Excerpted with permission from the National Catholic Reporter.

The Republican Party's Catholic Task Force has made a far-reaching claim: that of all political parties, the Republican Party's agenda best reflects Catholic teaching.

Specifically, in a mission statement last revised in January, the task force said, "We have studied the political record of all major political parties and we believe that the Republican Party is closest to the teachings of the Catholic Church."

The party's claims are unusually bold, given that most people who follow national politics would say that since the 1930s, the Democrats have more consistently reflected the social teachings of the Catholic Church. Further, for most of that time, the majority of the Catholic vote has gone to Democratic candidates.

If there were a change in the historic alignment between Catholics and Democrats, it would be a dramatic, surprising shift. And if Catholics believed the recent Republican claims, and voted accordingly, it could have significant electoral results.

With such results in mind, the Republican Party's National Committee chairman announced June 30 that a major outreach to Catholic voters was already underway. The chairman, Jim Nicholson, also announced that he had appointed Brian Tierney of Philadelphia to head the Republican committee's Catholic Task Force. Tierney is a powerful public relations figure with close ties to Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua of Philadelphia.

"We're shifting into high gear in our efforts to reach Catholic voters," Nicholson announced.

As researchers who have examined the religious factor in the U.S. Congress, we decided to examine the Republican claims. Our extensive analysis, which included consulting many experts on Congressional votes in relation to Catholic teaching, shows clearly that, aside from the Republican Party's anti-abortion stand, and its support for educational vouchers and funds for Catholic schools, the party's claim to best represent Catholic views is greatly exaggerated.

In virtually every other area of concern to Catholic leaders and to Network, the Catholic social justice lobby, support by Democrats in Congress for positions aligned with church teaching far outranks support by Republicans.

These areas include raising the minimum wage, housing assistance, restricting the death penalty, health insurance, increased Medicaid eligibility, patients' bill of rights, cuts in military spending and support for peacekeeping efforts.

Our analysis was based on three sources:

  • A summary of evaluations conducted by Network of roll-call votes by members of both the House and Senate, for the 104th and 105th Congresses. Assessments of how legislation relates to Catholic teaching, as determined by a group of knowledgeable Catholics whom we asked to serve as judges. We compared their assessments to roll-call votes on key issues selected by Michael Barone for his "Almanac of American Politics."

  • An examination of legislation of concern to Catholic bishops--specifically, the bishops' Office of Government Liaison, which is sponsored by the United States Catholic Conference in Washington. The conference serves as the social policy arm of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops.

  • Network is a voluntary association founded by Catholic women religious in 1971. The organization lobbies Congress on issues it believes to be relevant to building a just society, based on principles set forth in the Gospels and in Catholic social teaching. The organization does not lobby on abortion-related legislation. Each year, the January issue of Network's bimonthly magazine, Network Connection, contains a list of the 10 to 15 legislative issues Network is concerned about, along with the votes cast by each member of Congress on those issues.
  • For the 104th and 105th Congresses, for example, Network selected 15 or 16 pieces of legislation that it considered both important and relevant to church teachings. The results of Network's analysis overwhelmingly repudiate the contention of the Republican Catholic Task Force that the Republican Party's agenda is closer to the teachings of the Catholic Church. The evidence clearly shows that on these issues, Democrats have been closer to Catholic teachings than the Republicans.

    To illustrate, in the 104th Congress, Network opposed tax and spending cuts in HR 1215 because the cuts made the tax system even more regressive by benefiting predominately upper-income individuals and corporations. Further, Network argued that the cuts, paid for by reducing spending for domestic discretionary programs, disproportionately hurt low- and middle-income persons. Democrats opposed the cuts, supporting Network's position, while Republicans supported the cuts.

    Network took a similar position on Senate Bill 1357, opposing a move to cut $43 billion in funding for the Earned Income Tax Credit. The bill, which passed, increased the tax burden on low-income families. Again, Democrats opposed the cuts, which benefited wealthier Americans; Republicans supported them.

