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Freedom of Religion at Political Crossroad

by James Hitchcock
June 10, 2007

This Spring a group of Catholic Congressmen signed a letter expressing “concern” over a statement by Pope Benedict XVI that politicians who vote in favor of abortion should not receive communion, a statement that they said conflicted with the American Constitution. Sister Mary Ann Walsh, a spokesman for the American bishops, replied appropriately that the letter itself attacked freedom of speech and religion, by denying the Church its right to take a position on public issues.

There is an even deeper issue here that has not been much discussed – if freedom of religion means anything, it surely includes the right of every church to determine who is a member in good standing. To deny the pope’s authority to make such a judgment is to deny religious freedom in a fundamental way.

The signers of the letter claimed that they are trying to reduce the number of abortions by offering “alternatives” such as adoption and better health care. It is hard to understand why, if abortion is a fundamental right, government should discourage it at all. But, if it is to be discouraged, why are such “alternatives” treated as incompatible with legal protection for the unborn?

I suspect that the signers of the letter know the answer very well. They are all Democrats, and their party has long been held captive by ideologues who regard abortion as an absolute that cannot be compromised in even the smallest way. Over the years those same Congressmen have helped in effect to disenfranchise conscientious Catholics.

The result, as everyone knows, is that pro-lifers turned to the Republicans. But it has always been an uneasy marriage, because the Republicans tolerate people who are pro-abortion much better than Democrats do the opposite and because some Republicans regard pro-lifers as unwelcome invaders who raise “distracting” issues.

Now we appear to be at a political crossroads. One Republican aspirant to the presidency (Mitt Romney) has a very dubious record on abortion, while Rudolf Giuliani, who appears to be the front-runner, after ludicrous attempts to explain away his record, finally acknowledges that he too regards abortion as a fundamental right.

Bishop Thomas Tobin of Providence has indignantly refused to attend a dinner in honor of Mayor Giuliani, and Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver has predicted that, if Giuliani is nominated in 2008, “You’re going to see the Republicans screaming at the Church for making such a big issue of a pro-life matter.”

The Republican Party is in deep trouble, of which the war in Iraq is obviously the main cause. But some people now see an opportunity to claim, contrary to all evidence, that it is pro-lifers who are bringing the party down. Thus a Catholic journalist urges Republicans to support “…problem-solving competence,” which he apparently sees as incompatible with being pro-life, and advises that “a less orthodox Republican Party would be a whole lot more popular.”

But the journalist in question happens to be a Democrat, and he does not proffer his advice in order to help the Republicans retain the White House in 2008. If the marriage between Republicans and pro-lifers is an uneasy one, a divorce would probably be fatal to the party’s chances in the fabled “red states,” so that we might invoke here the familiar idea that the two should stay together literally for the sake of the children.

James Hitchcock, professor of history at St. Louis University, writes and lectures on contemporary Church matters. His column appears in the diocesan press. Dr. Hitchcock's The Supreme Court and Religion in American Life, Vol. 1 The Odyssey of the Religion Clauses and Vol. II From 'Higher Law' to 'Sectarian Scruples', were released by Princeton University Press September 2, 2004.

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