Defining Ourselves as Catholic Democrats
Phoenix Park Hotel Washington, D.C.
In February of this year, Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., led a coalition of 55 Catholic House Democrats in issuing a “Statement of Principles,” which explains how religious faith and the church’s social teachings influence them as legislators. The statement is also a public effort by Catholic Democrats to redefine themselves as being about more than just the issue of abortion. They assert their commitment to the core principles at the heart of the Catholic doctrine: helping the poor and underprivileged; opportunity for all and advancing the church’s rich tradition of public service and social justice.
In light of the increasingly important role that religion plays in public life, DeLauro has been at the forefront of an effort to encourage fellow Democrats to become more comfortable addressing issues of faith. The Pew Forum invited Rep. DeLauro to discuss how religion has influenced her career and to reflect on the issues of the day through the prism of her Catholic perspective.
Rosa DeLauro, U.S. Representative, D-Conn.
E.J. Dionne Jr., Senior Fellow, Brookings Institution; Columnist, The Washington Post
Michael Cromartie, Vice President, Ethics & Public Policy Center
LUIS LUGO: Good afternoon, and thank you all for coming, and special thanks to Congresswoman DeLauro for joining us today.
I’m Luis Lugo, director of the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. As many of you know, we’re a project of the Pew Research Center here in Washington, D.C., which is a nonpartisan organization that does not take positions on policy debates, including disagreements between Catholic politicians and their bishops. (Laughter.)
This luncheon is part of an ongoing series that brings together journalists and policy leaders to discuss timely topics at the intersection of religion and public life. We have a very simple format: After our special guest speaks for 15 minutes or so, we open things up for your questions and comments. This is meant to be a conversation, so we strongly encourage all of you to participate — as though journalists need any encouragement along those lines.
The Forum’s partners in this luncheon series are Michael Cromartie of the Ethics & Public Policy Center, who is actually to the congresswoman’s right rather than her left — politically, not physically — and E.J. Dionne of the Brookings Institution. They help us secure speakers and also to moderate these events, so we’re very grateful for their continuing contribution to the success of this series.
E.J. DIONNE JR.: It’s a great honor to introduce Rosa. I want to thank Mike, as my partner. The Pew Forum doesn’t even take positions when Mike and I disagree — (laughter) — that’s how neutral it is. I want to thank Mike; I love doing these things with him, and I hope he with me.
Rosa has the energy, the drive and the enthusiasm of an entire party caucus. The rest of the members are there, but then there’s Rosa. She was first elected to the House in 1990. She’s in her eighth term. She’s on the Appropriations Committee. She’s a ranking member of the Agriculture Subcommittee, because of all those farms in New Haven, Connecticut that she represents. (Laughter.) She’s a member of the Labor-Health and Human Services-Education Subcommittee, and also the House Budget Committee. Before she went to Congress, she was executive director of Emily’s List. She worked for Senator Christopher Dodd, as his chief of staff. She graduated from Marymount College with honors, earned her Master’s degree in international politics from Columbia University and also studied at the London School of Economics.
Rosa could talk on many subjects but she is here today, in particular, to talk about what I think many people in the country thought was a very important statement. It was a statement of principles signed by 55 Catholic Democrats in the House of Representatives that was released last February. I am very grateful that Rosa can talk about the thinking behind this and why this was an important moment for Catholic Democrats. I welcome Rosa DeLauro.
REP. ROSA DELAURO (D-CONN): Thank you very much. At a time when things have become so politicized you almost have to wear a hard hat going into most of the meetings that I do on the Hill these days, which is unfortunate. With what E.J. [Dionne] has called the hyper-politicization of the church itself, it really is refreshing to have an objective arbiter that can bring some sense of impartiality to the debate. And that’s what you do with forums like these, Luis, and publications, statistical analyses. You enrich the dialogue, I think, for all of us.
Let me just talk a little about the circumstances that I believe have led us to today’s discussion and give you some background about my involvement with the House Catholic Democrats, and what led a majority of us to sign and make a public statement of principles this past winter. To be sure, this decision to express our values in this way was brought about, in many respects, by developments beyond our control. In recent years, there is no question that religion has become ever more integral to our politics, but with the controversy over communion or the Eucharist in 2004, and the debate over whether moral values were in any way related to the subsequent election results, it was clear that religion’s role in politics had come to the forefront like never before. And, in this new context, it was equally clear that ignoring these developments and remaining on the sidelines of these debates was not an option for us; the American people needed to hear our side of the story. They needed to hear how faith informs our public duties and what motivates us as Catholic Democrats.
So, as much as the need to respond to the new dynamic with something that was thrust upon us — not something that we sought — in many ways by religious conservatives and their ascent into the political arena over the last three decades, it was very much an opportunity to articulate, to better explain the role that faith has played in all of our public commitments. So it’s really with no small amount of irony that I’m grateful to the religious conservatives for encouraging us to lend our voices to the ongoing debate. That’s why I have convened a series of panels and meetings on the subjects of faith, values and politics.
