December 2000 Church & State | Featured

Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston watched the Oct. 3 debate between presidential candidates Al Gore and George W. Bush, and he didn't like some of what he saw.

Writing in the diocesan newspaper The Pilot, the influential Roman Cath­olic prelate concluded his regular column with a blast at the Democratic nominee.

"How depressing," observed Law, "to hear the Vice President so explicitly on his pro-abortion position. He seems to have made his a one-issue party. Gover­nor Bush, stating frankly his pro-life convictions, nonetheless acknowledged the complexity of the issue, the differences in viewpoint, and the fact that changes will not come overnight. Gore leaves little room for those who believe that the right to life is fundamental."

Law's salvo on behalf of Republican candidate Bush was just one example of a crusade by the Catholic hierarchy to forge its flock into a unified force at the polls this year. Using abortion as a litmus test, many bishops and priests issued forceful calls for the Catholic faithful to vote "pro-life" -- an appeal that translated either implicitly or explicitly into support for Bush and other Republican candidates.

While the news media focused its attention on the partisan posture of the Christian Coalition and some African-American churches, the political activities of the Roman Catholic Church, the nation's largest religious denomination, went little noticed.

Examples of hierarchical politicking abounded:

 New York City: Archbishop Edward M. Egan issued an Oct. 29 pastoral letter urging Catholics to choose leaders who "share our commitment to the fundamental rights of the unborn." The letter, which was read in all churches in the Archdiocese of New York, came just nine days after a 45-minute private meeting between Bush and Egan at the archbishop's residence. This year, for the first time, Egan's Family Life/ Respect Life Office disseminated a "voter information pamphlet" that gave the stands of the presidential candidates and the candidates for the New York Senate seat on 11 issues. Of the four questions dealing with abortion, Bush was shown supporting the hierarchy's position, while Gore was shown opposing it.

 Chicago: Cardinal Francis George advised his parishioners that "abortion is a defining issue" both morally and politically. Writing in his Oct. 1 column in the archdiocesan newspaper The Catholic New World, he compared the practice of abortion in the United States to that of the Roman Empire. "The sin is the same; the name of the empire has changed," he observed. Abortion "has become a defining position politically," he said, "not because of the Church but because of its use as a litmus test to screen candidates' acceptability for party approval."

 New Orleans: The Clarion Herald, the official newspaper of the Archdiocese of New Orleans, editorialized that Catholics have a "serious obligation to vote according to moral principles and with a conscience formed in line with sound Catholic moral teaching." Focusing on the abortion issue, the Oct. 26 commentary quoted Bishop James Timlin of Scranton, Pa., who said, "I am a registered Democrat, but I can't in good conscience vote for people who are pro-abortion." The newspaper also noted that the presidential candidates "hold diametrically opposite views on this 'diabolical' evil."

Some Catholics in Louisiana complained that priests went over the line into partisan politics during Oct. 1 sermons. Brent Petit of the Thibodaux Central Labor Council said, "While I understand and agree with the respect life theme, it should not be an excuse to promote the Republican Party, nor to bash the Democrats....While it is a noble mission to oppose abortion, when [priests] use the pulpit to promote or oppose political candidates because of their parties' position on this issue, they have stepped over the line and are threatening the separation of church and state that is guaranteed in our Constitution."

 Omaha: In September Archbishop Elden Curtiss blasted the Democratic Party for a platform plank on abortion that was "clearly anti-life and therefore anti-Catholic." Writing in the diocesan newspaper The Catholic Voice, he urged Catholics to "support those candidates who will protect human life in the womb."

 Milwaukee: On the Sunday before Election Day, the Rev. Joseph Noonan urged his parishioners at Our Lady of the Rosary Church to remember the Catholic position on abortion when they vote. According to the Associated Press, Noonan suggested that ignoring that stand could lead to excommunication. "I'm not telling you who to vote for," he observed. "I'm telling you who you may not vote for. In cases where there is not a 100 percent pro-life candidate, you do not vote. How can you?"

 Arlington, Va.: In perhaps the most over-the-top example of clerical arm-twisting, a priest in suburban Washington, D.C., threatened a parishioner with denial of communion for displaying Democratic bumper stickers on her car. The week before the election, Billie Ingrassia emerged from services at St. Agnes Catholic Church to find a letter on her windshield from the Rev. Thomas Vander Woude. The priest's missive condemned Ingrassia's "Vote Democratic" and "Democrats: Take Back the House" bumper stickers and wrote, "If you support the Democratic position of abortion then you have no business receiving Holy Communion since you placed yourself directly in opposition to this essential teaching of the Faith."

According to The Washington Post, Ingrassia, a 76-year-old whose eight children attended Catholic schools, said she and her husband oppose abortion, and thought "it was not real polite to badger an old lady like me."

Apparently frustrated by its inability to ban abortion and achieve other goals on the church's agenda, the Catholic hierarchy sharply ratcheted up its political activity during the 2000 elections. This year's escalated wave of political action stems from a decision at the bishops' 1998 conclave in Washington, D.C. By a 217-30 vote, the National Confer­ence of Catholic Bishops adopted a 26-page resolution, crafted by Cardinal Law and allies, that makes banning abortion the top political priority of the church.