    Judging the Issues
    Our judges for the second part of our analysis, how legislation on key issues related to Catholic teaching compared with Congressional votes, consisted of two women religious, two priests and several laypersons. All have worked as advocates for social justice in Catholic settings and are thoroughly familiar with church teachings.

    The assignment we gave them was this: to look at specific legislative issues and apply their knowledge of Catholic teachings to determine church support. In selecting legislative issues, we used those listed in "The Almanac of American Politics" by Michael Barone et al. Barone is known widely as a careful observer of U.S. elections and voting patterns in Congress. His almanac, produced every two years, provides data on how House and Senate members voted on issues that he regards as indicative of those members' stances on important votes. Barone also describes how a variety of major interest groups evaluate members of Congress in relation to their respective ideologies.

    Our research shows clearly that on the majority of issues labeled as key by Barone for the 103rd-105th Congresses, Democrats in both the House and Senate were much closer to Catholic teachings than were Republicans.

    In just one case--the override of the partial-birth abortion veto (HR 1833)--Republicans supported the bishops' position 215-15, while the Democrats opposed it 70-121.

    More typical was a minimum wage bill before the 104th Congress (HR 1227) that was strongly supported by the church. House Democrats gave it 97% support; House Republicans 33%. In the Senate the vote on a similar bill (HR 3448) was Democrats 100%, Republicans 53%.

    Further, the church supports easing restrictions on trade with Cuba. Republicans supported tightening the embargo. A bill to that effect, HR 927, was passed by the 104th Congress with overwhelming Republican support, 227 to 4. Democrats voted against the bill 125 to 67.

    Legislation and the Bishops
    To find legislation of concern to Catholic bishops, we reviewed the Legislative Reports of the Office of Government Liaison of the United States Catholic Conference for the 105th Congress (1998), and the Legislative Report on the First Session of the 106th Congress (the current Congress). These reports are available to the public on request. We also conducted an extensive study of the Congressional Quarterly for 1999 and the early months of 2000 so that we would know about any amendments that might have changed the legislation, possibly affecting Catholic support.

    The U.S. Catholic Conference publishes many statements on church teachings, with major emphasis on the sacredness of life from conception to death. These statements are designed to help people know and understand the church's teachings and to encourage their active support as citizens. A recent statement, "Faithful Citizenship: Civic Responsibility for a New Millennium," reiterates the conference's position that abortion, assisted suicide and euthanasia are morally unacceptable. The statement goes on to emphasize the importance of family, of jobs with adequate pay and decent working conditions, the need to increase the minimum wage so it becomes a living wage and to overcome barriers to equal pay and employment for women and minorities.

    The bishops make clear that these statements are being addressed to all citizens, Republicans, Democrats and Independents.

    In the current 106th Congress, the liaison office, on behalf of the Catholic bishops, has been following 82 issues in several categories, including communications, domestic social development, education, international justice and peace, migration and refugee services, and pro-life.

    In some cases, the office lobbies directly to amend, pass or defeat specific pieces of legislation or the bill as a whole. In others, staff simply tracks legislation.

    For example, under the category "domestic social development," the office staff lobbies for health care for vulnerable populations, support for low-wage earners and other issues it recognizes as burdensome to low-income Americans. Minimum wage is one of the most important pieces of legislation in this category. The office is currently lobbying for an increase of $1 over two years, which Democrats support. Republicans, on the other hand, want the increase spread out over three years.

    A final vote on any bill represents a series of compromises, negotiations and modifications. Tracking amendments to the legislation often reveals party positions. However, this procedure is complicated for several reasons. Members often propose amendments they know will not be acceptable just to have their position on record for their constituents back home. Moderates in both parties risk party disapproval if they cross party lines more than very rarely.

    In some cases involving controversial legislation, party members, even leaders, cross over in order to support legislation backed by the bishops' government liaison office. But these crossover votes have become less and less common as both parties have become more disciplined in their demands on member loyalty.