And lest you think I started to do this in 2004, there are folks in this room who can tell you that is not the case. In an effort I was involved with called Public Voices, we hosted a panel on politics, religion and values. It was in April of 2000. It was moderated by columnist Ron Brownstein; journalist Joe Klein; Will Marshall of the Progressive Policy Institute; political theorist Alan Wolfe; Michael Novak of AEI; and the Rev. Jim Wallis, who is here with us today.
I’ve had dinner in my home with my colleagues. E.J. was there and my stepdaughter, Anna Greenberg, and we talked about politics and values. And there have been a number of meetings after that. Amy Sullivan has been in my living room to address issues of values. So this has been, for me, something of an ongoing effort.
More recently, what I’ve been trying to do with two faith-working groups in the House — one formed with my colleague, David Price — and again, E.J. was at an opening meeting, along with Bob Edgar and David Saperstein — and my colleague David Price has been here before, as I understand it. And then we have the group that’s made up, more specifically, of the Democratic Catholics. I’m also part of the faith working group that my colleague Jim Clyburn chairs, and I’m proud to be a part of it.
But our Catholic working group came about rather spontaneously. This really bubbled up in impromptu conversations that I had on the floor of the House. About three years ago, a former colleague, Nick Lampson, and I started to talk about our common heritage, our common background: both raised in Italian-Catholic households. It’s really Nick Lampisino — that’s what the family name is, in case you were wondering about Lampson. And it really led us to a mutual interest. I think, as you know, Nick is no longer in the Congress, but he is in a race with Tom DeLay. Now that’s about coming full circle. Some religions might call it karma.
In any case, we talked about our common backgrounds, what it was like, how our faith was important to us growing up in Italian-Catholic households. That led to a mutual interest in bringing colleagues together in the hopes of starting a dialogue about the role of faith in our public lives. We invited people in from faith and political worlds to speak to us, and to not only help us tackle the issues but also to address how we could begin that discussion amongst ourselves with Catholics.
Uniting us at these meetings as Catholics and Democrats was an understanding of the connection between our faith and public service, the values that we had learned in our homes and in church, and how that nexus can help you to change things at a community level and make profound, enduring changes. That Catholic tradition in which we have all grown up had given us a commitment to try to make a difference in the social and political realm. And perhaps, I think, most importantly — and I’ll speak for myself in this context to just give you a sense of my own background — I wanted to communicate what the church had instilled in me about the role of government, what government ought to do and the moral purpose of it — that government was there to be an agent for good.
Again, I’ll revert to the personal — I am the daughter of immigrant parents. I grew up in New Haven’s Italian-American community. The heart and the soul of that community was the church. My father was a daily communicant. Every night around that kitchen table I saw how the church could serve as a nexus between family and community. My folks served on the city council, both my dad and — my mother did not succeed him, but she ran in her own right and served for 35 years on the city council in New Haven. She is aged 92 today. You know, she retired at 87 years-old but, not too many months ago, probably last year, she said, “Do you know, Rosa, I shouldn’t have given up the board of aldermen.” I said, “Enough.” (Laughter.) The Italian word, “Basta,” enough — “You did it for 35 years.”
My parents were not legislators. They didn’t go and write an energy policy or a health care policy. What they did was minister to the people in our community. They helped them navigate government; taught them how, in fact, the government could work for them. And that was an example about this vital connection between faith and public service. Government can and must play a critical role.
I suspect that probably was the same kind of an experience that fellow Catholics of my generation have had. It was an upbringing — 16 years of Catholic education, from first grade to college. The first time I ventured out was my year in London at the London School of Economics and then to graduate school in New York. And that, in no small way, moved me to serve a larger community. It was apparent that each of my colleagues in the Congress felt a similar pride in their being Catholic and how important their religion was to them. Given that background, I frankly have never felt that I had to resolve my religious faith with my career as a public servant. My career and my church is part of who I am and what I value. It did not occur to me before serving in the Congress that my church would not be joyful about what I was trying to achieve for people.
But for all of our advancement at work, guided by a rich history of Catholic social teaching — programs like Social Security, Head Start, Medicare, Child Tax Credit — we have increasingly come to find ourselves, especially since the 2004 election, subject to scrutiny from some in the church hierarchy and the media on but a single issue. It was that scrutiny that led 48 of us to write to, and meet with, Cardinal McCarrick in the spring of 2004, to make clear that while some of us differ on the issue of abortion, each and every one of us is committed to the basic principles that are at the heart of Catholic doctrine: helping the poor, the underprivileged; opportunity for all, protecting the most vulnerable among us. As such, we saw a lack of balance. We saw a lack of balance to single out some of us for our stand on abortion while failing to show an interest in all that we were doing to advance life and the church’s rich tradition of social justice. And when we met with the cardinal, we had a very frank and respectful exchange, and though we saw it as only the beginning, the message was clear: Catholic Democrats had no intention of ceding our faith to those who would use it as a political weapon and to exclude us from our Catholic tradition.
