The presidential campaign of 2004 promises to be the most expensive in U.S. history. Unfortunately, and not by accident, the most expensive presidential campaign in history also threatens to be the least enlightened. The enormous sums available to campaign organizations are for the most part invested in television commercials that deal in the shorthand of images and slogans and reduce important campaign issues to shallow sound bites.
Last September, the U.S. Catholic bishops, as they do every four years in anticipation of a presidential election year, issued Faithful Citizenship: A Catholic Call to Political Responsibility, which identified what the bishops saw as the important questions to be addressed in the national debate that presumably takes place in an election year. The bishops assigned first priority to the protection of human life against the dangers of abortion, euthanasia, pre-emptive or preventive use of military force and “our nation’s increasing reliance on the death penalty.” The bishops also urged national concern for the promotion of the human family, the pursuit of social justice and the practice of global solidarity.
The agenda the U.S. bishops set for the national debate is an imposing one; some might consider it unrealistically ambitious. But the formidable challenge the bishops posed in defining their agenda stands in disappointing contrast to the actual record of Catholic participation in the campaign thus far. An inordinate amount of public attention has been paid to a few Catholic bishops who have inserted themselves into the campaign by publicly warning that they would refuse Communion to Senator John F. Kerry, the presumptive Democratic candidate. Senator Kerry identifies himself as a practicing Catholic, but his voting record of consistent support for an unlimited right to abortion is an embarrassment to the Catholic community.
The U.S. Catholic Bishops’ Conference has established a committee, chaired by Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington, D.C., charged with developing a policy statement on the responsibilities of Catholics in public life. Although the committee is not expected to publish its statement until after the November elections, Cardinal McCarrick has observed that he would be very reluctant to use exclusion from participation in the Eucharist as a sanction for Catholic politicians whose legislative decisions seem inconsistent with Catholic teaching. It is likely that most U.S. bishops share Cardinal McCarrick’s distaste for such sanctions, and certainly many in the Catholic community, including the editors of this journal, would find the imposition of such sanctions to be pastorally offensive and politically inept. In fact, the imposition of such ecclesial sanctions suggests that the abortion issue is one of denominational discipline, a “Catholic issue,” rather than an issue of human rights, around which a broad coalition of religious and nonreligious traditions can unite.
When questioned by Catholic News Service, European and British bishops showed no interest in employing the denial of Communion as a weapon to control the Catholic politicians in their countries. The Tablet of London even reported last year that Pope John Paul II gave Communion to British Prime Minister Tony Blair, a pro-choice Anglican, during a private Mass. One Italian bishop identified the underlying issue with admirable simplicity: “Faith is one thing. Legislation is another.” Legislators who believe that abortion is immoral may, rightly or wrongly, decide that legalized abortion is the least of several possible evils in a pluralistic society.
At the same time, Catholic bishops and voters have a right to expect Catholics in public life, who affirm their personal belief in the immorality of abortion, to demonstrate that commitment by working to reduce the number of abortions that take place each year. Such efforts will include but not be limited to legislative initiatives. Catholic bishops and Catholic voters can take the measure of a candidate’s total record on abortion, but the bishops would be wise to let the voters come to their own conclusions on the records of individual candidates.
Unlike some religious leaders of smaller congregations, the Catholic bishops of the United States have traditionally refused to endorse particular candidates or parties. In this difficult political season, a time of new and unsettling dangers and a voting public that seems sadly polarized, the bishops should be wary of singling out individual candidates by public admonitions that inevitably become politicized in the heat of partisan politics. Instead, by directing the public’s attention to the agenda they set forth last September, our bishops may help rescue the presidential election campaign of 2004 from a mindless barrage of televised attack ads made possible by the oversupply of money and the shortage of integrity that characterize our current political climate.