One of the findings of my new book, If They Only Listened to Us: What Women Voters Want Politicians to Hear, is unlikely to rock readers of Commonweal: In interviews all over the country, I met not a few Catholic women who are longing to vote Democratic, but feel “literally ripped in two,’’ as one of them put it. “How can I choose between the poor and the unborn?’’
In Denver, women in this situation often cited campaign-season comments by Archbishop Charles J. Chaput as a major reason why they could not bring themselves to vote for John Kerry in 2004-even when they also found fault with the bishop’s remarks. But when I talked to Chaput last year, he spoke in a way that I think might surprise readers of this magazine. (What follows is an excerpt from the book.)
When I meet the archbishop in his quiet office in the chancery, the late-afternoon sun coming in through the window is hitting him square in the eyes, but-is this a corny cosmic joke or what?-he doesn’t look away.
And when he looks back on the ’04 election, it is with equanimity, maybe, more than anything else. “One thing I do hope flows from this,’’ he ventures, “is that we all come to understand that labeling ourselves as Catholic doesn’t mean we are. It isn’t a heritage we receive from our families; it’s a choice we make personally.... I’ve never been convinced that the fact that someone says, ‘I’m a Catholic,’ or ‘Gosh, I was an altar boy,’ qualifies him to claim that he’s Catholic. And we’re all sinners, of course. But it’s a different kind of violation of God’s law to claim that the law doesn’t make a difference than [it is] to break the law.’’
But is it enough to say, “Gosh, I’m pro-life’’? I’m curious about how he feels about Bush’s statement as a candidate in 2000 that the country wasn’t ready to overturn Roe v. Wade. Or about the fact that both Laura Bush and Barbara Bush have clearly identified themselves as prochoice. I personally have long since concluded that George W. Bush has no interest in seeing Roe thrown out because that would mobilize the prochoice opposition and alienate the prosperity wing of his own party, the big-business crowd that is his truest constituency. How confident is the archbishop that Bush and his party are really on his side?
Chaput’s answer is precise but indirect. “Twenty years ago,’’ he begins, “the argument that, you know, abortion is just one of the issues probably could have been more acceptable to Catholics who thought that there would be steady work on the life issue along with other social-justice issues. But pretty soon, that became an excuse to do nothing about the life issues. And so the refusal to vote for a prochoice person means something different today than it meant twenty years ago.’’
That the issue is not even on the table for some Catholic candidates seems to bother the archbishop the most. “If those same parties would be willing to discuss that issue, even though they have a position, along with other social-justice issues-you know, how do we improve the criminal-justice system, how do we take care of the poor, how do we handle the abortion question-then there would be more credibility. So I think in some ways, the more aggressive stand of some of us during this past election period...was the result of seeing that any other kind of stance hasn’t gotten anywhere.’’
I repeat something a lobbyist for the Colorado Catholic Conference had told me about how, in his view, Republicans had done a great job of creating a moral consensus on abortion-but couldn’t possibly end it because “that would require an enormous change in our country and in our government,’’ including programs to help women provide for their children and prevent unwanted pregnancies. “And if you believe government can’t do anything right, then you can’t end abortion.’’
So, again, is the archbishop so sure of either Bush or his party? He sighs. “I’ve never spoken about either candidate personally, but I would say that, theoretically, someone who says he’s against abortion is further along the road to doing something about it than someone who’s indifferent to the question.... You can have good Catholics who say that they’re not for the criminalization of abortion, or they want to take gradual steps toward eliminating it by convincing the public that this is a bad thing. Those are all legitimate political positions-as long as you’re really moving towards the goal of protecting unborn human life. You at least have to have the goal.’’
He insists that all the attention paid to his statements about abortion during the ’04 presidential campaign was unexpected. “On one level, it was uncomfortable to be called a Republican when I’m not’’-and astonishing to receive a more heated and prodigious response than even the clerical sex-abuse scandals had provoked.
“Do I think there are people in the last election who voted for a prochoice candidate and did so sincerely after reflection and prayer? Yes, I do. Did they do wrong? No, they followed their conscience. But that serious reflection and prayer, that’s really important, and not just being swayed by party sympathies or that’s the way you always vote. It has to be about the issues.’’