Yet the politicization of the church proved effective in the 2004 election, from threatening to deny communion to pro-choice politicians like John Kerry and others, to a concerted effort by the Republican Party to use the church as a political organizing tool in key battleground states. And the result was a serious defection amongst Catholics to Republicans. We lost the Catholic vote, 52 to 47 percent. Fourteen percent of white Catholics who voted for Bill Clinton in 1996 did not vote for John Kerry.
Given these sobering results, our group, including members of both sides of the abortion debate, began to realize the need to engage in a more reflective process in order to define ourselves. This became particularly clear during a private meeting we had with Father John Langan, who was a professor of Catholic social thought at Georgetown University; Sister Joan Chittister, a theologian social psychologist and communication theorist and a number of others. It was that gathering’s discussion about how we could engage on this matter that prompted some of us to draft the statement.
After nearly two years of meetings and reflection, and with recognition that so much was at stake for the country and for our tradition of religious pluralism, we understood that the time had come for us to speak, speak clearly on something that was complex, and something that was a highly personal matter. We knew that the time had come to make clear that ours is a vibrant moral agenda. It speaks to a broad array of issues that are informed by our faith, and to do that with energy and to do that with boldness.
To be clear, we were well aware that some would accuse us of political opportunism — and they have — of trying to broaden the party’s appeal by reframing the abortion debate. But I believe our statement came out of a deeper reality than that. I think it came from a desire to try and rescue the Catholic faith, as we had lived it, from those who want to take it from us. It came from recognition that others were defining us by seeking to dissolve that connection between our party’s public priorities and the values that have always guided them.
As much as the statement was an acknowledgement that faith matters in today’s public discourse, more importantly it was a means for us to define ourselves. It was very personal to so many of us to declare that our Catholic faith had bearing on a broad range of issues that we champion here in the Congress and in our communities. It was a way to try and communicate to the public not only the principles that guide us, but also to make it explicit that there are policy implications on everything from increasing access to education for all, to looking at real health care reform, to taking seriously the decision to go to war, to reducing poverty — and those are the issues we mentioned in this statement.
The document was also motivated by a broad agreement that so many of the decisions being made by this Congress have clear social and moral implications that directly contradict our values as Catholics. They include decisions that have benefited the few at the expense of a larger community. They’ve made it harder, in our view, to have parents raise their children and balance the pressures of work and family. This includes our lack of investment in health care, child care and education, to name a few. The result has been deepening inequality. You’ve got 5.4 million more Americans who live in poverty today than in 2001; 6 million more without health insurance. Just this week, you see the Congress pushing to repeal the estate tax while 37 million citizens and 13 million children live in poverty.
And other than the decision to go to war, there may be no responsibility the Congress is charged with that has a greater moral implication than the annual federal budget, which Jim Wallis and others have spoken out on, a document that ought to be a declaration of our values and our commitment to the common good. Indeed, my church taught me that we realize our dignity and our rights in relationship to others, that we grow and that we achieve fulfillment in community, and have a broader social commitment and a responsibility to contribute to the good of the whole society. That’s what happened in my kitchen with my mother and father. That’s where I grew up; that’s what I witnessed; that’s what I saw. But the budgets that we have considered in these last few years simply, in my view, offend the common good by damaging working families, by containing harmful cuts to critical services for health, education, veterans’ services, environmental protection. These budgets have nothing to do with encouraging opportunity for all Americans or for lifting up our communities.
Yesterday, we started a process to consider the Labor-Health and Human Services-Education Appropriations Bill. It’s going to cut funding for everything, from scientific research to programs for the poor, student aid and worker training. I left the meeting angry yesterday morning, coming out of there and listening to the commentary. And, yeah, the final vote on that was on a down-the-line partisan vote: my Republican colleagues voting for the committee mark and my Democratic colleagues and myself voting against it, and speaking out as to why we voted against it. And I have to ask myself when I look at it: What is the moral foundation? What’s the moral foundation for that document, for these budgets?
Other issues before us as legislators have a moral dimension. Stem cell research is one. Immigration is another — an issue on which my church has found its voice. For the church and leaders such as Cardinal Mahoney, McCarrick, DeMarzio and others, this is an issue of faithfulness. It’s a Catholic mission to option for the poor. It requires that the church pose issues in the public domain. Of course, there’s the abortion issue, an issue with so many moral dimensions that I think we sometimes lose sight of the common ground that could be possible. And one of the things that we were trying to accomplish with this statement is to move beyond the question of legality — of whether abortion should or should not be legal — and instead to try to develop a set of policies on which we can all agree to reduce the number of abortions; to help women never to have to make this decision in the first place.
