Every four years, an astonishing array of conservative commentators and Republican campaign strategists suddenly discover an intimate concern for Catholic consciences and an overriding preoccupation with the Roman church's sacramental and liturgical norms.
Last time around, for example, you couldn't toss a dart at the average Op-Ed page without hitting a right-wing columnist with a firm opinion on whether the Democratic presidential nominee, John Kerry, ought to be denied Communion because he's pro-choice. You could virtually feel the hunger for a good old-fashioned auto-da-fe and hear Karl Rove in the background disappointedly whispering, "Are you certain they don't burn people at the stake anymore?"
For a time, it looked as if war and recession would push "values issues" back into perspective in this election cycle, but abortion is too large a wedge issue to abandon casually. In the last few weeks, commentators began a campaign over the Democrats' failure to invite to Denver Archbishop Charles J. Chaput to their convention. Chaput was one of the handful of bishops who argued that Kerry and other pro-choice Catholic politicians should be denied Communion. More recently, Chaput's book, "Render Unto Caesar," argues that Catholics may not vote for pro-choice candidates. Under the circumstances, the Democrats' snub was graceless but understandable.
Pat Buchanan weighed in next, calling Barack Obama "the most pro-abortion member of the Senate, with his straight A+ report card from the National Abortion Rights Action League and Planned Parenthood."
Then online commentator and talk-radio host Hugh Hewitt, who has practically made Chaput a cast member of his show, recently expressed even more pointed sentiments about Obama's Catholic running mate, Sen. Joe Biden, "a candidate who by definition is deeply at odds with the core teachings of his own church."
All of this paled in the firestorm over House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's answer to the question of when life begins, on NBC's "Meet the Press" on Sunday. Pelosi, who described herself as an "ardent practicing Catholic," gave a response that was not only incoherent but managed to get wrong virtually every fact that might have buttressed her pro-choice position -- which, by the way, is shared by more than half of all U.S. Catholics.
By Tuesday, the speaker was buried in ecclesiastical censure. Chaput pounced with a formal denunciation, labeling as "gravely evil" the "evasions employed to justify [abortion]. Catholics who make excuses for it -- whether they're famous or not -- fool only themselves." Other heavyweights piled on, including New York's Cardinal Edward Egan.
All this conservative crosier waving is about a simple set of numbers. Catholics constitute 25% of the electorate, and no presidential candidate in decades has won the popular vote without carrying Catholics. Obama and Sen. John McCain are in a statistical dead heat for the Catholic vote, with Obama leading 42% to 40% and 17% undecided, according to the pollsters' consensus. The Republicans think their margin of victory might be found in that 17%, many of them white, ethnic, swing-state voters presumed to be socially conservative. The bishops are desperate to demonstrate that their flock isn't ignoring them on abortion the way it has on contraception for half a century.
If Pelosi had half a wit about her, she might have done what most U.S. Catholics instinctively do, which is to rely on a tradition of moral reasoning that stands athwart Chaput's novel reductionism. Nearly five decades ago, the Jesuit theologian John Courtney Murray offered this classic appraisal of the real matter at issue:
"The American Proposition makes a particular claim upon the reflective attention of the Catholic ... in the matter of the 'pluralist society ... ' " Murray wrote. "By pluralism here I mean the coexistence within the one political community of groups who hold divergent and incompatible views with regard to religious questions -- those ultimate questions that concern the nature and destiny of man within a universe that stands under the reign of God. Pluralism therefore implies disagreement and dissension within the community. But it also implies a community within which there must be agreement and consensus. There is no small political problem here."
Murray went on to argue that the "working out" of that political problem is itself "an exercise in civic virtue" -- and a theological imperative.
It is this older line of Catholic moral reasoning that allows Biden, who has voted to ban late-term and so-called partial-birth abortions, to say he is "prepared to accept" the Catholic Church's teaching that life begins at conception while supporting Roe vs. Wade because, for now, it "is as close as we're going to be able to get as a society" to accommodating all religious views on the issue.