Let me start with saying that I do not consider myself either a Democrat or a Republican. I consider myself first and foremost a Catholic. Partisan politics, be it Democrat or Republican, liberal or conservative, is like a prism that separates the light, and then chooses only certain colors of the spectrum. By contrast, the Catholic vision is integrated.
It is clear that the Democratic Party is actively courting Catholics. There is nothing wrong with that. That is what political parties do: they solicit voting blocs, and as many as they can get. The Republican Party has certainly been doing the same, especially with evangelical Christians, but also with Catholics. My objection with the current approach by the Democrats is that their strategy appears to be a focused one of disinformation from within the Church. They have been using very high profile Catholics who prey on the ignorance of most American Catholics regarding Church teaching and history. Nancy Pelosi was certainly the most vocal and appalling in her grossly erroneous "lesson" on abortion and the history of the Catholic Church in her interview with Tom Brokaw on Meet the Press. Joe Biden's interview with Brokaw was somewhat less egregious, but his privatization of faith, moral relativism, and total inability to see abortion in terms of science and human rights in addition to faith was not much better.
In an article in the The American Spectator on former Kansas governor and current Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, Kathleen Sebelius, writer Matt Bowman makes the argument that the Democrats are trying to marginalize Catholic opposition from within:
But the most intriguing component of Sebelius's nomination is her Catholicism. Not that Catholic abortion supporters are rare -- see Obama's failed nominee to HHS, Tom Daschle. But Sebelius is significant as an attempt by Obama to foment a civil war within Catholicism to neutralize its pro-life efforts.
Like a shrewd general, Obama is using Catholics themselves as his ground troops. Two dozen prominent Obama supporters quickly launched a letter supporting Sebelius, and claiming that they are Catholic and pro-life. The letter's signers are the same liberal Obama Pro-Lifers from his presidential campaign, led by Professor Doug Kmiec and the Soros-funded group "Catholics United."
What is different about this new strain of cafeteria Catholics is not their support for abortion politicians, but their claim that they are the true abortion opponents within Catholicism. They reveled in Obama's season of audacity, and simply claimed that the most extreme pro-abortion candidate in history was really a pro-lifer. It worked. In an election about economics, they gave Catholics the rationalization they needed to vote for political celebrity but against the unborn.
Bowman's thesis seems to be supported by the recent article in Newsweek by former lieutenant governor of Maryland, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend. In a clearly concerted effort to exploit the ignorance of American Catholics of the faith they profess to believe, Townsend trumps faith with crass party and ideological politics.
The title of her article is, "Without a Doubt: Obama Represents American Catholics Better than the Pope Does." As others have pointed out, the Pope does not represent only American Catholics, but the worldwide Church. The Church is catholic, meaning universal, precisely so that the interests of one nation, region, or ethnic group do not overshadow those of everyone else. Furthermore, the Pope does not "represent" Catholics in the way that Townsend represented the people of Maryland as lieutenant governor. The Pope pastors them. He teaches them. He encourages them. He loves them enough to tell them what they need to hear, rather than what they want to hear.
Apparently, Townsend is looking to promote Obama from president to pope. She notes where President Obama and Pope Benedict XVI agree, and then notes where they disagree, indicating that the Pope should fall in line with the President's views. She accuses the Pope of hypocrisy, saying: "While the pope preaches love, listening to the other has been a particular stumbling block for the Catholic hierarchy (as it is for many in power)." She refers to Humanae Vitae as a "heinous decision." She criticizes Pope Paul VI for upholding Church teaching on abortion and contraception because he went against an advisory panel on the subject which had voted "69 to 10." Again, Townsend seems to be confusing majority rule with issues of truth and falsity.
She does not seek to understand the Church's teaching on any subject with which she does not agree, including the ordination of women or homosexuality, and in so doing mischaracterizes the Church's views on these issues. She says that a 1979 meeting at the Vatican on the role of women in the Church was "greeted with revulsion," and that "Despite the rhetoric of love and truth, the Vatican shows disdain (if not disgust) toward gays." Townsend is silent on the President's opposition to same-sex marriage. Townsend herself does not show much interest in either love or truth.
Townsend asserts: "For Obama, respectful disagreement and a willingness to recognize differences was the animating spirit of the presidential campaign, and it was central to his Notre Dame speech." The President may respectfully disagree with others on such matters as abortion and embryonic stem cell research, but the result is not simply one of disagreement. Rather, the result is setting in place policies that promote his positions on these matters. Townsend's contention that the President's path is more compassionate than the Pope's is simply naive at best, disingenuous at worst.
After her litany of polls, Townsend ends her article: "The pope has a lot to learn about Catholic politics in America. Barack Obama can teach him." What she does not seem to grasp is that the Pope is not in the business of American politics, but of shepherding souls. Fortunately, the Holy Father quite clearly discerns that distinction.
Such attempts to use American Catholics as political pawns will not end any time soon. We should take this opportunity to commit ourselves to bolstering the efforts of recent years to catechize Catholics better, from the pulpit and from the pew. The better we know our faith, the better we will be able to see through such pandering, and then we can get on to meaningful political discussion of how to address the issues of ethics and social justice that challenge our nation.