This statement highlights adoption, it improves access to children’s health care and child care and policies that would encourage paternal responsibility. Even in the current environment, I believe we can find common ground to reduce the number of abortions. The fact is that these issues all raise moral questions and they require contemplation, even as we take up political stands. The question is: Where do we go from here? What role will faith play in the upcoming elections? More importantly, in the big public policy choices that we face as a country, some of the issues I just talked about will continue to develop over the next several months. The South Dakota ban on abortion is certainly one. Many expect the law will come before the Supreme Court for review.
Invariably, some will be brought up for political reasons. We are already hearing about several states where Republicans face competitive races this fall offering same-sex marriage bans: Ohio, Pennsylvania and Tennessee. The president just spoke on this issue, and there’s been activity on it in the Senate.
My hope is that we can let faith play a big role in the public arena and in our politics, but without the bitter divisions that we saw two years ago. For my part, I’m wholly comfortable with the clergy guiding parishioners and politicians on issues of morality. That is very different than religious authorities dictating what elected officials and, indeed, voters should do under threat of religious sanction. I was alarmed when some bishops stated that the sacraments should be withheld from certain Catholic legislators because of their votes on public issues. That conflicts with my fundamental beliefs about the role of Democratic representatives in a pluralistic America. It clashes with freedoms guaranteed in our Constitution, and those in the hierarchy who cast the stone, I think, put at risk something that was very precious.
You probably have heard this name before in this context, but you’ll hear it again because of my age and when I came to political age in this country, and that is John F. Kennedy. He created our operating norms for these issues when he broke down the barriers that kept Catholics from the highest office in the land.
It’s important to me; I campaigned for John Kennedy. I watched the convention and had all the sheets in front of me showing what states were doing what. I was up all night that night and watched him being elected as the first Catholic president of the United States. And I did that at Marymount College. It was important in my own development — who I am and what I am about. Senator Kennedy answered the skeptics who worried about his Catholicism. In his famous speech on September 12, 1960, to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association he said, “I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute, where no Catholic prelate would tell the president how to act and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote…I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant or Jewish — where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the Pope, the National Council of Churches or any other ecclesiastical source.”
His election affirmed the principle that our public life is enriched by the diversity of views that are nurtured in a civil society and are arbitrated in politics to a national conclusion. To be honest with you, I didn’t get elected to public office to undo John Kennedy’s accomplishments. I’m not willing to qualify his commitment not just to Catholics, but to Americans of all faiths whom I represent in this job. And I’m not conflicted on the issue; I’m comfortable with John Kennedy’s vision and with my oath of office. Whatever the issue: immigration, abortion, death penalty; the church should seek to guide us on the right path. But we can not go back on what John Kennedy achieved and have religious authorities dictate what elected officials and, indeed, voters should and should not do under the threat of religious sanction.
Let me just quickly mention the immigration issue, where we see a good example of how religious principles can not only co-exist but can even impact and elevate the debate. You’re not seeing bishops threatening to withhold communion from those who voted in favor of the House immigration bill, which proposed to make undocumented immigrants felons. This is not Europe; we don’t impose religious homogeneity and state religions. We don’t entertain the option of expelling Jews and Moors as Spain did. Religion flourishes in America because of our democratic representatives’ answer not to a religious authority but to the citizens who elected them. I ask of those who politicize the churches: Are you comfortable? Are you comfortable eroding the American arrangements that have allowed us to unite our diversity and allowed so many of our ethnic and religious communities to flourish.
With this statement of principles, very simply, we are hopeful that we have enriched a public dialogue in some small way. My colleagues and I do not pretend to have all the answers. I’m not a religious scholar; I’m not a canon lawyer; I’m not a theologian. But we recognize that faith plays a very important part in the social and political discourse of our country. And, as I alluded to at the outset, it is my hope that this experience helps all public officials: Democrats, Republicans, Independents; and helps us to more faithfully carry out our responsibilities to the American people of fairness, of ensuring that common good. That’s what my Catholic tradition teaches me and that’s what I think out constitution charges us to do in the Congress.
I’ve said this to many of you when you’ve called and asked about the letter to Cardinal McCarrick or this recent Statement of Principles. Who I am and what motivates me as I walk to the floor, take out that card and cast my vote is not about the 16 years that I have spent in this institution. I savor every moment — I love what I do, I truly am blessed; I think it’s a great opportunity for me — but it is about those other years of growing up in that household with Louise and Ted DeLauro. When there were no crossing guards at Conte School, they went and they served. And when there was a shooting at the Columbus Mall and my mother heard word of it, she jumped from the table and ran to Columbus Mall. And my father says to her, “Lou, where are you going?” She said, “We’ve got to go — someone is in trouble.” That is what motivates what I do on my job; not the years of sitting in Cannon or Rayburn as an elected official.
