During the past two years, the Catholic Church in the United States and extremely conservative Christian evangelical groups like the Moral Majority have formed a de facto political alliance. That alliance will ultimately benefit right-wing goals while diminishing many of the positive gains in justice, compassion and human dignity made with the help of the Catholic Church during the past few decades. Many of the Catholic laity -- myself included -- are increasingly concerned that the church we love is being used in a dangerous way.
Throughout this century, the Catholic Church has been in the forefront of efforts to improve health care, strengthen civil rights laws, provide fair and decent housing, ensure safe working conditions and adequate wages and guarantee religious tolerance.
The Catholic Church has also maintained steadfast opposition to abortion. Instructing its membership on the moral issues of abortion is the church's right and, many would say, its duty. The church, however, has done more than instruct. It has also sought legal strictures on abortions. In moving from the moral to the political arena, the church has allied itself with those who would turn aside nearly all that the Catholic leadership and laity have stood for in this century.
As a result of this alliance, the "pro-life" movement has become a stalking horse for the right. In a sincere belief in the respect for human life, many Catholics have been manipulated by far-right political action groups that run counter to the social teachings of the church. Monsignor George Higgins wrote in the Jesuit magazine America last fall that Catholics "should be aware that the church's respect-life agenda includes a wide range of social justice issues and that in the vast majority of cases the political program of the New Right is virtually the antithesis of the church's position."
Indeed, the contrast between the two groups on most issues is striking. For example, last year the U.S. Catholic Conference said, "The primary responsibility of the state is to serve the common good. It has a responsibility to adopt economic policies to ensure that essential needs of all its people are met. These include adequate shelter, health care, education and access to necessary social services." In his presentation before the Republican Party Platform Committee, Bishop Thomas Kelly, also of the U.S. Catholic Conference, voiced the support of the church for the United Nations, human rights, strategic arms control and international economic assistance to the poorest nations of the world. Such positions are part of my heritage as an American Catholic.
Yet, these programs and policies of social concern are under attack by the Moral Majority -- the so-called Christian right. I have never understood what is "Christian" about the religious shock troops of the radical right. Christian teachings, I thought, included compassion for the weak, support for the poor, aid for the hungry and love for all mankind. Instead, I hear that to be a Christian, to take a "moral" position, legislators must vote for major reductions in federal programs, vote against the Department of Education and declare that a threat to Taiwan is also a direct threat to the security interests of the United States. I am told that, as a Christian, I must be against affirmative action for women and laws restricting child abuse by parents. To be moral, I must support unlimited military spending and oppose the strategic arms limitation treaty.
Of course, these are not divinely authorized Christian positions, but they are part of the radical right agenda. The veneer of Christian morality is part of a strategy, again according to Higgins, "to establish a New Right political apparatus that conceals the political economic program of the right wing and focuses on the social issues that have an emotional appeal to groups that have traditionally voted for progressive candidates." The point is made openly by Paul Weyrich, executive director of the right-wing Committee for the Survival of a Free Congress: "The New Right is looking for issues that people care about, like gun control, abortion, taxes and crime. They're emotional issues, but that's better than talking about capital formation."
It is clear that the New Right has had success with this strategy, and the rationalizing necessary to excuse the odd-couple alliance becomes more tortured and distressing daily, I heard one apologist explain the difference in outlook between the church and the right on the issue of nuclear weapons control. He said there was nothing irreconcilable about the church's strong support of arms limitation and the right-wing call for increased nuclear arms because the "ultimate goal was world peace"!
Through the efforts of the right's effective single-issue groups, notably the "pro-life" movement, many compassionate and, yes, "Christian" congressmen have been defeated. This is a shortsighted approach for the Catholic community. Father Theodore Hesburgh, president of Notre Dame University, assessed the damage: "We have witnessed the fact that political candidates who agree 95 percent with Catholic principles of social justice in most issues of public policy have been defeated by their opposition on this one issue and have been replaced by candidates who, agreeing superficially on the issue of abortion, disagree with us on almost every other issue bearing on justice and equality."
I am reminded of the lines from "A Man for All Seasons." Sir Thomas More asks Roper, his former student, to justify his disregard for the law in attempts to gain political goals.
"What would you do?" More asks. "Cut down a great road through the law to get after the Devil?"
"I'd cut down every law in England to do that," young Roper answers.
"And when the last law was down," More retorts, "and the Devil turned around on you -- where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat?"
Today, the church is dangerously close to aiding single-issue groups -- whether intentionally or not -- in cutting down so much of what it has stood for in the past. If the right wing, through manipulation of single-issue politics, continues to defeat elected officials who support progressive steps, there will be no one left in government to shelter those broad values of compassion and justice the church has endorsed.
Both as a Catholic and as a legislator, I hope many in the hierarchy of our church will soon reevaluate this course. From conversations with my fellow Catholics across the country, I know a growing number share the same concern.