Senate Candidate Speaks of Life, Faith

Democrat Robert P. Casey Jr., an abortion opponent, speaks at Catholic University's law school, whose dean, Veryl Victoria Miles, is at left.
Democrat Robert P. Casey Jr., an abortion opponent, speaks at Catholic University's law school, whose dean, Veryl Victoria Miles, is at left. (By Chris Greenberg -- Associated Press)
By Alan Cooperman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 15, 2006

Robert P. Casey Jr., the Democratic candidate seeking to unseat Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) in one of the country's hottest election campaigns, told a largely Roman Catholic audience yesterday that in his view, "neither party has gotten it right when it comes to life issues."

Casey, a lifelong Catholic who opposes abortion, is the second high-profile Democrat who has recently given a major address defending the place of religion in politics. In June, Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) criticized "liberals who dismiss religion in the public square as inherently irrational or intolerant."

Since the 2004 presidential election, in which voters who attend church weekly voted 2 to 1 for President Bush over Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), Democrats have sought to close what some call the "God gap" in U.S. politics.

Casey's candidacy is viewed by Democratic strategists not only as one of the party's best opportunities to pick up a Senate seat, but also as an illustration of its growing inclusion of politicians who oppose abortion and of its desire to reach out to religiously motivated voters.

In a 45-minute lecture at Catholic University's Columbus School of Law, his alma mater, Casey said that America "must be a country dedicated to the common good" and that "my understanding of our common good comes from my family and my faith."

He described a year that he spent teaching at the Gesu School, an inner-city parochial school in north Philadelphia, after graduating from Holy Cross and before going to law school. "My short year as a Jesuit volunteer had a profound impact on my life, and the struggles of those I met in the inner city continue to inspire me," he said.

Casey said the common good is built on a foundation of social justice. "Justice demands our understanding that the hungry, the impoverished and the uninsured in this country are not statistics; they are children of God," he said.

Turning to abortion, he called for Democrats and Republicans to "unite . . . behind the understanding that the common good requires us to value all life." As an example, he cited legislation proposed by House Democrats that would target "the underlying factors that often lead women to choose abortion."

Some of the sharpest language in Casey's speech was aimed at his party. In 1992, the Democratic National Committee did not let Casey's father, then-Gov. Robert P. Casey Sr., speak at its national convention because of his antiabortion views. Referring to that "dark night," the younger Casey said the party "insulted the most courageous pro-life Democrat in the land, who asked that those who believed in the right to life be accorded the right to speak."

But he also had some sharp words for conservatives who focus primarily on the rights of the unborn. "If we are going to be pro-life, we cannot say we are against abortion . . . and then let our children suffer in broken schools," he said. "We can't claim to be pro-life at the same time we are cutting support for Medicaid, Head Start or the Women, Infants and Children's Program."

Some conservative Catholic groups objected to the university's invitation to Casey because he supports the widespread availability of the emergency contraceptive known as Plan B and has backed civil unions for same-sex couples.

"It is ironic Casey's speech topic is 'Restoring America's Moral Compass' when his own compass on moral issues is misguided," said Joseph Cella, leader of the group Fidelis.

But Tom Perriello, an adviser to the liberal group Catholics United for the Common Good, said the speech was "exciting, because as Catholics we've so often had to choose between the pro-life and the pro-social-justice sides of Catholic teaching. Now we get to have a debate about what authentic Catholic teaching is all about."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company