Thank you very much. (Applause.)
MR. DIONNE: When I introduced Rosa I said she has the energy, drive and enthusiasm of an entire caucus. I forget to mention the word passion. I want to thank you very much.
I have a long list of questions, but I am the moderator so I’m going to wait. If somebody wants to ask the first question, then you can restrain me before I jump in. Maybe my good friend Mike has a question. I met Mike because he edited a great book on this subject that I came across 17 years ago called “Piety and Politics.” And I liked the book so much I called him up and that’s led to many blessings.
Seventeen years ago when Mike edited that book, so much of the energy in this discussion was actually on the conservative side, and liberals were so uneasy with the religious right, with some exceptions, such as Jim Wallis 17 years ago. They seemed to react not simply against the right but against the religious part. Liberals were very uneasy talking in explicitly religious terms, and sometimes I think that a lot of Democrats discovered God in the 2004 exit polls. People can find him or her anywhere they want, so how do you trace both the reluctance of liberals back then to really grapple with this nexus between their own faith and politics and the change? And what explains it besides a deep, reverent pondering of the exit polls? (Chuckles.)
REP. DELAURO: I was looking at these issues and I point to Jim Wallis. I will tell you not many people came to that first gathering that we had on religion, politics and values. The one issue that always troubled me — and I had this conversation with Doug Tanner, who was head of the Faith and Politics group in the House — is why there was such a disconnect in the public’s mind, with Democrats in many instances being viewed as godless creatures. The fact is, Jim Clyburn is a preacher’s son; John Lewis serves in the House, a person who has played such a pivotal role in the civil rights movement. A number of people came from their various professions with a way of looking at social justice that a religious tradition had inculcated who they were. They were there as Democrats, and they found themselves in a position of being viewed as people who didn’t have values, people who were not concerned about responsibility, accountability, family and all of those issues. It was a disconnect in my mind and that’s what started me trying to take a look at what was there and what was happening.
So it wasn’t about an exit poll in 2004. There’s been a reluctance to talk about religion — maybe it’s a Northeastern thing, where religion is viewed as a private matter, not a public matter, versus a Southern tradition. There’s some irony in it as I think that religious conservatives have forced so many of us to start to talk about who we are, what we’re about, what motives us, why we do what we are doing. In many ways, I say thank you to them for engaging in this effort.
MR. CROMARTIE: You’re welcome. (Laughter.)
REP. DELAURO: I think we have a real and important story to tell. Those principles and values are what have guided our public policy decisions over the years. We’ve got a very rich democratic history of social policy that has made a real difference in the lives of people in this country, providing real opportunity, which is what government should be all about.
MR. DIONNE: As many of you know, I like to write misleading headlines. So the first misleading headline of the day is “DeLauro Praises Religious Right”. (Laughter.) And Michael Cromartie says amen. (Chuckles.)
MICHAEL CROMARTIE: Of course, everybody in this room would know that the most successful Democratic politicians recently have been Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, who were not uneasy talking about religious faith and public policy implications. But let’s get to the controversial stuff since no one else is asking it. Your statement says this: “We value human life and the undesirability of abortion. We do not celebrate its practice.” Now let me reword that another way: “We value human life and the undesirability of racism and we do not celebrate its practice.” If it said that and then you were to vote against civil rights laws, I’d want to know better what you mean by “we value human life.” Thirty-three of the 55 signatories of this statement voted to support partial birth abortion — 33 Catholics. What I really do want to understand is, how can that be if there’s a value of human life and undesirability of abortion?
REP. DELAURO: First of all, if you know Roe v. Wade and its many parts, late-term abortion is prohibited under the third trimester in Roe. There were many of us who fought to have the opportunity to talk about late-term and also amend the legislation in which we were very clearly talking about a physician’s issue. The opportunity to do that was denied us. You are talking about denying a medical procedure — none of us are doctors or there may be a very few doctors in the House — it did not seem to be something that we ought to decide — to deny a medical procedure. I don’t view that that was our role, that’s not an area that the Congress should get into. Congress should not get into the Terri Schiavo case or other areas in which they have inserted themselves on some of these efforts.
JOHN DICKERSON, SLATE: Congresswoman, tell me, in your own party how big is the group of people who hears you talk about your faith tradition and doesn’t like it? And how many don’t like it because they’re secular? How passionate are they about that? Then, as a secondary question, how much do they think it is just a tactical capitulation? This relates to E.J.’s question a little. Are you just looking at exit polls and trying to meet the Republicans where they live? And if so, do they get very angry at that kind of tactical capitulation?
REP. DELAURO: In my own party?
MR. DICKERSON: Yes, in your own party.
