Carol Platt Liebau - Columnist
Platt Liebau is a senior member of the CaliforniaRepublic.org
editorial board. She is an attorney, political analyst and commentator
based in San Marino, CA, and has appeared on the Fox News Channel,
Orange County News Channel, Cox Cable and a variety of radio programs
throughout the United States. A graduate of Princeton University
and Harvard Law School, Carol Platt Liebau also served as the
first female managing editor of the Harvard Law Review.
Do Catholic Politicians Get Away With Ignoring Church Teachings?
by Carol Platt Liebau 5/2/03
American humorist Will Rogers once observed that there were a
hundred things that single one out for recognition in party politics
besides ability. For Congressmen Loretta (D-CA) and Linda Sanchez
(D-CA), perhaps it’s because they are the first sisters
to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives.
And now, they have been invited – together – to deliver
the graduation address at Mount St. Mary’s College in Los
Angeles, a school that defines itself as a “Catholic college
primarily for women.” According to Mount St. Mary’s
own statistics, the student body is indeed overwhelmingly female,
and also predominantly Latina – so from a gender and ethnic
standpoint, the Sanchez sisters would seem to be an excellent
choice to address the new graduates.
But the “fit” is less perfect when it comes to religion.
The Sanchez sisters consider themselves to be “Catholics.”
But that view is difficult to support, in light of the Catholic
stand on abortion – one of the topics about which the Catholic
Church speaks unequivocally. A “Doctrinal Note on Some Questions
Regarding the Participation of Catholics in Political Life,”
approved by Pope John Paul II on November 21, 2002, states very
plainly that laws concerning abortion “must defend the basic
right to life from conception to natural death.”
Yet the Sanchez sisters are openly, vocally and proudly pro-choice.
Both were endorsed by the National Organization for Women’s
PAC in 2002, an organization which requires “support for
reproductive rights without restriction” (presumably encompassing
even partial birth abortion) as a condition of its endorsement.
Linda Sanchez actually worked for NOW at one point. And –
over the same weekend as the Mount St. Mary’s graduation
– both sisters are scheduled to speak at the 2003 California
National Organization for Women’s State Conference and Activist
Training, co-sponsored by the California Abortion Rights Action
League, Planned Parenthood and The Feminist Majority, aggressive
pro-choice groups all.
Surely Mount St. Mary’s College wouldn’t invite a
proponent of racial bigotry to deliver a commencement speech,
and quite rightly, because such bigotry is antithetical to Catholic
Church teaching (and to simple human decency, for that matter).
Why, then, would the college’s administration choose to
honor outspoken proponents of abortion rights, which likewise
conflict with Church doctrine?
Clearly, as Americans, the Sanchez sisters are entitled to advocate
sweeping access to abortion. And the religious implications for
the sisters are a private matter, in which the rest of us have
no legitimate interest. But it would be interesting to know whether
the administration at Mount St. Mary’s considers the Sanchez
sisters – notwithstanding their convictions held publicly
in contravention of Church teaching – to be worthy Catholic
politicians, appropriately held up as “role models”
for a new generation of impressionable young Catholic women.
But perhaps it’s unfair to single out Loretta and Linda
Sanchez. Certainly Linda they are not the only Catholic politicians
who have forthrightly supported abortion rights. Other Catholic
Democrats – like Mario Cuomo, Ted Kennedy, Nancy Pelosi
and John Kerry (who had until very recently been inaccurately
bragging that his first Senate floor speech was in “strong
support of Roe v. Wade'') – have long been allowed to draw
a distinction between what they purport to believe privately,
and their public positions. Yes, John Ashcroft pledged to enforce
existing laws that conflict with his religious convictions –
but, then again, he made no promises to support or advocate any
new law that might violate his beliefs. In contrast, all of these
Catholic Democrats have actively endorsed virtually every new
expansion of abortion rights (and opposed any new restrictions)
that have come their way throughout their public lives.
In 1984, Mario Cuomo explained how he believed he could consistently
accept Church teaching on abortion without seeking to enact it
into law. In doing so, Cuomo invoked “the truth that to
assure our freedom we must allow others the same freedom, even
if occasionally it produces conduct by them which we would hold
to be sinful.” (Of course, in disentangling the concept
of morality from the law, Cuomo never explained how he would decide
to support the exercise of some freedoms but not others. Doubtless
he wouldn’t have condoned a law allowing “the greedy”
in New York to enjoy the “freedom” of withholding
payment of their hefty state income taxes).
But for years, it seems that the Catholic Church has allowed self-identified
Catholic politicians to indulge in such theological sleight-of-hand
with minimal public comment. Nor has the Church been any more
forthcoming in defending politicians who support its teachings.
As recently as last week, little was said on behalf of Senator
Rick Santorum, even though his comments on homosexuality –
which ignited a media firestorm – were entirely consistent
with Church teaching and Santorum’s own Catholic faith.
Of course, discretion on the part of religious leaders is appropriate
in a secular political system – no religious faith has any
business dictating policy in the public arena. But neither is
any religion well served when its clergy’s reticence permits
its members to reap political benefits by identifying themselves
as adherents of a particular faith, even as they reject its most
central tenets. Such reticence only reinforces a pernicious notion
that religious identity is malleable, and that agreeing with the
religious teachings of a freely-chosen faith is merely one option
There are some signs that members of the Catholic Church hierarchy
are beginning to realize this. As reported by J. Bottum in The
Weekly Standard, bishops have recently rebuked both Senator Tom
Daschle and Governor Gray Davis for their pro-abortion stances.
And there may yet be more to come.
As for Mount St. Mary’s College, as a private institution,
it is certainly free to invite anyone it chooses to deliver its
commencement addresses. But then no Catholic clergymen in the
Diocese of Los Angeles should wonder why Loretta and Linda Sanchez
feel so free to ignore Church teachings on abortion. Apparently,
the sisters’ repudiation of Catholic doctrine is costless
both in terms of their personal reputations and their religious
standing – at least in this world. For their sakes, let
us hope that the same is true in the next.
CRO columnist Carol Platt Liebau is a political analyst and
commentator based in San Marino, CA.