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Carol Platt Liebau - Columnist

Carol Platt Liebau is a senior member of the 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.

A Holy Mess
Why Do Catholic Politicians Get Away With Ignoring Church Teachings?
by Carol Platt Liebau 5/2/03

The great 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 among many.

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.


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