REP. DELAURO: To be very honest with you, we have 20, 25 sometimes 30 members at the faith-and-politics efforts that David Price and I host. There are more in the task-force working group that Jim Clyburn heads up from a variety of different backgrounds and religious perspectives. It has, quite frankly, become a way in which we can find out about each other. I didn’t know Jim Clyburn’s father was a preacher — had no idea. I will tell you, it’s been an opportunity.
And there are non-Catholics who have come to us with the statement and the letter and said, hey, good job. We’re glad to know about who you are and what you think. We don’t have a lot of opportunity to do that in this institution. There isn’t a lot of time to get to know people and who they are and what they believe. Are there some who don’t want to have the conversations? Yes, but nobody is complaining that so many of us do.
Also, it is freeing in this way. Sometimes it’s self-serving to talk about yourself to others, but if there are forums in which you can do that and let people know who you are, it tells that story. People do this back in their own communities all the time. The people that I represent know who I am and what I am about. Many of my colleagues don’t know that. So these opportunities have been very, very helpful.
MR. DIONNE: Did you want to follow-up?
MR. DICKERSON: I meant more out in the National Democratic Party as opposed to the reaction you get in the House, just in terms of whether you think this is a small number of people who want to keep even stories of your own faith tradition out of the political process?
REP. DELAURO: Seems like there’s been an embracing of the notion that, in fact, it goes back to my early conversations with Doug Tanner. Why are Democrats, who so strongly believe in the principle of opportunity and government, who care what’s happening to the poorest amongst us, not being heard? Why is this happening? We have to look to ourselves to find out why there is a disconnect between Democrats and the rest of the country or parts of the country. I think it’s because you assume that people understand who you are, what you are about, and what you are doing. And it is just that — it’s an assumption — and they don’t. So, now, I think it’s important to tell our story and talk about what it is that motivates us.
MR. DIONNE: John’s question reminded me of a button that a group of nuns sent me during the 2004 election. The fires of hell were in the middle of the button, and it said, “Catholic Democrat: Damned if you do. Damned if you don’t.” (Laughter.)
PATRICIA ZAPOR, CATHOLIC NEWS SERVICE: At least part of the reason why Catholic communion became a successful issue is because the Republican Party made it an issue. Voters out there would not have heard or cared what Archbishop Chaput or Archbishop Burke had to say if the Republican Party hadn’t done a pretty effective job making sure people heard that. Do the Democrats have to fight fire with fire in order to, as you say, de-politicize? Do they have to become more political about the issue in order to de-politicize it? And is Casey running in Pennsylvania with the support of the Democratic Party as an experiment that if he doesn’t win the Democrats may say, well, too bad, we tried supporting the pro-life Catholic? Those are two separate questions, but I think they are connected.
REP. DELAURO: Religion is not a political tool. Religion should not be a political tool.
MS. ZAPOR: But how do you keep it from becoming that?
REP. DELAURO: I’m saying that, but it’s part of your job as well. Religion should not be a political tool. The American public, which is very religious, cares about faith; they make their decisions on how they view right and wrong from a faith-based perspective. They want to know from their leaders how you make your decisions. What values do you stand on in making those decisions? That’s what they care about. The American public, as religious as they are, does not want to be dictated to about religion. That is not the tradition. We have grown up in a pluralist society. That is the wonder of what this is about. And I find that those who would try to politicize the Catholic Church or other religions are on a very slippery slope to moving us away from religious pluralism in the United States. And I don’t think we ought to feed into that. I think we ought to reject that as an operating concept.
AMY SULLIVAN, WASHINGTON MONTHLY: You’ve talked about some ways that maybe Catholic Democrats can reclaim their image, whether by neutralizing abortion as an issue, by talking about ways to reduce abortion rates and unwanted pregnancy rates, or by broadening the scope of issues that are seen as relative to Catholics: welfare, health care, education, all sorts of things. And it may well be that those issues do, in a few years, with a concerted effort, change the image that voters have, if not of the Catholic leadership, at least of Democrats, but it hasn’t happened yet and abortion is still a big issue. And that may be why we have seen Catholic Democrats who are successful in the pro-life camp, whether it’s Tim Kaine, Casey or a strong candidate that’s running for governor in Colorado right now, who’s a pro-life Catholic. Is it the case, do you think, that Catholic Democrats need to be pro-life if they are going to be successful in more conservative areas or should they try to keep themselves to more liberal districts?
REP. DELAURO: Let me quote Sister Joan when she was on the Russert show: “You either value life or you don’t value life.” The church has never been a single-issue church; it shouldn’t be a single-issue church. I don’t think the bishops want it that way. I certainly don’t want it to be that way. There is a broad range of issues and I think we have to continue to talk about them — whether it is the death penalty or AIDS and the use of condoms — the church is rethinking that issue. Cardinal McCarrick has spoken out in this area. I think you have to just pull back and take a look — not buying into where people may want to take you.
