The Republican Party is making a major play for the Catholic vote in the upcoming national elections. In its mission statement, the party's Catholic Task Force has declared that the Republican political record is closest to Catholic teachings.
Not everyone agrees, however, that the Grand Old Party best represents the Catholic point of view.
Bishop Joseph Fiorenza of Galveston-Houston pointed to the statement "Faithful Citizenship: Civic Responsibility for a New Millennium," issued last September by the administrative board of U.S. Catholic bishops.
"Our moral framework does not easily fit the categories of right or left, Democratic or Republican," Fiorenza said. "Our responsibility is to measure every party and platform by how its agenda touches human life and dignity." Fiorenza is president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops.
The bishops' document noted the size and diversity of the Catholic community, stating, "We are Republicans, Democrats and Independents." It urged Catholics to "see beyond party politics, to analyze campaign rhetoric critically and to choose their political leaders according to principle, not simply by party affiliation or mere self-interest."
Bishop Walter Sullivan of Richmond, Va., who said he sought to "refrain" from the politics implied in the Catholic Task Force's assertion, said that the group "doesn't represent the Catholic Church. They speak as individuals and as Republicans."
Sullivan said he thought it unwise to tell Catholics how to vote. "We can think for ourselves," he said.
Historically, the church has been closest to the Democratic Party since the 1920s, said Marist Father Ted Keating, who serves as executive director of the Conference of Major Superiors of Men in Silver Spring, Md. However, this doesn't mean that the church favors either the progressive stance of the Democrats or the conservative agenda of Republicans, he said.
As Keating sees it: "After many years both parties reflect and do not reflect Catholic social teaching."
While Keating said that members of the task force "certainly have a right to their opinion," it is impossible to take Catholic social teaching apart by issue for the purpose of political categorization. Such an approach "disintegrates" the teaching, he said. "Catholic theology can't be broken up. It must be seen as integral."
Keating said he viewed the teaching as "coming apart" when it is broken into pieces in order to "match points on a party platform." On the question of consistent respect for the human person throughout a whole life, he noted that the Republicans might be closer to Catholic teaching on abortion, and Democrats "may be better on children and women, but both favor capital punishment," which Catholic social teaching opposes.
In a close reading of "Faithful Citizenship," Immaculate Heart of Mary Sister Margaret Gannon said the bishops raised 34 issues in the 13-page statement. She lined up the bishops' document alongside the platforms of the two major parties to see where the parties reflected bishops' thinking and where the two diverged. Gannon, a professor at Marywood University in Scranton, Pa., presented her findings to about 50 Immaculate Heart sisters July 26.
On issues of abortion and school vouchers, she found Republican positions closer to those of the bishops. On nine other key issues, however, the Democrats' platform proved closer to church teaching than that of the Republicans, she said.
The issues included gun control, passage of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, support for a living wage, internet access for all, health care reform, affirmative action and opposition to racial and other forms of discrimination. On the question of taxes, Gannon said she thought the Democratic proposals were better aligned with the bishops' emphasis on support for families, especially the less well-off, than those of Republicans.
On at least four issues, Gannon declared the platform proposals of the two parties "a draw" when it came to accord with Catholic social teaching. Both parties favored the death penalty; both had complex schemes for Social Security and for welfare reform. On the question of international trade, the nun said that both parties were "wrong" since neither gives prominence to human rights, worker protection, care for the environment and promotion of religious liberty, as favored by the bishops.
St. Joseph Sister Mary Elizabeth Clark of the national Catholic social justice lobby Network, in Washington, said she wondered whether the Catholic Task Force of the Republican National Committee had reviewed Network's assessment of voting records in making their claim. At the end of each legislative session, Network analyzes the votes of Congress in the light of Gospel values and the principles of Catholic social teaching.
During the 106th Congress, Network found 11 issues on which it had lobbied legislators--including the federal budget, managed care protections, the Africa trade bill, campaign finance reform, the School of the Americas, taxes and troop reductions in Europe.
"When looking at Network's voting record, we could see where many Republicans fall short," Clark said. She pointed to votes that she called "contrary to economic justice and contrary to the poor."
"You can make your deduction from that," said Clark, whose organization works with both Republicans and Democrats on promoting Network's goals. The organization has visited all members of the 106th Congress who voted with Network 9, 10 or 11 times, Clark said. "None were Republicans."
Clark questioned whether, in claiming to reflect Catholic views, Republicans "are giving higher rank to certain issues than others." She said she hoped they might begin to give more weight to issues involving poor people and the environment and to issues related to global trade.
"Poverty is an act of violence against life," Clark said. "Trade policies that will dehumanize people and the earth are life issues as much as is abortion."
Nancy Wisdo, director of the Domestic Social Development Office of the U.S. Catholic Conference, said that the conference could only talk about issues, not parties. She said the larger question in her mind is, "Why aren't Democrats having outreach to Catholics? They haven't shown any signs of it."