Catholic Politicians Warned on Dissent
By Michael Paulson
January 17, 2003
The Vatican told Catholic politicians yesterday that they should not dissent from church teachings on abortion, homosexuality, and euthanasia and warned that ''a well-formed Christian conscience does not permit one to vote for a political program or an individual law which contradicts the fundamental contents of faith and morals.''
No explanation was offered for the timing of the warning, but the Vatican statement was issued as a Catholic supporter of abortion rights from Massachusetts, Senator John F. Kerry, is a leading candidate for the Democratic nomination for president, as a Catholic champion of gay rights from California, Representative Nancy Pelosi, is serving as House Democratic leader, and as a Catholic supporter of capital punishment from Oklahoma, former governor Frank Keating, has been chosen by the bishops of the United States to head their national review board on sexual abuse.
The Vatican document, called a ''Doctrinal Note On Some Questions Regarding the Participation of Catholics in Political Life,'' was issued just days before the United States is to mark the 30th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision that struck down most state regulation of abortion as a violation of the right to privacy.
''John Paul II, continuing the constant teaching of the Church, has reiterated many times that those who are directly involved in lawmaking bodies have a `grave and clear obligation to oppose' any law that attacks human life,'' the document declares. ''For them and for every Catholic, it is impossible to promote such laws or to vote for them.''
The document was issued, too, as the debate over the ethics of cloning, which the Vatican opposes, has intensified because of the report by the Raelians, a small sect, that they had cloned an American woman. The report now seems dubious, but it has given energy to the debate about how to regulate cloning research.
''Scientific progress has resulted in advances that are unsettling for the consciences of men and women and call for solutions that respect ethical principles in a coherent and fundamental way,'' the Vatican said.
Catholic politicians yesterday said they do not look to the Vatican for direction about how to vote on public policy, citing the words of John F. Kennedy, who when running for president in 1960 told the Greater Houston Ministerial Association, ''I believe in an America ... where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the pope, the National Council of Churches, or any other ecclesiastical source.''
Kerry said yesterday that he looks to Kennedy's record on this issue. ''As a Catholic, I have enormous respect for the words and teachings of the Vatican, but as a public servant I've never forgotten the lasting legacy of President Kennedy, who made clear that in accordance with the separation of church and state no elected official should be `limited or conditioned by any religious oath, ritual, or obligation,''' Kerry said.
''I represent all the people of Massachusetts, and they expect me to speak with respect for all of their views and values,'' he said.
Senator Edward M. Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts and the brother of the late president, expressed a similar position.
''I continue to agree with the clear position taken by President Kennedy,'' the senator said. ''It is important to maintain the separation of church and state. I've always done that, and I will continue to do so. It's part of the oath every senator takes, to defend the Constitution.''
The Vatican document reiterated the church's longstanding opposition to abortion and euthanasia, saying that ''laws must defend the basic right to life from conception to natural death.''
And the Vatican stressed its expectation that Catholic politicians will oppose same-sex marriages, which have been legalized in the Netherlands and debated in other countries.
''The family needs to be safeguarded and promoted, based on monogamous marriage between a man and a woman, and protected in its unity and stability in the face of modern laws on divorce,'' the Vatican declared. ''In no way can other forms of cohabitation be placed on the same level as marriage, nor can they receive legal recognition as such.''
The document was completed in late November, but released yesterday by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which oversees issues regarding faith and morals for the Vatican. The document was signed by the congregation's top two officials, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the prefect, and Archbishop Tarcisio Bertone, the secretary, and was approved by the pope.
Catholics today are a huge force in American politics. They make up the largest religious group in Congress - 150 of the 535 representatives and senators - and an estimated 75 percent of the members of the Massachusetts Legislature. But, despite decades of exhortation by Catholic prelates, Catholic politicians and voters often vote and act just like the general American public.
The National Right to Life Committee, a group that opposes abortion, recently gave zero ratings to Senators Kennedy and Kerry and to several Catholic congressmen from Massachusetts, James P. McGovern, Martin T. Meehan, Edward J. Markey, and Michael E. Capuano.
By contrast, the Human Rights Campaign, which advocates for gay and lesbian rights, gave 100 percent ratings to Kennedy and Kerry and to US Representatives Richard E. Neal, McGovern, Meehan, Markey, Capuano, and William D. Delahunt, all of whom are Catholic.
Kennedy and Kerry both support research-related cloning, although they oppose cloning for the purpose of reproduction.
There are multiple instances in which various Catholic state and local politicians in Massachusetts have supported abortion and gay rights. Last year, Senate President Thomas F. Birmingham blocked a proposed ballot measure that would have banned gay marriage, and Acting Governor Jane Swift refused to order legislators back into session to reconsider the proposal. Both Birmingham and Swift are Catholic.
Several members of the Massachusetts congressional delegation said the Vatican document would have little or no impact on their votes or public actions.
''I am committed to the separation of church and state,'' Capuano said yesterday. ''On all issues, I must vote my conscience and represent the interests of my constituents to the best of my ability. That's what the people of the 8th Congressional District elected me to do.''
Representative Stephen F. Lynch, Democrat of Boston, said that he respects the Vatican's position, but that he cannot always agree with the church.
''All of the difficult decisions I make are influenced in some part by the Judeo-Christian values that are respected in my home and in my community,'' he said. ''But I will confess that when I sought election to this office, I did accept the inevitability that the path to being a good Catholic and the path to being a good congressman might at times diverge. My hope is that those instances will be rare.''
Gerald D. D'Avolio, who as executive director of the Massachusetts Catholic Conference is the church's lobbyist on Beacon Hill, said the church tries to persuade politicians to agree with church teachings, but he acknowledged that many Catholic politicians from Massachusetts disagree with central church teachings.
''We try to convince them to take the position we take, but they have to judge their own consciences,'' he said. ''The statement doesn't direct them or order them, but it does make them think about what obligations they have to our teachings and to the dignity of the human person.''
Scholars also said they doubted that the strong statement from the Vatican will have much effect on the political behavior of Catholic elected officials in the United States.
''This is a pluralistic society, and we do not impose our views on others,'' said the Rev. Robert F. Drinan, professor at Georgetown University Law Center in Washington, D.C., and a Massachusetts congressman for 10 years until 1981, when he stepped down after being barred from seeking reelection by Pope John Paul II. ''The pope is trying to be a moral leader, and we should welcome moral directives from whatever source, but we're not going to put them into civil law.''
Alan Wolfe, professor of political science at Boston College and director of BC's Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life, said the Vatican was able to oust Drinan because he is a priest, but it has no similar power over Catholic lay people. He noted that the Vatican document released yesterday does not threaten excommunication or any other action against Catholic politicians who do not vote according to church teachings.
''There is no direct line of authority between the Vatican and Catholic politicians in the US,'' he said. ''Catholic politicians in the US have gotten quite used to making up their own minds on these issues.''
Some scholars said the Vatican's ability to impose its moral views on American politicians has been lessened by the clergy sex abuse crisis.
''One of the lessons of the sex scandal is that lawyers and prosecutors and politicians can't automatically defer to the church on legal and moral questions,'' said Leslie Griffin, a legal ethics professor at the University of Houston Law Center, who studies the relationship between law and religion. ''On all these questions of sexuality, of marriage, of peace, the lay people have expertise.''
Michael Paulson can be reached at email@example.com.
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