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Who's a 'Good Catholic'? | The Nation

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John Nichols

John Nichols

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Who's a 'Good Catholic'?

Among the members of Congress who attended the funeral of Pope John Paul II last week was U.S. Rep. David Obey.

It would be difficult to identify a more appropriate representative than the Wisconsin Democrat who has served in Congress for the better part of four decades.

As the ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, Obey is one of the most prominent and powerful members of the Congress. He is, as well, one of the most thoughtful and outspoken members of the Catholic faith in Washington. Indeed, the veteran congressman has credited his Catholic upbringing with helping to shape his values and his commitment to public service. "I was raised a Catholic," says Obey. "I know in my bones that I would not hold the views I hold today if it were not for the values I learned in Catholic school."

Yet, there are some who object to the suggestion that a progressive such as Obey is a "good Catholic."

Last year, Archbishop Raymond Burke published a public notice in the La Crosse, Wisconsin, diocesan newspaper that told Catholic legislators in the diocese who support abortion rights or euthanasia not to attempt to receive Communion and ordered priests not to give it to them. Burke, a moral hardliner who occupies the right fringe of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Biships, was then the Bishop of La Crosse; he is now the Archbishop of St. Louis.

Obey, who was widely believed to be one of the targeted legislators, responded with an opinion piece that appeared in America, a weekly Jesuit magazine that is one of the U.S. church's most well-regarded publications.

In it, Obey wrote that he would not let Burke "coerce" him into imposing the church's teachings on abortion upon America's pluralistic society. The piece, "My Conscience, My Vote," noted that, "In my view, Bishop Burke attempted to use his interpretations of theology to coerce me into taking specific positions on matters that I believe are matters of constitutional law. The difference between us is that I am not trying to force him to agree with my judgments, but he is attempting to force me to agree with his. That in conscience I cannot do."

Obey also urged that "the full texture and context of all my legislative actions" -- which includes many courageous votes to promote social and economic justice goals that parallel priorities of church leaders -- be reviewed before judging him.

Obey's bold statement was broadly circulated, and greeted with a great deal of relief by members of the faith who objected to the whole debate -- stirred by conservatives looking to derail the presidential campaign of John Kerry, who is also a practicing Catholic -- about whether politicians who did not follow the church line on abortion were "good Catholics."

Unfortunately, as the group Media Matters has noted, some in the media continue to perpetuate the "good Catholic" line.

Last week, on CNN's Inside Politics, CNN host Wolf Blitzer discussed the pope's funeral with Crossfire co-hosts Paul Begala and Robert Novak, both of whom are Catholics. Blitzer opened the segment by announcing that, "While they were united today in mourning the death of the pope, U.S. Catholics are a diverse group, as illustrated by two of our Crossfire co-hosts, the conservative Robert Novak, the liberal Paul Begala. Both good Catholics -- I don't know 'good' Catholics, but both Catholics. I'm sure Bob is a good Catholic, I'm not so sure about Paul Begala."

Noting that his son is named John Paul, after the late pope, Begala, a Democratic campaign aide, objected and, when Blitzer seemed to dismiss him, said, "I'm serious, that annoys me. I don't think anybody should presume that a liberal is not a good Catholic."

Begala continued, "The Holy Father is liberal. And in fact, when [CNN contributor] Carlos [Watson] was speaking [earlier in the program], I was in the green room. Underneath, some producer had written, 'Many Catholic doctrines are conservative.' Absolutely correct. Many are liberal as well. The Holy Father bitterly opposed President Bush's war in Iraq. He came to St. Louis -- and I was there -- and he begged America to give up the death penalty. President Bush strongly supports it, as did President Clinton and others. Many of the Holy Father's views -- my church's views -- are extraordinarily liberal. The Pope talked about savage, unbridled capitalism..."

Begala was right to challenge the casual use of the "good Catholic" label. When the national media joins the most extreme church hardliners and conservative ideologues in casting judgements about the faith of individual Catholics, they do damage to discussions about both religion and politics. And they foster the fallacy that the only issue of concern to Catholics is abortion.

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John Nichols's new book, Against the Beast: A Documentary History of American Opposition to Empire (Nation Books) is drawing great reviews. Howard Zinn says, "At exactly the when we need it most, John Nichols gives us a special gift--a collection of writings, speeches, poems and songs from thoughout American history--that reminds us that our revulsion to war and empire has a long and noble tradition in this country." Frances Moore Lappe calls Against the Beast, "Brilliant! A perfect book for an empire in denial." Against the Beast can be found at independent booksellers nationwide and at www.amazon.com.

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