The Kerry challenge

George Weigel

During his campaign for the presidency, Senator John Kerry has tried in various ways to square his self-description as a “believing and practicing Catholic” with his unalloyed record of support for abortion-on-demand, including partial birth abortion. Perhaps the senator’s most succinct statement of his case came in St. Louis this past January: “What I believe personally as a Catholic as an article of faith is an article of faith…[But it is not] appropriate in the United States for a legislator to legislate personal religious beliefs for the rest of the country.”

In other words, Senator Kerry believes that the Catholic Church’s pro-life position is a sectarian position, whose imposition on a pluralistic society would be constitutionally unwarranted – something like the Catholic Church trying to force all Americans to abstain from hot dogs on Fridays during Lent.

This is simply not true. For the past thirty-one years, the Catholic bishops of the United States have made public arguments that can be engaged by any serious person on behalf of the right to life. You don’t have to believe in Petrine primacy, seven sacraments, or the two natures of Christ to engage the Catholic pro-life argument; you don’t even have to believe in God. You simply have to be willing to take elementary embryology and elementary logic seriously.  For the senator to suggest that the Church’s position is sectarian is either woefully ignorant or deliberately mendacious.

The bishops of the United States must address this sorry misrepresentation of their teaching – soon, crisply, and preferably as a united body.

Leaving this distortion of the nature of the Church’s pro-life position unchallenged would have several serious consequences. It would further corrupt the public debate, which would decay into a non-argument between mis-named “sectarians” and misguided “pluralists.” The bishops have done the entire country a great service these past thirty years by using a vocabulary in defense of the dignity of life that everyone, irrespective of religious convictions, can understand. If that genuinely ecumenical, public approach is successfully labeled “sectarian” – and by a Catholic, no less – lasting damage will be done to our political culture.

The future of the Democratic Party is also at stake. If Senator Kerry’s misrepresentation of the Church’s pro-life position as sectarian is allowed to go unchallenged, the bishops will further marginalize pro-life Democrats like Michigan Congressman Bart Stupak, who will be de facto sectarians in their own party. What slim hopes there are for transforming the Democratic Party into a party where pro-lifers can be comfortable will be dashed, perhaps for good.

Leaving Kerry’s misrepresentation unclarified and unchallenged will put Catholic judicial nominees of both parties in jeopardy. It was precisely the spurious charge of sectarianism that Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY) tried to hang on pro-life Alabama attorney general Bill Pryor last year in order to stall Pryor’s nomination to the federal appellate bench. Unless the bishops publicly correct Kerry’s misrepresentations, more of this sort of Catholic-bashing is inevitable.

Finally, there is the question of the bishops’ own credibility. The last two and a half years have taught us that faithful Catholics want clear episcopal leadership and courageous episcopal teaching. If the bishops fail to challenge Kerry’s misrepresentation of a position in which the bishops’ conference has invested thirty years of hard and effective work, the damage to the conference’s already eroded credibility will be very bad indeed.

In addition to clarifying the nature of the Church’s pro-life position, the bishops must get their conference’s communications strategy in order. When deputy USCCB spokesperson Sister Mary Ann Walsh told Fox News that “there is no candidate…in agreement with the Church on all issues,” she failed to make the other, obvious, and essential point: not all issues are equal. And that’s not just my view, that’s the view of the people Sister Mary Ann has been hired to serve: the bishops of the United States, who in a 1998 pastoral letter made unmistakably clear that the pro-life issue carried more weight than other issues because it involved the moral foundations of American democracy.

The bishops must insist, publicly, that descriptions of the Church’s pro-life position as sectarian are false and unacceptable; so must the bishops’ staff. And sooner rather than later, please.

COMING UP: Lessons on proper elder care after my mother’s death

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We buried my Mom last month. 

In the summer of last year, I first drove her to her new memory care facility. My heart was breaking. She was so scared and vulnerable but was trying so hard to be brave. My brother said it was like taking your kid to pre-school for the first time. And never going back to pick her up. 

