BALTIMORE - Cardinal Sean P. O'Malley of Boston, saying the Democratic Party has been persistently hostile to opponents of abortion rights, asserted yesterday that the support of many Catholics for Democratic candidates "borders on scandal."
In his sharpest comments about the political landscape since he was installed as archbishop of Boston four years ago, O'Malley made clear that, despite his differences with the Republican Party over immigration policy, capital punishment, economic issues, and the war in Iraq, he views abortion as the most important moral issue facing policymakers.
"I think the Democratic Party, which has been in many parts of the country traditionally the party which Catholics have supported, has been extremely insensitive to the church's position, on the gospel of life in particular, and on other moral issues," O'Malley said.
Acknowledging that Catholic voters in Massachusetts generally support Democratic candidates who are in favor of abortion rights, O'Malley said, "I think that, at times, it borders on scandal as far as I'm concerned."
"However, when I challenge people about this, they say, 'Well, bishop, we're not supporting [abortion rights],' " he said. "I think there's a need for people to very actively dissociate themselves from those unacceptable positions, and I think if they did that, then the party would have to change."
O'Malley urged the Democratic Party to be more open to abortion opponents. "My plea with Democratic leaders is always that they make space for prolife politicians, and I have many prolife Democrats come to me and say that they're not making space for them. I think that that is a very serious problem, particularly in a state like Massachusetts, where it is so heavily Democrat."
Democratic National Committee spokesman Damien LaVera defended the party, which he called "a big tent party," and he pointed out that there are 104 Catholic Democrats currently serving in Congress, including two who are vocal opponents of abortion rights, Senator Robert P. Casey Jr. of Pennsylvania and Representative Tim Ryan of Ohio.
O'Malley made his comments in an interview just after the US Conference of Catholic Bishops voted overwhelmingly to approve its quadrennial statement offering guidance for Catholic voters, declaring abortion, cloning, and embryonic research to be "intrinsically evil" and warning that support for such acts could endanger a Catholic voter's salvation. The bishops have issued similar documents prior to each presidential election since 1976, but this year decided to place a special emphasis on the importance of opposition to abortion because of concern among some bishops that the issue might get lost in the flurry of statements by the bishops on other topics such as poverty and the environment.
"The direct and intentional destruction of innocent human life is always wrong and is not just one issue among many," the bishops declared in the document, called Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship.
O'Malley, who marches annually in an antiabortion rally, said the document was clearer than it has been in some previous years.
"In the past, there was always the fear that we were considering sort of the smorgasbord of issues, but without any prioritizing, or giving the impression that all issues are of equal value, and I think the emphasis on trying to help people form conscience is very, very important," he said. "The church is not trying to impose Catholic doctrine on the world, but we are trying to invite our people to take seriously their obligation to vote in a way that respects the moral law, the natural law, and takes into account the common good, care for the poor, and particularly the gospel of life, which is always the center of Catholic social teaching."
O'Malley's predecessors as archbishop of Boston were also staunchly antiabortion. Cardinal Bernard F. Law called a news conference to criticize a Republican governor, William F. Weld, for his support for abortion rights, and Law had the lieutenant governor at the time, Paul Cellucci, also a Republican, disinvited from a Catholic high school for the same reason; Law also blasted Geraldine A. Ferraro, the Democratic candidate for vice president in 1984, for her support of abortion rights. Law's predecessor, Cardinal Humberto S. Medeiros, in 1980 tried unsuccessfully to persuade Catholics to vote against two Democratic congressional candidates, Barney Frank and Jim Shannon, because of their support for abortion rights.
O'Malley has publicly spoken out on a handful of other issues, most prominently as a critic of same-sex marriage, which was legalized in Massachusetts despite strenuous efforts to block it by Catholic bishops and other conservative religious leaders. O'Malley has waded somewhat more quietly into other political issues, appearing at a rally for immigrant rights, and blogging about his opposition to casino gambling.
Catholics make up about one-fifth of the American electorate, and although they have traditionally voted Democratic, in recent election cycles they have been more evenly divided between the two major parties nationally.
The bishops' conference did not endorse a candidate or political party - doing so would endanger its tax-exempt status - and said the document was not a voter guide, but rather a summary of Catholic teaching. The bishops have had differences with the Republican Party, too, in particular because of support among many GOP officials for capital punishment and the Iraq war; in the statement approved yesterday, the bishops declared, "no party and too few candidates fully share the church's comprehensive commitment to the life and dignity of every human being from conception to natural death."
The document declares that "as Catholics we are not single-issue voters," but says, "a candidate's position on a single issue that involves an intrinsic evil, such as support for legal abortion or the promotion of racism, may legitimately lead a voter to disqualify a candidate from receiving support."
Traditionally, the document has been mailed to all parishes in the United States; this year, to save money, the cash-strapped bishops' conference will e-mail the document to parishes and post it on a website, www.usccb.org/faithfulcitizenship. The document was supported by 221 of the 226 bishops who voted yesterday.
Michael Paulson can be reached at email@example.com.