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Like Values? It's Catholic vs. Far Right

April 21, 1996|Paul Ruffins | Paul Ruffins, formerly editor of Black Networking News, is writing a book about the black community's response to crime and criminals

WASHINGTON — After President Bill Clinton vetoed Congress' ban on partial-birth abortions, several Catholic bishops held a small demonstration and suggested Catholic voters should deny Clinton their support in November. Given the church's clear position against abortion--the Vatican criticized Clinton's action--the bishops' response was predictable, even mild, for they did not call for Catholics to make a full-scale exodus from the Democratic Party. This raises the important question of why large numbers of Catholics remain solidly Democratic despite the Republican Party's claim that its positions on abortion, school vouchers and "family values" are far closer to the church's.

The answer is that there are still many practical and moral issues keeping the Catholic Church from closer ties with the conservative-GOP alliance. This is in sharp contrast to the largely Protestant Christian Coalition, which has actively promoted freshman GOP congressmen committed to a pro-business, anti-federal government agenda.

Before President John F. Kennedy's election in 1960, the big issue keeping conservative Catholics from a closer relationship with Protestant conservatives was a Southern, nativist anti-Catholicism that hated Catholic immigrants almost as vehemently as it despised blacks and Jews. However, in the 1990s, Protestant anti-Catholicism is largely confined to the Ku Klux Klan and to other radical fringe groups. Next to the major racial divisions between whiles and African Americans, or blacks and Asians, the fading ethnic tensions between Protestants and Irish or Italian Americans seem increasingly irrelevant.

Today, most people who identify themselves politically as "conservative Christians" would welcome Catholics into their organizations, if not their denominations, particularly if Catholic votes and dollars flowed to candidates promoting Republican family values. But abortion alone will not automatically turn Ronald Reagan's Catholic voters into registered Republicans. One reason is that abortion cuts both ways politically: Most Republicans want to cut payments to women on welfare, even though this will probably increase the number of abortions.

But the most important reason is that Catholic social teachings go far beyond conservative positions on sexual behavior. The U.S. Catholic Conference's pamphlet, "Political Responsibility, Reflections on the 1996 Elections," addresses 20 issues, including abortion, capital punishment, housing and education. On some of these issues--such as calling for economic sanctions against countries with records of human-rights abuses--the church is probably more liberal than Clinton.

This is why many ethnic Catholic communities, such as Boston and Chicago, continue to resist the Christian right's political and economic agenda. It conflicts with many Catholic teachings and would undermine unions, Latino immigrant communities and others with close ties to the Catholic Church. For example, reducing federal aid to education and cutting Medicare and Medicaid would severely affect Catholic colleges and hospitals that serve large numbers of the poor.

An even more important issue is Catholic support for organized labor. Though it was rarely mentioned at the AFL-CIO convention, in the elections for a new union president last October, all five candidates--including the incumbents Thomas J. Donahue and Barbara J. Easterling, and the successful challengers, John J. Sweeney, Richard L. Trumka and Linda Chavez-Thompson--were Catholics. In the past, as a reflection of the working-class community, Jews often played major roles in the labor movement. But in recent decades, as many Jewish Americans moved up the economic ladder out of unionized jobs, large numbers of Latinos entered the workplace. As a result, the Catholic influence has grown.

Compared with the Southern Protestant churches that form the backbone of the Christian right, Catholic moral teachings can be interpreted as far more pro-union, and far less accepting of free-market capitalism.

As Walt Grazier of the Catholic Bishops Conference explains, "Starting with Pope Leo in 1891, the church has been skeptical of both totalitarian socialism and unregulated capitalism. Pope John Paul II has affirmed the workers' right to organize unions as a way to defend against both systems; and has also warned that accepting an individualist, marketplace morality quickly leads to pollution, exploitation and the destruction of family values."

New AFL-CIO President Sweeney points out, "America's deregulated marketplace has forced parents to spend 40% less time with their children than 30 years ago. How can this be considered pro-family?"

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