Casey is pro-life, but take a look. He supports Title 10 and family planning. He supports emergency contraception. You go down the list of what he supports and he is a pro-life candidate but he also supports all of these efforts. No one celebrates abortion. We talk about ways in which you can reduce unwanted pregnancies. We can do that and have some common ground on that issue — get beyond the legality of it because it is the law of the land.
Abortion is a very complicated issue. And you have to think about the conflicting issues that go into the decision of an individual who makes that choice. I don’t condemn people who make that choice. I will quote the bishops: “We’re happy and proud to share the bishop’s goal of reducing the number of abortions. We recognize and respect their desire to see an end to all abortions; however, it is the role of the laity and government, not bishops, to make prudential judgments about how to achieve ends and to make judgments about what is politically possible in a pluralistic society.” You’ve got Pope Benedict: “Faith enables reason to do its work more effectively, to see its proper objective more clearly. This is where Catholic social doctrine has its place. It has no intention of giving the church power over the State.” These are the words of clerics. There is not one clear answer on the issue, and we don’t have to be afraid of being pro-choice, but also wanting to reduce unwanted pregnancies in this country.
MR. DIONNE: Could I follow up on that? Why wasn’t the language on abortion stronger in that statement? Because when you are reading it, it sort of jars a little bit, “we don’t celebrate its practice” seemed a peculiar formulation when I ran across it. I’d be curious, what was the discussion behind how you were going to phrase that?
REP. DELAURO: The charge has been that somehow abortion is a badge of honor, and that it is celebrated. It is seen as how we define ourselves and our party. We do not celebrate abortion. Abortion is a tragedy, and that was the reason we wanted to express it in that way. And although Michael would like to diminish the numbers, both sides of that issue signed on to both the letters to Cardinal McCarrick and to the Statement of Principles, which tells you something about the nature of the debate and the very powerful discussions amongst the members in the formulation of the document.
STEVE THOMMA, KNIGHT-RIDDER: You spoke about President John F. Kennedy and the influence he had on your life. It occurs to me that the biggest difference from John Kennedy to John Kerry for Catholic Democrats was that in 1960 the country feared that he would take orders from the church. By 2004 the greatest fear was that he wouldn’t listen to the church (laughter). You say in your statement that the church offers guidance now and that you believe in the primacy of conscience clearly rather than the primacy of the church as the arbiter of all these things. I’m curious how and why you think that changed?
REP. DELAURO: I am not a church historian but, looking at the various changes within the church itself, I don’t think John Kerry defined his own narrative in terms of his religion or his faith in a way that manifested itself in people understanding him. Maybe he just had a hard time doing it, or he choose not to; maybe it was a private matter, because he does have in his own background a rich Catholic history. I can’t answer the question about the changing nature of the church itself because I don’t know, except to say that in the course of the history of the church and its own politics, I think there have been changes in terms of what was definitional about the church. The current view is one of more control of the process from Rome, more centralized control over the Catholics themselves than they did in the past. The Conference of Bishops was much more independent earlier on than it is now.
ELEANOR CLIFT, NEWSWEEK: Abortion wasn’t an issue in 1960.
REP. DELAURO: Thank you. Okay.
MS. CLIFT: I think the intervening event is Roe.
MR. DIONNE: Yes, I think that’s right. Ruth?
RUTH MARCUS, THE WASHINGTON POST: I was going to ask this question in a different order. If you would look ahead to the possibility that Roe is overturned some day, how do you think that would affect the role of Catholic politicians, in particular Catholic Democrats, and would that call on them to make more difficult choices than they’ve had to make previously?
REP. DELAURO: One, I don’t think Roe will be overturned. If you take a look at the numbers everywhere, I think that the public doesn’t want to see Roe overturned. That being said, I reject the question, Ruth. I speak for myself as a Catholic, who I am, what I’m about, what I do. I’m a Catholic in everything I do. As I said, let’s have a fulsome dialogue. Let’s push, cajole, council, pressure — that’s fine. I’m a public official; I don’t believe that there ought to be dictating by the church on what I do, which gets me back to where I started.
MS. MARCUS: But to some extent, politicians have all been able to find some refuge in the notion that abortion is, according to the Supreme Court, a fundamental, constitutional right. When you are being called on directly to decide yourself if it were to pass — and I don’t know whether you are right or not that Roe won’t ever be overturned — it seems, to argue with your dismissal of my question, that it does call on a different set of issues for politicians of any religion.
REP. DELAURO: But I think it’s fundamental to who you are and what your thought process is about. I said, abortion is a very complex issue. There are so many conflicting issues that surround it. Let me go back to something that happened not to me, but to my folks.
