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Catholic Politicians and Clergy in Conversation


How do people of faith navigate the political world, which can often pressure them to make choices at odds with their beliefs? On Sept. 18, the Fordham Center on Religion and Culture held a public forum “Conscience, Religion and the Political Calling,” in Pope Auditorium at the Lincoln Center campus, moderated by author Mary C. Segers, Ph.D., chair of the Department of Political Science at Rutgers University.

Participants included Thomas Suozzi, Nassau County executive; Tim Roemer, Ph.D., former Democratic Congressman from Indiana; Rev. J. Bryan Hehir, Ph.D., Parker Gilbert Montgomery Professor of the Practice of Religion and Public Life at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University; and Dennis O’Brien, Ph.D., president emeritus of the University of Rochester.

Although the forum took up questions of torture and the war in Iraq, much of the discussion focused on abortion, the number one issue affecting Catholics in politics. Roemer, current president of the Center for National Policy, said that during his bid to become chair of the Democratic National Committee, it became clear that his pro-life position was opposed by many of the party’s core constituencies.

Roemer stressed that no single issue should force individuals from their party or their religion. “Just as it’s wrong to litmus test a Democrat on the position of abortion, it is wrong for the Church to test Catholics on a particular issue,” he said.

O’Brien, the author of numerous books on faith, philosophy and education, said abortion opponents should be aware that completely outlawing abortion will have consequences, including forcing the procedure underground. He also chided officials in the Catholic Church for singling out politicians, giving the example of St. Louis Archbishop Raymond Burk’s criticism of 2004 Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry.

“Politicians are legislators, and only incidentally are they moral teachers,” O’Brien said.

Suozzi, a 2006 New York Democratic gubernatorial candidate, said Catholic Democrats should consider the larger picture when it comes to choosing candidates.

“People are leaving our state because of jobs, housing, taxes, and education,” Suozzi said. “They’re not leaving because of abortion, gay marriage, the death penalty or flag burning.”

Father Hehir, president of Boston Catholic Charities, spoke of the need for Catholic politicians to understand an issue in the context of the Catholic tradition and its moral consequences, as well as their own constituencies. “Having sought to know the issue [and]be ready to explain it, it is then time to vote and be at peace about it,” Father Hehir said.

Suozzi expressed the same discomfort that many traditional Democrats have with their party: the lack of room for dissenting voices when it comes to issues like abortion, since pro-choice advocates seem to push pro-life individuals out.

O’Brien, for his part, hoped that both sides of the debate could lower the rhetoric. “It’s not helpful for the Catholic side to regard all abortions as the equivalent of infanticide. [That just] makes the pro-choice position look more plausible. Both sides have got to learn to really engage in discussion.”

The panelists also discussed Iraq. Father Hehir spoke on the framework of “just war,” through which politicians might build their argument based on empirical evidence and moral reasoning. Roemer, who served on the 9-11 Commission, spoke about the death of a friend’s son in Iraq. “These issues are not simply of theory, geography, or military strength….[they are]extremely personal issues,” said Roemer.

Suozzi argued that Catholics need to pull together as a bloc and vote by expressing shared moral concerns, but Father Hehir cautioned clergy against using the pulpit to organize constituents around specific issues. “I think the bishops—in conference—should debate everything,” said Hehir.

O’Brien hoped that clergy would become more willing to criticize each other’s public statements. “They should feel the capacity to enter into a genuine dialogue on church matters,” said O’Brien.

By John DeSio


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