A few saw the action as a mistake.

"It's a question of strategy," said Bishop Howard Hubbard of Albany, N.Y. "We run the risk of creating another anti-Catholic backlash, of creating the impression that the Catholic bishops are trying to dictate how a politician must vote. From the public's point of view, it looks like undue coercion."

Those in the majority, however, denied that they were trying to forge a Catholic political machine.

"We don't seek to form a voting bloc like [the Moral Majority] or some kind of political force," Archbishop Michael Sheehan told reporters after the vote. "That's not how we work."

But some church leaders clearly pine for a disciplined Catholic voting bloc that does the bishops' bidding. In an Oct. 17 speech to missionaries of Youth for a Third Millennium, Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver blasted President John F. Kennedy and other Catholics who refuse to advance church dogma through government decree. Insisting that Catholics have been "too polite and too timid" for the past 40 years, Chaput blamed Kennedy for creating a "model of accommodation" in which Catholic officeholders don't let their faith dictate their policies.

"Four decades after John Kennedy," the archbishop complained, "too many American Catholics maybe most no longer connect their political choices with their religious faith in any consistent, authentic way. The 'Catholic vote,' as a meaningful bloc, just doesn't exist anymore."

Calling the November election "a big one," Chaput ob­served, "A lot of judicial appointments ride on the outcome. So how are we going to bring our Catholic identity and our Catholic convictions into the voting booth? It's a vital question, because if our faith doesn't guide us in critical places like the voting booth, then we're already on our way to losing our faith."

Concluded the prelate, "Whenever you hear that tired old argument that Catholics shouldn't 'impose their views' on society, it's time to hit the bamboozle alarm."

Although Chaput claimed his criticism wasn't aimed solely at the Democratic Party, the hierarchy's height­ened activism sure seemed to dovetail nicely with the Bush campaign's own outreach to Catholics.

After Bush faced harsh criticism for appearing at anti-Catholic (and racist) Bob Jones University during the GOP primary last spring, Republican leaders moved swiftly to make amends. Repub­lican National Committee Chair­man Jim Nicholson activated an RNC Catholic Task Force to win Catho­lic votes for Bush.

According to The Philadelphia Inquirer, the effort was multi-faceted. During the Republican convention, the Task Force was assigned one of the prominent skyboxes in Philadelphia's First Union Center. The appearance there of Catholic priests in clerical garb gave the news media and the public the impression of a warm relationship between the party and the church.

Task Force Chairman Brian P. Tierney arranged for Philadelphia Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua to give the benediction on prime-time television the last night of the convention. The next day, Bevilacqua appeared with Bush and running mate Dick Cheney at a prayer breakfast in Center City that drew 700 religious and political leaders.

The Inquirer said Tierney, a Phila­delphia advertising executive with close ties to the cardinal, also helped build a 2.5-million person list of church-going Catholics to target for Republican appeals. The Task Force reportedly spent $1.5 million on that project and other outreach to Catholics.

On the final weekend of the presidential election, Bush returned to Penn­sylvania to campaign. During the visit, Bush and his wife Laura held a 10-minute private meeting with Bevilacqua at the chapel house of St. Luke the Evangelist Church in Glenside. Asked if he sought the cardinal's vote, Bush replied, "I asked for his prayers."

Bevilacqua undoubtedly gave him that and more. The Philadelphia archdiocese's Office for Public Affairs is heavily involved in politics. Since 1999, the archdiocese like the Christian Coa­lition has prepared voter guides that list candidates and their stands on issues "of interest to Catholic voters."

This year, the archdiocese did its own survey of state and local candidates and distributed a presidential survey prepared by the U.S. Catholic Conference, the action arm of the nation's bishops. Some 250,000 voter guides were ordered for distribution in all 283 parishes. Predictably, the first issue on the candidate questionnaire was abortion.

Last June, Bevilacqua issued a "Voice of Your Shepherd" statement urging parishioners to build a "culture of life." "In November," he said, "we will elect a new President and United States Senator. Moreover, the direction of Congress and our state legislatures hangs in the balance. As Catholics as defenders of life we cannot sit on the sidelines and simply allow others to dictate the future of our society."

Bevilacqua, one of the most right-wing and partisan prelates in the country, has harshly criticized members of the Supreme Court and other government officials for failing to adopt the church's position on abortion, sexuality, tax aid to religious schools and other church-state concerns.

In his Aug. 4 speech at the interfaith breakfast in Philadelphia, Bevilacqua blasted the separation of church and state, as Bush and others listened.

"If you study your history," he said, "you will learn that our Founding Fathers never intended that there be a high and impregnable wall of separation between state and religion." Calling for "productive collaboration" between church and state, he insisted the relationship should allow "their supporting hands to reach out to each other in time of need."

