BOSTON — Catholics debated the role faith should play in the life and public work of Catholic politicians during a panel discussion held at Boston College’s Conte Forum Feb. 27. The four panelists discussed issues ranging from abortion to the capital gain’s tax in front of an audience of 6,000 attendees.
The panel presentation, entitled “Catholic Politicians in the United States: Their Faith and Public Policy,” was part of BC’s The Church in the 21st Century Center.
“Tonight’s event brings together a distinguished panel to discuss issues concerning how the faith of Catholic politicians can and should affect public policy,” Father William P. Leahy, BC’s president, said in greeting the crowd.
The discussion, led by moderator Tim Russert, managing editor and moderator of NBC’s Meet the Press, began with differing views on whether or not a Catholic politician must protect the right to life in order to be a “good Catholic.”
James Carville, a CNN political commentator and former senior political adviser to Bill Clinton, said that most Catholics in the United States support abortion in all cases.
“The position of the Church outstanding is that abortion should be illegal in all cases with the exception of the life of the mother, and maybe 10 percent of Catholics in the United States agree with it,” he said. “Apparently well over half of the faithful believe that you can be a good Catholic and have a different opinion on abortion.”
Church doctrine about abortion, as stated in the ‘‘Catechism of the Catholic Church,’’ says that “Since the first century the Church has affirmed the moral evil of every procured abortion. This teaching has not changed and remains unchangeable.”
Carville, a self-proclaimed moral relativist and cafeteria Catholic, added that a Catholic seeking political office would fair better as a democrat since the teachings of the Church, especially those about helping the poor, are more in line up with the Democratic Party.
Some want to portray the Democratic Party as the party of the “little guy,” said Peggy Noonan, contributing editor to the Wall Street Journal and political author.
“There is no guy who is littler than someone who might be aborted tomorrow,” she said.
“Since abortion has been legal in the United States, we’ve had roughly 40 million abortions. That’s presumably 40 million people who would be here if they hadn’t been aborted. That’s a heck of a lot of people,” she added. “This isn’t just an issue you can get around and dance around. It’s real. The Catholic Church is against abortion for real and serious reasons.”
Edward W. Gillespie, founder and co-chairman of Quinn Gillespie and Associates and former chairman of the 2004 Republican National Committee, agreed and countered Carville’s claim that Catholics should feel more at home in the Democratic Party.
“The first person I went to work for in politics was a southern conservative democrat, a Regan democrat. He changed parties in 1984, and I changed with him like so many ethnic, Catholic democrats did at that time,” he said. “There was a sense of greater comfort that if you believed strongly in the right to life, if you believed strongly that marriage is the union between one man and one woman, that that is a more welcome view in the Republican Party.”
While there are people of faith in both parties, the Republican Party allows its members to voice their religious views more freely, while democrats are less tolerant of an opposing point of view, he added.
“Someone who is pro-abortion rights is allowed to speak at the Republican convention. You can’t find any one who is pro-life who was allowed to speak at the Democratic convention,” he said.
“I don’t think that abortion is the only thing that differentiates the Catholic position. I think that’s a myth we have been perpetuating this evening,” he continued.
E.J. Dionne, Washington Post columnist and senior fellow at The Brookings Institute, agreed, adding that the bishops in the United States put too much focus on the issue of abortion.
Catholics are divided on political issues with 40 percent voting consistently for republicans, 40 percent voting consistently for democrats and a key 20 percent swing vote, he said.
“I think the Church’s job in politics is to make all of us feel guilty about something,” he said. “One of the troublesome things in the last election for a lot of Catholics of my sort is that the Church did not seem to be an equal opportunity guilt-producer.”
Instead of addressing democrats on life issues and republicans on helping the poor, some of the bishops threatened to deny communion to pro-abortion politicians. They didn’t discuss social justice, war and peace or the death penalty, he added.
Carville contended that the Church is out of touch with the American people and the teachings of Jesus Christ. The Bible teaches us to love one another, not condemn others, he said.
“Jesus was so concerned about the issue of homosexuality that He uttered not a word,” he said.
“There’s a world that these guys in the Vatican are living in, and there’s a world that these people are living in,” he said. “Sometimes they’re more interested in following some legalistic thing than understanding what the world is.”
“The Church’s position on condoms and AIDS is just silly, it’s ridiculous,” he continued. “The position on birth control in marriage is ridiculous. The Church says that masturbation is a sin. All for that raise your hands.”
On contraception, the catechism affirms that "every action which, whether in anticipation of the conjugal act, or in its accomplishment, or in the development of its natural consequences, proposes, whether as an end or as a means, to render procreation impossible is intrinsically evil” and calls masturbation a sin gravely contrary to chastity, together with fornication, pornography, and homosexual practices.
Gillespie countered Carville by saying that the Church does not condemn people.
“One of the things I think is most important about my faith is the fact that it is rooted in forgiveness and reconciliation and one where we accept one another for who we are. I accept and have people very close to me who are gay, and I love them. That doesn’t mean that I have to abandon the tenants of my faith,” he said.
Just because many Catholics disagree with the Church’s hierarchy on issues does not mean the Catholic Church will change its understanding of Jesus’ teachings because of public opinion or poll numbers, he added.
The role of the Church is to instruct and help Catholics distinguish between right and wrong, he said.
Noonan added that she felt the Church needs to do more to instruct the faithful.
“The Church itself is defensive, nervous and silent,” she said. “They don’t teach enough, they don’t talk enough about it, and yet every now and then someone will come and insist that you do it the Church’s way. I think the Church should do more to explain it’s way, what’s it’s thinking is and it’s moral reasoning.”
Russert ended the evening by stressing the limits of discussing a complicated subject in a short amount of time but said he hoped it piqued the interest of the audience.
“We have done our very best to examine complicated, difficult moral issues, and we did it in a civil way,” he said.
Many people reacted strongly to the comments of panelist James Carville.
Rob Van Alstyne, a BC sophomore, said after the event that Carville seems to have picked out one piece of the Catholic faith, goodwill toward others, and shaped it into his own political agenda. That “love” as Carville called it has no substance, he said.
“It becomes a type of kindness,” he added.
BC spokesman Jack Dunn said Carville is provocative by nature.
“We were pleased that other panelists countered him in some of his assertions, which is exactly what should happen in an academic forum,” he said. “A strength of the evening was the balance of the panel, and the crowd’s reaction suggested there was balance in the audience as well.”
The Church in the 21st Century began as a program in response to the sexual abuse crisis that was meant to help the Catholic community in America move from crisis to renewal. It became a permanent center at BC last summer, Father Leahy said.
“I remain convinced that much of the renewal of the Church in the United States will come from what happens on the campuses of Catholic colleges and universities like Boston College,” he said.