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Abortion, Catholics, and the Health Care Bill

Alan Wolfe is a TNR contributing editor and director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College.

Just before the House of Representatives voted on the Stupak Amendment, designed to stop any public funding of insurance plans that cover abortion, the U. S. Conference on Catholic Bishops (USCCB) weighed in with its endorsement. According to The Hill, their action gave the amendment a “boost,” helping its eventual passage.

Such a series of events is likely to give rise to charges among liberals and feminists that the Catholic Church is exercising all too much influence in American politics. Yet in many ways the events of this past weekend suggest the exact opposite conclusion: Catholic influence is maximized when Catholics are unified--and when it came to the Stupak Amendment, they were anything but.

The idea that the Catholic Church has a malign influence on American politics goes way back to the Know-Nothings of the nineteenth century and continued up to the election of John F. Kennedy as president in 1960. Catholics were widely viewed as bloc voters. Unlike more individualistically inclined Protestants, the theory went, Catholics were more committed to principles of group solidarity and institutional loyalty. Living in geographic proximity, they supported urban political bosses who distributed jobs and favors among their fellow Mass attenders. Catholic members of Congress were invariably Democrats from safe districts comprised of their co-religionists; their longevity allowed them to rise to leadership positions through the committee system. To be sure, JFK was the only Catholic elected president. But if one looked at the state and local level as well as the other branches of the national government, their influence was enormous. Only 25 percent of Americans are Catholic, for example, but five of the nine judges of the U. S. Supreme Court can be considered members of the Church.

If group solidarity was the force that gave the Church its influence, the Stupak amendment reveals deep division. Its support came overwhelmingly from Republicans--and since so many of them are from the South, the positive vote for the amendment says more about Baptists than it does about Catholics. As Willliam Galston points out, the majority of the 64 Democrats who joined them were Catholic. At the same time, however, supporters also included Blue Dog Democrats from the South such as Tennessee’s Lincoln Davis, a member of the First Baptist Church in Byrdstown. It was, in short, not the Catholic Church that passed the Stupak amendment, but all those who are pro-life for political rather than religious reasons.

Similar ecumenicalism existed on the other side of the aisle. Voting against the Stupak Amendment were such prominent Catholic Democrats as Speaker Nancy Pelosi, as well as backbenchers such as Frank Pallone of New Jersey and Carol Shea-Porter of New Hampshire. Even more tellingly, Catholic House members with their eyes on Senate seats--Michael Capuano from Massachusetts and Joe Sestak from Pennsylvania--voted against, as if realizing that election to statewide office required showing independence of mind. Hispanic Congressmen from Texas tended to vote with the Republicans, but Hispanics from California tended to vote with the Democrats. (Region, as Galston also points out, still matters--for as the Catholic politician Tip O’Neill once put it, reflecting the realities of parish life, “All politics is local”). It is true that religion matters as well, but less, I believe, than Galston suggests. After all, an amendment written by a man that would only affect women was strongly opposed by female members of Congress no matter what their faith.

In this sense, the Stupak Amendment mirrored the situation facing Catholics in the whole country. From the 1930s to the 1950s, Catholics tended to agree on the main issues of the day: Most of them were liberal in economic terms and conservative on foreign policy. These days, Catholics are all over the map politically, even on issues on which their Church takes strong stands. According to a March 2009 Gallup poll, there are no significant differences between Catholics and other Americans on either abortion or stem cell research: 40 percent of Catholics find abortion morally acceptable and 63 percent have no problem with stem cells, compared to 41 percent and 62 percent of non-Catholics respectively. In its own way, the Stupak Amendment revealed the single most important truth about American Catholics: their unwillingness to blindly follow Church teachings.

One other aspect of this vote is sure to be subject to discussion as the health care bill reaches the Senate floor. The Stupak Amendment will not prohibit all insurance plans from paying for abortions, but will restrict those held by the less well off. In that sense, Stupak’s amendment violates the commitments to social justice and equality that have become so much part of the worldview of younger Catholics such as those I teach at Boston College. Stupak, a Catholic from Michigan, along with his allies among the U. S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, have taken a step likely to be perceived as blatantly unfair by those who constitute the future of their church. If this is Catholicism muscling its political power, it sure is a strange way to do so.