Political Hay

Crisis of Faith

Like the GOP, Catholics today face an identity crisis.

By 11.20.08

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Like the GOP, Catholics today face an identity crisis. "Reformers" want the Church to liberalize by softening its positions on homosexuality, women priests, and abortion rights, to go with its already liberal policies on immigration, welfare, the death penalty and healthcare. Then there are your traditionalists who think the Church has abandoned its core principles in a wrong-headed attempt to get hip to the times -- even if the times are to a large extent decadent.

The majority of "cafeteria" Catholics dine in moderation, selecting what looks good from official doctrine and passing on the rest. In Barack Obama they smelled something to their liking: a bland dish of creamed corn and Jello. "Catholics voted for Mr. Obama over Mr. McCain by a nine-point margin (54 percent versus 45 percent), a turnaround from 2004 when Catholics supported President Bush over Sen. John Kerry…by a five-point margin," the Washington Times reported.

Like their secular brethren, Catholics are deeply divided over abortion. A typical CNN poll found 60 percent of Americans think abortion is morally wrong. But this doesn't necessarily mean Americans think it should be criminalized. After all, gambling, alcohol and tobacco use are often considered morally wrong, but we're not about to go all Carrie Nation on the corner pub.

The other 40 percent of Americans say abortion is morally acceptable. These are the Starbucks radicals who seem to believe that Roe v. Wade alone prevents a bloodbath of botched back-alley abortions. One might have made that argument before Roe v. Wade became law in the early 1970s, but times have changed since "Half-Breed" was on top of the pop charts. The stigma once associated with out-of-wedlock births -- the principal reason young women resorted to illegal abortions -- disappeared with the Beat Movement. Today a teenager's unplanned pregnancy is considered a mundane but obligatory rite of passage, like a neck tattoo or a lip ring.

OBAMA'S VICTORY and an escalation of efforts by liberal activist groups like Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good and Catholics United was at the top of the agenda as bishops met this month in Baltimore for their semiannual conference. These and similar groups believe it should be possible for a Catholic to oppose abortion individually and morally and still favor choice in the public sector. However, Bishop Robert J. Hermann, of the Archdiocese of St. Louis, spoke for many who think the Church has pussyfooted around too long: "I think any bishop here would consider it a privilege to die tomorrow to bring about the end of abortion," he told the conference of bishops. "…[W]e should be willing to spend the end of our lives dedicated, to take whatever criticism, to bring about the end to this genocide." Speaking jointly, the bishops warned the Obama administration that the Church will do everything it can to oppose his support for abortion rights.

Well, maybe not everything.

It's not as if the Church hasn't had opportunities to make its point before. And while a few bishops have threatened to withhold communion from pro-choice Catholic politicians, their warnings have had little or no impact. When former St. Louis Archbishop Raymond Burke threatened to withhold the Eucharist from former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Sen. John Kerry, they simply avoided St. Louis on Sunday morning.

If Catholics are skeptical about the bishops' new tough talk on abortion, it may be because the latest guidelines for a statement directed toward pro-abortion Catholic politicians reads like a half dozen lashes with a wet noodle: "The common good of our country is assured only when the life of every unborn child is legally protected," the statement reads. "Aggressively pro-abortion policies and legislation will permanently alienate tens of millions of Americans and would be interpreted by many Catholics as an attack on the church.…We again express our desire that all Catholics in public life be fully committed to public good." Take that, Joe Biden.

The bishops could have made their point simply and more effectively by excommunicating pro-abortion Catholic politicians, a tactic Pope Benedict supports. Here in St. Louis, bishops have been excommunicating people left and right of late -- just not for their support for abortion rights. When St. Stanislaus Kostka parishioners balked at turning over to the diocese financial oversight of their flourishing inner-city parish -- a tradition dating back to its founding in the 19th century -- Bishop Hermann had no trouble excommunicating eight parishioners and the parish priest for violating canon law.

With such mixed messages emanating from the pulpit it's no wonder Catholics voted for a pro-abortion candidate, and it's no wonder the crisis continues.

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About the Author
Christopher Orlet writes from St. Louis.