In the market for the Catholic vote

In October I received an e-mail from Burns Strider, the director of faith outreach and senior advisor for the presidential campaign of Sen. Hillary Clinton. He informed me that the Clinton campaign is “starting a conversation with Catholics across America” and that his candidate “shares your vision for the common good.”

Mr. Strider and I are strangers to each other. My e-mail address must have been included in a list of “religious prospects” that was handed over without my prior knowledge to the Clinton political shop. I have no idea how it was determined that the senator and I shared the same vision.

Mr. Strider urged me to read an attachment discussing “Hillary’s record on issues of faith” and then to join “Hillary’s National Catholic Steering Committee” so that together we could “make history.”

The attachment consisted of two pages of bullet points quite remarkable in what was said and left unsaid. It lauded Sen. Clinton as “a person of faith” who “has spent her life promoting the common good” and who “knows that one of the most important rules to follow is the Golden Rule.” It listed various socio-economic policy objectives, many of which in fact I do agree with. That’s not the remarkable part, however.

The two-pager dropped a few names designed to get the attention of Catholics, stating that Sen. Clinton “has stood with religious leaders” such as “Mother Teresa” and “Cardinal Bernardin” (referring to Joseph Cardinal Bernardin, deceased archbishop of Chicago) on behalf of protecting human rights and alleviating poverty. The flyer also noted that the senator “commends the call by the U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops” (actually the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops) to reform immigration policy.

Consider what was then left unsaid in this sales pitch. The most memorable time that Sen. Clinton and Mother Teresa were physically together was at the 1994 National Prayer Breakfast, where the diminutive Missionary of Charity spoke while then-President Bill Clinton and First Lady Hillary Clinton listened at the main table. To the Clinton’s chagrin, Mother Teresa spoke movingly against abortion and contraception in her address. No mention was made about this event in the materials sent to me.

Writer Peggy Noonan, who attended that prayer breakfast, described the moment when Mother Teresa referred to abortion:

“She continued, ‘But I feel that the greatest destroyer of peace today is abortion, because Jesus said, If you receive a little child, you receive me. So every abortion is the denial of receiving Jesus, the neglect of receiving Jesus.’”

“Well, silence. Cool deep silence in the cool round cavern for just about 1.3 seconds. And then applause started on the right hand side of the room, and spread, and deepened, and now the room was swept with people applauding, and they would not stop for what I believe was five or six minutes. As they clapped they began to stand, in another wave from the right of the room to the center and the left.”

“But not everyone applauded. The president and first lady, seated within a few feet of Mother Teresa on the dais, were not applauding. . . . They looked like seated statues at Madame Tussaud’s. They glistened in the lights and moved not a muscle, looking at the speaker in a determinedly semi-pleasant way.”

That’s because the Clintons did not share Mother Teresa’s vision. A year later, Hillary Clinton represented her husband and our country at a United Nations meeting in China to urge that organization to elevate abortion to the status of an international human right. Mother Teresa sent a letter to that same conference repeating her call to reject abortion, especially as a fundamental right or as a means for eliminating poverty.

Cardinal Bernardin famously urged Catholics to consider the relatedness of social concerns across the spectrum, and yet he repeatedly acknowledged the priority of protecting human life. That’s the life-affirming moral vision that the Catholic Church abides by and that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops reiterated this fall in a new statement on “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship.”

It is true that the U.S. Bishops are concerned with immigration policy, but according to the Bishops’ new statement “the judgments and recommendations that we make as bishops on specific issues [such as the war in Iraq, housing, health care, immigration and others] do not carry the same moral authority as statements of universal moral teachings.”

Next year’s national elections will present both Catholics and candidates in the United States with unprecedented challenges. Catholics will have to undertake a careful exercise of prudential judgment to discern which of the many candidates in the running best meet the requirements needed to serve the common good. Candidates will have to figure out how best to articulate themes that will attract an important swing vote. Woe to those who take us Catholics for granted or who try to appropriate Catholic saints and leaders for political ends.

I bring up a particular outreach effort made to Catholics by one of the presidential candidates not to take sides in that race or to offer any opinion about this or any other candidate’s merits for the office at stake but only to report that the marketing season has begun in earnest for the elusive but important Catholic vote. For both candidates and voters, “caveat emptor!”

Daniel Avila is the Associate Director for Policy & Research of the Massachusetts Catholic Conference.