    Parties Excel at Rhetoric
    After close scrutiny, we determined that Republican claims to represent Catholic teaching are vastly overstated. Although it is true that the Republican Party is more consistently aligned with Catholic teaching against abortion, we found that Democrats more closely reflect Catholic teachings over the broad spectrum. Recent Republican claims to the contrary appear to be based on the assumption that reproductive issues, particularly abortion, are the only policies of interest to Catholics.

    In reality, the church has an exceptionally strong body of teachings on social justice--teachings that play into many areas of social policy. A careful reading of documents the Catholic Church has produced during the past quarter century makes it clear how far beyond reproductive rights the teachings of the Catholic Church extend.

    Between 1972 to the present, the Republican Catholic presence in the House has grown considerably, from 22 Republican Catholics in the House in 1972 to 49 in 1999 and from 3 Republican Catholics in the Senate in 1972 to 11 in 1999. (The number of Catholic Democrats remained steady in the House--77 in 1972, 78 in 1999--but increased in the Senate, from 9 in 1972 to 14 in 1999.) Yet Republican policies have remained fundamentally the same: opposed to using federal tax dollars for social programs that would relieve the burdens of the poor.

    In many cases, the Republican position on issues is rooted in the party's rhetoric against moral decay, weak families, sexual excess and drug use. The church can generally agree that these social problems are matters of serious concern. Democrats also are good at this rhetoric. But it is the willingness of Democrats committed to social action--not rhetoric on either side--that makes possible the social programs that benefit society's most vulnerable members.

    An example is found in HR 2684, a bill that originally cut funding for housing assistance for the poor. The church opposed all such cuts (Legislative Report, December 1999). Our research revealed that it was the Democrats who beat back a series of votes that, had they passed, would have cut funds for housing assistance. The final Senate vote in support of HR 2684 was 92-5, with only three Republicans and two Democrats opposing it. But what really counted in support of the church position was the ability to beat back the amendments with the support of a majority of Democrats and a minority of Republicans.

    In other cases, Republican policies focus on lowering taxes and on returning tax dollars "to the people who earned them," as they like to say. But nowhere do church teachings say anything about returning tax dollars to already wealthy Americans. Rather, the teachings emphasize our responsibility as a people to use tax dollars to lift up the needy.

    Up to now, the Republican Party, other than in its efforts to restrict legal abortions, has largely ignored the Catholic Church's emphasis on a consistent ethic of life. This ethic teaches that all those born into this world should have adequate health care, decent housing, quality education and opportunities for jobs with living wages, and that the government should use tax funds for programs that will make such basic justice possible.

    As part of its consistent life ethic, the church has begun in recent years to focus on the death penalty, calling for society to halt execution as a penalty for crime. While neither party is as clearly opposed to capital punishment as recent Catholic teaching is, Democrats in the House and Senate have fought efforts by the Republican Party to stiffen the death penalty. For example, S 1241 (June 1991), which limits death-row appeals, had strong support from Senate Republicans, who voted 42-0 in favor. Democrats, on the other hand, opposed the bill 40-16.

    These examples could go on, but the point by now is clear. The Republican claim that it reflects Catholic teaching is limited. The fact is the Republican Party departs from Catholic teachings on most issues that fall under the umbrella of social justice. Our research shows that the affinity between Democrats and Catholic social teaching, an affinity that reaches back to the New Deal in the 1930s, continues into the present.

    It is equally clear, however, that neither party can claim to be fully in accord with church teaching. If both parties were really concerned with using available tax funds to assist the least fortunate among us, as the Gospel requires, we would be living in a far more humane and loving world.

    As U.S. bishops have said in their document on faithful citizenship, "The next millennium requires a new kind of politics, focused more on moral principles than on the latest polls, more on the needs of the poor and vulnerable...more on the pursuit of the common good.... Sometimes it seems few candidates and no party fully reflects our values.... We must challenge all parties and every candidate to defend human life and dignity, to pursue greater justice and peace, to uphold family life and to advance the common good."

    William V. D'Antonio, a sociologist, is professor emeritus of the University of Connecticut and visiting research professor at The Catholic University of America. Jacqueline Scherer, a sociologist and professor emerita of Oakland University in Michigan, resides in Alexandria, Va.

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