Wednesday, May 13, 2009

The Catholic Right is Missing An Important Opportunity

The Catholic Right is in a full lather about President Obama over some recent events. The shame of it all is that their intemperate reactions are actually damaging a golden opportunity to make serious progress on their own agenda.

The broader press has finally become aware of the sturm und drang that erupted over Notre Dame’s decision to ask President Obama to give the Commencement speech at its graduation. Peter Steinfels had a piece discussing the issue on
May 8th in the New York Times. Those of us in the Catholic Democrats movement have been watching with a mix of amusement and horror since the news broke in March. I first found out when a family member, an alumnus, started ranting about writing Notre Dame out of his will. The issue wasn’t partisan, I was told. It was because President Obama was so rabidly “pro-abortion”.

The Notre Dame incident is the symptom of a larger problem. I was recently at a Silent Auction for my children’s school. I began chatting to someone in the Parish administration. This is someone who very nearly voted for President Obama, and someone with whom I agree on many social justice issues. We talked about our families, and we talked about politics, since I was shamelessly pitching Obama during the election season. “He’s a radical abortionist, you know,” they said, meaning Obama. I was floored. This was someone who I know to be a "Moderate California Republican”, which means they would be a centrist Democrat in any other state but Massachusetts. This is someone who does good work for the Church and who I had previously considered someone who I could come to common ground on difficult issues. It was as if a Catholic version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers was playing itself out, and the aliens had just converted another one, right in front of my eyes. (An aside: In her defense, we both had had a drink or 2. We are Catholics, after all.)

Let’s make one thing clear. No one is “pro-abortion”. It is a horrible procedure. The Right uses this to insult the moderate elements in society, and hurl their self-righteous attitudes in peoples faces. It is a shibboleth which identifies the speaker as a reactionary who is more interested in the correctness

I was also struck by the controversy around the Freedom of Choice Act(FOCA). Even before the inauguration, some members of the US Conference of Bishops we circulating the rumor that President Obama would be signing FOCA as soon as it came to his desk. In early January, I got a call from someone with works in the Church locally asking me if the rumor was true. Recall this was in the middle of a global economic meltdown and in the middle of two wars. I called around to a couple of my contacts in DC, and the response was “universal”. There were other issues taking a much higher precedence, and by the way, it had not even been introduced in Congress. They actually have to write legislation first, remember?

Candidate Obama and President Obama have been clear from the beginning. Abortion is a serious moral issue. He has stated clearly that our focus should be to look for new ways to reduce the number of abortions in this country. During the campaign, he frequently called for people on both sides of the issue to find common ground, and work toward solutions that will lower the number abortions in this country.

Rather than focus on reducing the number of abortions in this country, the Catholic Right would have us believe that there is only One Solution: Overturning Roe V. Wade. The focus strictly on legal means while totally ignoring innovative solutions for eliminating the number 1 cause of abortions in this country: Unintended pregnancy.

Democrats in Congress have a solid track record of legislation seeking to get at root
cause of abortions in this country. A recent example is Senator Bob Casey’s Pregnant Women Support Act legislation. In addition, during the 2008 legislative session, Democrats introduced “Reducing the Need for Abortion and Supporting Parents Act” bill (HR 1074) and the “Prevention First Act” (HR 819) bill, which shows they are serious about finding new solutions to serious problems posed by the practice of abortion. Their new approach could be a forerunner of a strategy that hopes to avoid the divisiveness of the past.

For the first time since 1973, we have an excellent opportunity to reduce the numbers of abortions in this country through a mix of incentives and social programs. People on both sides of this issue agree that there are simply too many abortions in this country. If we find common ground, if we work together, we can pass meaningful legislation and appropriate for meaningful social programs that will make a serious dent in this on-going tragedy. Why can’t the Catholic Right see this?

Sadly, my fear is that the abortion issue is merely a proxy for the partisan control for power. The Notre Dame incident is more about a down-at-the-heals Republican Party attempting to inject wedge issues into our discourse in order to protect the size of its base. The conservatives prey on Catholics who believe that abortion is a grave moral evil, and they do so for partisan gain. My hope is that on May 17th, the President’s soaring rhetoric will rise to the occasion and bring us together as a people to work on solutions, not divisiveness.