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.