Social Ministry Day Three: Bucking the partisan tide

by John L. Allen Jr.

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Washington, D.C.

Though Catholic activists may sometimes complain about “political homelessness” in America, referring to a sense that neither of the major parties fully embraces the church’s social teaching, some politicians come closer than others.

Tonight, some 700 social ministers who spent the afternoon knocking on doors on Capitol Hill heard from three legislators who, in different ways, represent intriguing blends of positions that defy the usual partisan stereotypes – and who say they do so drawing upon their Catholic faith.

Senator Robert Casey from Pennsylvania and Representative Bart Stupak from Michigan are both pro-life Democrats, while Senator Mel Martinez from Florida is a pro-immigration reform Republican. In a reception this evening in the Dirksen Senate Office Building, each said that their instincts on policy questions in part reflect the influence of the Catholic church.

Martinez, for example, is a Cuban émigré who explained that when he arrived in the United States in 1962 at the age of 15, he was cared for by two foster homes operated by Catholic Charities. Martinez said his openness to welcoming immigrants was informed by that experience.

“I think our country is better than the rhetoric we’ve heard over the last several months about this issue,” Martinez said. “We need a more enlightened discussion, one that will lift up America.”

Stupak perhaps comes closest to representing the full package of official Catholic positions, from opposition to the war in Iraq to support for expanded health care for children to opposition to abortion.

Stupak illustrated the political price one sometimes pays in Washington for bucking the partisan tide. In recent debates over the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP), Stupak said, his attempts to support “pro-life language” that would have extended coverage to unborn children brought a rebuke from his Democratic committee chairman, and a threat to cut funds for Stupak’s district. While the problem was eventually resolved, Stupak said, it illustrates the risks of singing outside the chorus.

That risk, Stupak said, is run not only in secular politics, but also in the church.

“Priests and cardinals have shunned me, and some have suggested that I should not receive the Eucharist,” he said. “Some don’t believe that I’m pro-life because I’m a Democrat.”

“But I’m here to tell you,” Stupak said, “that no pro-life legislation is ever going to pass without Democratic votes.” In that sense, he argued, someone has to remain within the party and make the case for a pro-life point of view.

Casey struck a hopeful note about a new possibility for transcending the usual partisan divide on abortion: the “Pregnant Women Support Act,” for which he is the major Senate sponsor.

The bill would boost existing programs that serve women with children, such as child care assistance and WIC, and would also create new provisions, such as preventing insurance companies from considering pregnancy a “pre-existing condition” to deny health care coverage. The idea is that by avoiding “red-line” issues for both pro-life and pro-choice forces, the bill can draw bipartisan support in an effort to make abortion rare.

“For a lot of women in America, pregnancy is a time of boundless joy,” Casey said. “But for others, it’s a time of crisis and trauma, especially if they’re poor.”

“We’ve got to be people who speak up for these women and try to help them,” he said.

Casey said that too often the politics of the abortion issue mean that struggling women receive unhelpful advice from both sides. The left, he said, tells them “just have an abortion and everything will be okay,” while the right “preaches at them, says they can’t do that, and then wishes them good luck.”

Passage of the measure, Casey said, would amount to “a statement about who we are as a people.”

“No pregnant woman should feel all alone in this country,” he said, quoting John Paul II about the need for “radical solidarity” with women struggling with a pregnancy.

Stupak took a question about why the Democrats seem hostile to the pro-life position.

“At one time, most Catholics were Democrats,” he replied. “Today as a general rule, Catholics are Republicans … Catholics leaving the Democratic Party has meant a serious loss for the right-to-life view.”

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