Bevilacqua said much the same thing to members of the U.S. Supreme Court during a special mass for judges in Washington, D.C., back in 1988. Con­demning the wall of separation, he demanded that the high court "restore the vital relationship between the church and the state, between religion and law."

Concern about the Supreme Court is likely the key issue that moved the cardinal and other American prelates to anoint Bush this year. The Republican candidate has promised that his judicial appointments would be "strict constructionists," a term many interpreted to mean conservatives who will reverse decisions upholding abortion rights and church-state separation.

When asked about the high court, Bush named as his favorite justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas. The bishops no doubt noted that these choices are both conservative Catholics who rail against abortion rights and support tax aid to religious schools and other ministries.

In addition, Bush supports voucher subsidies for parochial schools, as well as "charitable choice" aid to church social services. He has promised to set up an "Office of Faith-Based Action" to lend government assistance to religious programs. (The bishops apparently decided to ignore the Texas governor's enthusiastic enforcement of the death penalty, a glaring violation of the hierarchy's "pro-life" stance.)

In addition to its own efforts, the Catholic hierarchy this year also supported a second political campaign benefiting Bush. Priests for Life, a New York-based group that does anti-abortion activism, announced a major advertising campaign this year designed to persuade Catholics and others to vote for candidates who oppose legal abortion.

Although PFL is technically independent of the church, it clearly operates in conjunction with the hierarchy. The Rev. Frank Pavone started the organization in 1991 with the approval of the late Cardinal John O'Connor of New York. Its Episcopal Board of Advisors features Cardinal Alfonso Lopez Trujillo, a top Vatican official who heads the Pontifical Council for the Family. Archbishop Chaput of Denver and 13 other active bishops also serve on the board.

PFL holds a 501(c)(3) tax status, which bars partisan activity, but Pavone met with Bush last May and was photographed smiling with the candidate. After the session, Pavone pronounced Bush "pro-life" and described the meeting as "very positive."

According to The National Catholic Register, the priest said Bush will improve the abortion situation, but he harshly criticized Gore. "I don't think any sane person can miss the fact that Al Gore is an apostle for abortion," said Pavone. "He won't just keep it the same; he'll make it worse."

Pavone's group reportedly spent $250,000 on television ads in seven major markets this fall. Print ads in diocesan papers and radio spots also targeted Catholic voters. On Nov. 3 a full-page ad ran in USA Today asking, "What does support for 'right to choose' say about a candidate's character?" Some 14,000 faxes went out to parishes asking pastors to include anti-abortion themes in pre-election sermons.

Is all this political activity by tax-exempt religious groups legal?

Federal tax law forbids churches and other charities in the 501(c)(3) category to intervene in elections on behalf of or in opposition to any candidate. On the other hand, churches retain broad free speech and free exercise rights to address moral and social issues. Where the line should be drawn is not always clear.

The bishops know that the Internal Revenue Service is extremely reluctant to take action against churches except when the violations are flagrant. Supporting candidates with a nod and a wink, they apparently believe, is unlikely to spark an IRS crackdown.

Has the bishops' crusade been successful in steering voters toward Bush this year? The answer is somewhat uncertain.

Despite the pulpit pressure, the majority of voters in many states with substantial Catholic populations such as New York, Massachusetts, Connec­ticut, Penn­sylvania, Illinois, Michigan and Rhode Island cast ballots for Gore. An ABC News exit poll found that 26 percent of all voters identified themselves as Catholic, and 50 percent of them voted for Gore. Forty-seven percent voted for Bush. But Gore's tally is down from 1996 when Democratic incumbent Bill Clinton took 53 percent of the Catholic vote (and Republican Bob Dole snared only 37 percent).

In Archbishop Chaput's Colorado, voters supported Bush this year but not necessarily because of his opposition to abortion. The same voters rejected a referendum that would have required a 24-hour waiting period to get an abortion. Even though Catholics are the largest denomination in the state, Chaput's hope for a Catholic voting bloc there seems quite unfulfilled.

Other evidence also suggests that the bishops' electionerring will meet with little success among most Catholics nationwide.

In October, Catholics for a Free Choice released a new poll that found the overwhelming majority of Catholic voters very independent of the bishops' decrees.

The survey, conducted by Belden Russonello & Stewart, said 70 percent of Catholics don't believe church members have an obligation to vote for candidates who oppose legal abortion.

Like President Kennedy, Catholic voters are quite wary of pressure from church leaders. Six in ten oppose public statements from the Catholic bishops regarding candidates for public office. Seventy percent believe that the bishops should not use the political arena to advance moral opinions.

Seventy-five percent of respondents said the bishops' views are unimportant to them in deciding which candidates to support. Only 5 percent say the hierarchy's opinions are "very important...in deciding who to vote for." Two-thirds of the Catholic voters polled said they personally believe abortion should be legal.

Observed CFC President Frances Kissling, "The Catholic Church has very little influence on the voting behavior of the vast majority of Catholic voters.... On a range of issues, Catholic voters are more likely to stand with other Americans than with the Catholic bishops and the Vatican."

With the bishops driving for more political clout, that independence from clerical authority may face new tests.