Canadians would squirm at how top U.S. clergy press church positions on issues such as abortion
When the House of Representatives passed a health-care reform bill this month that included a watertight prohibition on federal funding for elective abortions, outraged American feminists wondered just how one of their own – House Speaker Nancy Pelosi – could have countenanced such a concession.
The answer many came up with lay in a brief encounter between President Barack Obama and Cardinal Sean O’Malley, the Archbishop of Boston, at the funeral of the patriarch of America’s first family of Catholics, Ted Kennedy – who, incidentally, was a strident crusader for abortion rights.
Beantown’s Catholic primate boasted later on his blog that he warned Mr. Obama that “the bishops of the Catholic Church are anxious to support a plan for universal health care, but we will not support a plan that will include a provision for abortion or could open the way to abortions in the future.”
For Mr. Obama, who needs all the allies he can get if he is to succeed where Bill Clinton and others failed, the cardinal’s admonition was considered neither out of place nor dispensable. It was another just example of how religion looms large in the politics of a country that purportedly considers the separation of church and state sacrosanct.
U.S. church leaders do not hesitate to call politicians out on their beliefs with a vehemence that might be considered abusive, if not irrelevant to their functions, in Canada. It happened again on the weekend when the bishop of Providence confirmed that he had instructed Mr. Kennedy’s nephew, Rhode Island congressman Patrick Kennedy, to stop taking communion at mass in light of his support for abortion rights.
The same Catholic pressure tactics are playing out in the nation’s capital, where the District of Columbia city council is preparing to vote on a bill to legalize same-sex marriage. The Archbishop of Washington, Donald Wuerl, is warning councillors that church charities might withdraw from the publicly funded initiatives they run to feed and house the city’s poor if the bill is adopted.
In Canada, such warnings might not go far. But the political heft of U.S. church leaders is so pervasive that Mr. Obama – whose own faith became a campaign issue when he had to deny suggestions he was a Muslim and renounce his Christian pastor – felt obliged to personally sell his health-care reforms in a conference call with religious organizations in August. In particular, the President tried to debunk perceptions that a government-run health plan would cut costs by favouring euthanasia by setting up the so-called “death panels” evoked by Sarah Palin and others.
“The reason the Catholic Church, or parts of the Catholic Church, are attempting to influence policy is because they have a sense that they can actually effectuate some kind of change in the American political structure,” said Lucas Swaine, a professor of government at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H. “That’s one real difference between Canada and America.”
Of course, bishops in Canada have not shied away from expressing their opposition to public policies that run counter to Catholic doctrine. And a few have even pushed the envelope. In 2005, Calgary Bishop Frederick Henry mused that then-prime-minister Paul Martin might be candidate for excommunication over his government’s plan to legalize same-sex marriage.
But the influence of religious groups is rarely considered a determining factor in Canadian policy outcomes, or at least not anywhere near the extent to which it remains an integral part of the fabric of American politics.
U.S. Supreme Court decisions in the past two decades have emboldened religious leaders’ resolve to actively engage in politics, noted John Witte, director of the Center for the Study of Law and Religion at Emory University in Atlanta. Those decisions served to weaken the U.S. Constitution’s so-called “establishment clause,” which has traditionally been seen as the legal underpinning for the separation of church and state.
“There is now less risk of jeopardizing the constitutionality of any given initiative just because religious fingerprints are on that initiative,” Prof. Witte said. “The Catholic Church has become much more vocal … and the church has made a concerted effort through the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to be more overt and uniform in its advocacy.”
Even so, the health-care reform bill now before the Senate demonstrates the divisions that exist within the U.S. body politic over abortion and the competing interests vying for influence. The bill tabled last week by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid differs from the House version in that it would allow Americans receiving subsidies to procure health insurance to buy policies that cover elective abortions, as long as they pay separate premiums for the procedure. The bishops’ conference called the bill “an enormous disappointment.”
Rather than throw in the towel, however, the bishops and their allies are only stepping up their pressure on senators to reinsert the House provisions on abortion into their own bill. And no one is underestimating the bishops’ ability to prevail.
Their Canadian brethren can only dream of such clout.
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