Dear Dr. Dean:
Congratulations on your election as chairman of the Democratic National Committee — for many years, the “natural” political home of Catholic Americans. That’s not the case any more. There are a lot of reasons for the change.
Some of them are demographic and economic: as their educational and economic attainments propelled many U.S. Catholics into the middle and upper-middle classes, what once seemed a natural fit between Catholics and the party of Franklin Delano Roosevelt no longer seemed quite so obvious. Foreign and defense policy issues have also played a role — fairly or not, a lot of Catholic Americans looked at the post-McGovern Democratic Party as a party that was unreliable on issues of national defense and international security and became “Reagan Democrats.” Then there’s the question of vouchers or tax credits for parents who send their children to parochial schools; the Democratic Party’s insistence that taxpayer monies for education (a public good) go only to government-run schools (a state monopoly) struck more than a few Catholics as an injustice.
But these issues, however important, don’t get to the heart of the present estrangement between the party you now lead and many U.S. Catholics — particularly those Catholics who practice their faith regularly.
The life issues are the heart of the matter.
On the day before your election as DNC chairman, you said that Democrats “have to remind Catholic Americans that the social mission of the Democratic Party is almost exactly the social mission of the Catholic Church.” “Almost exactly?” Not quite. For the Catholic Church — and for Catholics who take the demands of natural justice and the Church’s teaching seriously — the life issues are “social issues.” In fact, they’re the most urgent social issues of the day. Why? Because abortion-on-demand, legalized euthanasia, and embryo-destructive stem-cell research always violate a first principle of justice: the inviolability of innocent human life. Or, to put it negatively, it’s always a grave injustice to take an innocent human life. That’s not a peculiarly Catholic idea (although the Catholic Church is its principal institutional proponent today); anyone who thinks seriously about the moral life would logically reach the same conclusion. Societies that fail to recognize that bedrock moral truth in their law are societies with very serious civil rights problems.
The Democratic Party once recognized the injustice in declaring Americans of African descent outside the community of common protection and concern — and it took the lead, politically, in remedying that injustice. Why can’t the Democratic Party recognize that the exact same principles are at stake in the life issues debate? Why does the Democratic Party still give a veto over its leadership to the kind of take-no-prisoners pro-abortion activists who blackballed another contestant for the DNC chair because he said publicly that there should be room for pro-lifers in the Democratic Party?
The Democratic Party isn’t going to attract (or regain) the allegiance of the most religiously serious Catholics in the United States until it jettisons the idea that there are “social issues” here and “life issues” there. You were sold that bill of goods by men like Father Robert Drinan, S.J.; it’s long past its pull-date. You’ll also have to reckon with the fact that the “seamless garment” is rather tattered these days. No matter what their votes on Social Security or Medicare, Catholic politicians can’t claim to be taking the Church’s social justice teaching seriously when they persistently vote to maintain practices (like abortion on demand) or authorize others (like euthanasia or embryo-destructive stem cell research) that cannot be reconciled with any Catholic notion of social justice.
So what can you do? You could create an open argument inside the party. And by “open argument,” I don’t mean trying to finesse things by focusing exclusively on “common ground” questions like lowering the incidence of abortion in America; that’s important, but it’s not enough. Give Democratic politicians and legal scholars who believe that Roe v. Wade was wrongly decided as settled a place at the Democratic table as the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League. Then we’ll know that things have changed.