Cardinal's criticism is met with silence by Democrats

Email|Print| Text size + By Lisa Wangsness
Globe Staff / November 18, 2007

In 1935, Governor James Michael Curley was pushing hard for a bill to create a state lottery. The bill looked like it would sail through the Legislature. But on the eve of the vote, the afternoon papers carried stories of Cardinal William Henry O'Connell denouncing it.

"The next morning, it went down to crashing defeat," said James O'Toole, a history professor at Boston College.

It is the "mirror image," he observed, of the dynamic now. Last week, after Cardinal Sean P. O'Malley said the support of church members for Democrats "borders on scandal" because of the party's support for keeping abortion legal, most of the state's leading Catholic Democrats responded with silence.

John Walsh, chairman of the Democratic Party, declined to comment, as did Senators Edward M. Kennedy and John F. Kerry, Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino, and nearly all of the state's Democratic Catholic congressmen, on both sides of the abortion issue. The few who did have something to say - House Speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi, who spoke to reporters on a separate issue Thursday, and US Representative Michael E. Capu ano, whose office provided a statement when asked for comment - respectfully disagreed with the church.

As they have for years, most Catholic Democrats in Massachusetts are likely to continue to disagree with the church on abortion without worrying much about the consequences for them or their party. If Catholic voters punished their politicians for opposing church views on abortion - or gay marriage, or any other subject - the response might be quite different, political experts said last week. But they haven't.

"I think the Catholic church wishes there was more tension between them," said Jeffrey M. Berry, a political science professor at Tufts University. "I think O'Malley's outburst is a reflection he's being ignored rather than engaged."

That does not mean that some Democrats who favor abortion rights were not upset by it.

"I don't recall in my lifetime any leader of the Catholic church making such a bold partisan statement," said Philip Johnston, a former state Democratic Party chairman who is also Catholic. "I think it's very regrettable."

Terrence C. Donilon, O'Malley's spokesman, said in a statement yesterday that the archbishop was trying to "emphasize the moral weight" of the abortion issue.

"While he addressed the position of one party, his primary concern was to call attention to the serious moral character of the issue and the attention it should receive from political leaders across the spectrum of our country," he said.

O'Malley's comments came in an interview with the Globe after the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, meeting in Baltimore last week, approved its quadrennial "faithful citizenship" statement providing advice for Catholic voters.

In the early part of the last century, the church became a powerful force in Massachusetts elections, helping Catholics overcome discrimination and gain political power. But over the years, Berry said, the church lost its political grip, as overall religiosity among Catholics has decreased and as Catholics moved into the suburbs, weakening the tie between precinct and parish. Many Catholic politicians agree to disagree with the church on abortion and gay marriage, and their overall willingness to criticize the church publicly may have grown because of the sex abuse scandal.

Several Catholic Democrats replied resolutely when asked last week for their reaction to O'Malley's words. DiMasi said he makes decisions based on what he thinks would be best for the Commonwealth, not "just following what my religious leader tells me to do."

City Councilor-at-large Michael Flaherty, in an interview, quoted the prophet Micah: "We are called to act with justice, to love tenderly and to walk humbly with God," he said. "Instead of hearing about the church plans to exclude groups of people from God's table, I would rather hear how the church could be a place where we are all truly welcome."

John Tobin, another city councilor, said, "I don't fault the cardinal. . . . I'm sure he feels a lot of frustration. But there are Catholics and Catholic politicians who feel frustrated with the church sometimes."

The "faithful citizenship" document approved last Wednesday also calls upon Catholics to support politicians who care about a range of issues important to the Roman Catholic Church, such as helping the poor, promoting justice, caring for the environment, and opposing torture.

But this year's statement put an especially strong emphasis on abortion, calling it an "intrinsic evil" and warning Catholics not to vote for politicians who support it, lest they jeopardize their salvation.

Some Catholic Democrats, however, argued that O'Malley's statements contradicted other aspects of the document.

Patrick Whelan of Watertown is the executive director of Catholic Democrats, a national political network that started in Massachusetts during the last presidential election to defend Kerry, the Democratic nominee, after he was condemned by several Catholic bishops for supporting abortion rights.

Whelan said O'Malley's statements conflicted with the document's assertion that the church "is not partisan" and "cannot champion any candidate or party." He also said that the faithful citizenship document requires voters to do good as well as to oppose evil, and to actively support programs that encourage childbirth.

O'Malley, Whelan said, seemed to endorse the Republican position on abortion - criminalization - as the best way to end the practice, while ignoring the Democratic approach, which he said is to do everything possible to decrease abortions by helping the poor, supporting access to healthcare, and increasing assistance to programs that support pregnant women and their families.

"I think an honest reading of the document really supports both the Republican and Democratic stance," he said.

Damien LaVera, a spokesman for the Democratic National Committee, added that President Bush had vetoed Democratic legislation aimed at reducing unwanted pregnancies and giving pregnant women the support they need.

"The broader definition of 'pro-life' outlined by the bishops is completely consistent with the shared values of Democrats," he added, "who continue to address core issues of poverty, healthcare, and the war in Iraq, and a major reason Catholic voters will continue to support our candidates."

Whelan added that he thought it was a curious time for O'Malley to cast abortion as such a partisan issue, given that "Republicans have a likely nominee named Rudy Giuliani who himself has views that are indistinguishable from all the Democratic candidates.

"It doesn't make any sense," he said.

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