The writer, of Omaha, is a founding member of Catholic Democrats of Nebraska, which stresses links between Democratic Party ideals and Catholic social teachings.
A generation ago, the term "Catholic Democrat" seemed almost redundant. If you were Catholic, few asked about your politics. It was understood. Today, we find a completely different political landscape in which Catholics have become a powerful, dependable voting bloc for the Republican Party.
This swift conversion is partially the result of a wellplanned, well-executed strategy by political conservatives that uses the issue of abortion to create a wedge between practicing Catholics and the Democratic Party. By portraying the Republican Party as the "pro-life party," conservatives have successfully recruited Catholics who strongly believe in protecting the unborn.
The primacy of the abortion issue, however, is unique to these Catholic voters. The political reality is that ending or even limiting abortion is not a priority for the Republican Party.
Republican strategists seem to believe that the polarizing effect of the abortion issue is a very potent political tool and can continue to be the wedge that drives Catholics away from the Democratic Party. It could be argued that the last thing the Republican political machine wants is an end to abortion, for along with it would go the Catholic vote. That might sound harsh, but the facts about abortion indicate that Catholics who vote Republican based on the single issue of abortion get nothing in return.
The number of U.S. abortions declined steadily under the Clinton administration, reaching a 24-year low as George W. Bush took office in 2001. What has happened since is the source of much debate, with pro-life and pro-choice groups arguing over statistics provided by Glen Howard Stassen, the Alan Guttmacher Institute and the Centers for Disease Control.
But what is absolutely clear is that, unlike the Clinton administration, the Bush administration has simply taken the position that abortion is wrong without paying any attention to its root causes - poverty, unemployment, skyrocketing health-care costs and teen pregnancy, among others.
The Democratic Party has hurt itself by refusing to budge on the abortion issue. Liberal Democrats have managed to merge the pro-choice and women's-rights issues, making any dissent on abortion appear to be an attack on gender equality. Such narrow-minded thinking has only helped Republicans siphon off pro-life Democrats.
If the current Catholic voting trend is to be reversed, the Democratic Party must revert to the "big tent" philosophy of the past that promoted inclusiveness and allowed for dissension among the ranks on issues such as abortion.
Where does a Catholic find the Church's teaching on the sanctity of life and its application to our social and political world?
"Faithful Citizenship," issued in 2003 by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, applies Catholic social teaching to major political, social and economic issues and provides Catholics the "consistent moral framework" necessary to responsibly participate in our democracy. A consistent pro-life message resonates throughout the document. The bishops make clear the Catholic Church's opposition to abortion, euthanasia and the death penalty. But they do not stop there.
"Faithful Citizenship" extends its pro-life position to a wide array of issues concerning human dignity: supporting the right of workers to a just wage, decent working conditions and the right to organize without reprisal; ensuring adequate and affordable health care for our most vulnerable populations; eradicating hunger and poverty at home and abroad through government aid; fixing the problems of the judicial system to reduce crime and violence; eliminating discrimination through affirmative action; and promoting peace in the Middle East and Africa through proactive diplomacy.
These positions are not radical ideas set forth by some "liberal" think tank. Rather, they are the fundamental teachings of the Catholic Church. The message of the bishops in "Faithful Citizenship" is entirely consonant with that of pro-life Democrats. Pro-life Democrats must seek out those Catholics who have abandoned the party and challenge them to examine what the church says about the key social, political and economic issues of these times.
What they will find is that the consistent ethic of life that should be the guiding principle in how a Catholic votes can be found only in the growing pro-life movement within the Democratic Party. It is then up to all Democrats to welcome Catholics home.