But we had to do it. She was far too confused for our 97-year-old Dad to take care of her. She didn’t recognize him. She would lock herself in her room, afraid of the “strange man” in their apartment. She wasn’t eating well, and with COVID restrictions we couldn’t get into her independent living facility to monitor her diet or her health. Worst of all, she would wander. Unable to recognize “home” and unable to convince anybody to come get her, she would set off by herself. Dad would realize she was missing and frantically try to find her. Fortunately for us, she always attempted her escapes when the night security guard was at his desk. But we were terrified that some evening she would get out while he was away, and she would roam out into the winter night. 

We knew that, without round the clock support, we couldn’t keep her safe in any of our homes either. So, we concluded that she needed to be placed in a secure memory care facility. I think it was one of the hardest decisions my family has ever faced. We researched. We consulted experts. We hired a placement agency. We came close to placing her in one home, then chickened out because we felt like the owner was pressuring us.  

Finally, we landed on what looked like the best facility for our needs. They specialized in memory care, and we were assured that the staff had been trained to care for people with dementia. They took notes about her diet, health, likes and dislikes. Most important, it was a secured facility. They knew that Mom wandered, and their secured doors and round the clock caregiver oversight seemed like the best way to keep her safe. It was the most expensive facility we had seen. But we figured her safety and well-being were worth it. 

On Jan. 12, Mom was found in that facility’s back yard. Frozen to death.  

She had let herself out through an unsecured exterior door, unnoticed and unimpeded, on a cold winter evening. No one realized she was missing until the next morning.  A health department investigator told me that she had been out there at least 12 hours. Which means caregivers over three shifts failed to recognize her absence. I’m told she was wearing thin pants, a short-sleeved shirt and socks. The overnight low was 20 degrees. 

We are devastated. Beyond devastated. Frankly, I don’t know that it has completely sunk in yet. I think the brain only lets in a little horror at a time. I re-read what I just wrote, and think “Wow, that would be a really horrible thing to happen to a loved one.” 

I debated what my first column after Mom’s death would look like. I have felt compelled, in social media, to celebrate the person my Mom was and the way she lived. To keep the memory alive of the truly amazing person she was. But I think I did it mostly to distract my mind from the horror of how she died. 

But I am feeling more compelled, in this moment, to tell the story of how she died. Because I think it needs to be told. Because others are struggling with the agonizing decision to place a parent in memory care. Because when we were doing our research, we would have wanted to know that these kind of things happen. 

I am not naming the facility here. It will be public knowledge when the Colorado Department of Health and Environment report is completed. From what I am told, they are horrified at what happened and are working very hard to make sure it never happens again.

My point here is much bigger. I am discovering the enormous problems we face in senior care, particularly in the era of COVID. I was told by someone in the industry that, since the facilities are locked down and families can’t get in to check on their loved ones, standards are slipping in many places. With no oversight, caregivers and managers are getting lazy. I was in regular communication with Mom’s house manager, and I raised flags every time I suspected a problem. But you can only ascertain so much in phone conversations with a dementia patient. 

Now, since her death, we have discovered that her nightly 2 a.m. bed check — a state mandated protocol — had only been done once in the ten days before her death. She could have disappeared on any of those nights, and no one would have realized it. 

I have wracked my brain, to figure out what we could have done differently. The facility had no previous infractions. Their reputation was stellar. Their people seemed very caring. Their web site would make you want to move in yourself. 

Knowing what I know now, I would have asked some very specific questions. How are the doors secured? Are they alarmed? Is the back yard accessible at night? Are bed checks actually done every night? Who checks the logs to confirm? 

I would check for infractions at the CDPHE web site. Then I would find out who owns the facility, and do some online stalking. Is this a person with a history of caring for the elderly, or just someone who has jumped into the very trendy, very profitable business of elder care? I am very concerned that, for many, this “business model” is built on maximizing profits by minimizing compensation for front line workers — the people actually caring for our loved ones. 

Dad is living with me now. We are not inclined to trust any facilities with his care. Watching him grieve has been heartbreaking. If you talk to him, do me a favor and don’t mention how she died. It’s hard enough to say good-bye to his wife of nearly 60 years, without having to grapple with this, too. 

I am, frankly, still in disbelief. I don’t know exactly where I am going from here. But I do know one thing. I want my Mom’s death to spur a closer look at the way we care for our vulnerable elderly. 

Because I don’t want what happened to my Mom to happen to another vulnerable elderly person again. Ever.