies. Overturning Roe v Wade, passing a federal ban on abortion, enacting a constitutional amendment defending life – all these would be within easier reach.
Nothing could testify more powerfully to the failure of Catholic politics than this grim fact. But the failure cannot be blamed solely on our Catholic legislators. They are responding not only to the pressures of the world, but also to the confused and confusing signals sent by their bishops and priests.
In 2004, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, then head of the Vatican’s doctrinal office, sent a letter to American bishops stating that a politician who is “consistently campaigning and voting for permissive abortion and euthanasia laws” should be told that “he is not to present himself for Holy Communion” and that if he does, he will “be denied the Eucharist”.
Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, then Archbishop of Washington, DC, concealed the contents of this letter from his fellow bishops. Addressing them, he said: “I would emphasise that Cardinal Ratzinger clearly leaves to us as teachers, pastors and leaders whether to pursue this path” of denying Communion.
On the strength of that assurance, American bishops voted to leave it up to each bishop whether he would deny Communion to pro-abortion politicians. This policy, arrived at by petty lies, has perpetuated the great falsehood that supporting abortion is a matter of private judgment. One can no more be personally opposed but publicly in favour of abortion than one can be personally opposed but publicly in favour of shooting abortionists. Life is life and must be protected by law.
Catholics in America take pride in having overcome their history of persecution, from “No Irish need apply” to the misty heights of Camelot. But perhaps we did not so much overcome persecution as render it superfluous. Why restrict Catholic involvement in public life when Catholics are so ready to betray the causes mandated by their faith? Not even the most fevered anti-Catholic can have much fear of popish plotting when Catholic legislators look more favourably on abortion than do their non-Catholic counterparts.
Our bishops do not guard the altar from self-styled Catholics who advance the culture of death. Their policy is generally understood as polite and moderate, but politeness and moderation have their limits. Sixty million unborn children have been killed since Roe v Wade, with the full sanction of law and the nearly unanimous approval of polite opinion. If churchmen cannot rouse themselves to bar from Communion those Catholics who advance this great crime, it seems reasonable to conclude that they would resist no slaughter of any magnitude, so long as it were generally approved, and their inaction could be called moderation.
Even if our current crop of Catholic legislators makes one wish the Pope would once again say non expedit, and thereby bar Catholics from being either elector or elected, the immediate solution will probably not be getting Catholics out of public life, but rather insisting that the ones in it actually start to be Catholic. This begins, though it does not end, with defending the lives of the unborn.
Matthew Schmitz is senior editor at First Things
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