Sixty-three years ago I was born in New Haven, Connecticut. My parents had the option of my mother having me at Saint Raphael’s Hospital or Grace New Haven Hospital. They made a decision — I told you earlier that my father’s a daily communicant. They made a decision: I was born at Grace New Haven Hospital. Why? As I found out from my mother, because the choice would have been made if something went wrong to save me in one hospital, my mother in another hospital. That choice had to be made.
That is a personal decision and an issue of conscience. The church has a very strong history of recognizing conscience and it is very well formulated. So I think that is the best way that I can answer your question.
MS. MARCUS: Is it okay if I ask another question?
MR. DIONNE: Yes. Can I follow up on yours before you ask, because I want to press Rosa on your question?
First of all, thank God that choice didn’t come up for both of you. I think what Ruth is getting at is that a lot of Catholic politicians have hidden behind the court and because of Roe they’ve been able to say, well, look, I’m against abortion but the court says Roe is part of the Constitution and I can’t go against the Constitution. I raised my hand to uphold the Constitution.
If Roe fell — and I’m of the view that they are never going to knock it down directly; they are going to do all kinds of stuff around it. But if Roe fell, there are a lot of Catholic politicians who really are pro-choice and some of them say so directly and some of them don’t. What do you think happens to their discourse, their rationale, the way they talk about it?
REP. DELAURO: I can’t answer that question because it’s a personal decision that people will make. It will be a matter of their own conscience as to how they address that issue. How can I speculate about that?
MS. MARCUS: Various Caseys not withstanding, it has been a fairly accepted — if you pardon the pun — fundamental principle of the Democratic Party to be pro-choice. As you look at the effort of Democrats to reconnect with religious voters and to make their case with religious voters, do you worry about that effort going beyond an attempt to find the common ground and reframing the debate to giving in on what have been pretty fundamental tenets of the party?
REP. DELAURO: There’s work people can do together on both sides of that issue. You can maintain the view of being pro-choice, but of working together to, as I said, getting beyond the legality, looking at ways in which you can reduce the number of abortions. And that is happening.
I think, having the discussion and debate of the moral issues and the public fears is a good thing. I don’t think we have to change who we are, because we believe in the notion that it is a woman’s right to be able to make this decision with family and with clergy.
And at the same time, how do we reduce the number of abortions? How do we look at adoption as a possibility? What do we do about the economics of family life that don’t force people to make that choice? How do we assist people with, as I said, maternal/paternal responsibility? That’s what we lay out in this statement of how you get to where you want to go in terms of reducing that number.
MICHAEL TOMASKY, AMERICAN PROSPECT: This follows up on that pretty nicely, I think. I want to ask about the influence of single-issue interest groups and advocacy organizations in the party, when it comes to the question of the party formulating a position on these kinds of things.
Let’s take abortion and gay marriage — the two toughest things. NARAL, Planned Parenthood and the Human Rights Campaign. Let’s face it, let’s call them what they are. They are very secular organizations, and probably reasonably so from their own point of view. But they are very secular organizations.
Have they had disproportionate influence in the party on these kinds of issues with language that E.J. thought was milquetoasty .”We do not celebrate its practice.” Could language like that be inserted into the Democratic Party platform in 2008? I think there is no way in heaven that that could happen. (Laughter.)
MR. DIONNE: He carefully edited it to heaven. It was very nicely done, Mike.
REP. DELAURO: You never know that, Michael. You just don’t know. You should read a copy of the platform. I think people read it at the outset and then forget to read it again.
You don’t know what it could be. Single-issue advocacy groups on both sides have a clear mission. We have a clear mission. We need to take a look at what our mission is and define it for ourselves. Obviously, you can work and talk and listen to people, but you have to make your decisions about what you can and what you should do.
MR. DIONNE: Do you see any possibility of even just the whole idea of reducing the number of abortions? In other words, if you look at a program to reduce the number of abortions, almost every item on it is liberal, except some people would also promote abstinence as well as contraception, but a lot of liberals are for that, too. Not even making a value-laden statement about abortion, but just talking about the reduction in the number of abortions. How much ground do you think that can gain inside the Democratic Party, because it does seem more common ground than anything I can think of.
REP. DELAURO: We can gain a lot of ground, and we are gaining a lot of ground, I can tell you. There are lots of conversations about this with very specific items. You have what happened in the budget reconciliation bill on Medicaid. It used to be that Medicaid mandated family planning services.
What budget reconciliation did was to make it optional for states to deal with family planning services. And you can get agreement from both sides of this issue in our caucus on mandating Medicaid services for every state. That means what? Family planning services, so whether you’re defined as pro-choice or pro-life we can come to a conclusion on that. That’s the kind of fulsome debate that you have to have. This opportunity opened up the effort to be able to talk to one another in the House about very serious issues, which is why Casey is important as well. “Increased funding for Title 10 family planning service: contraception equity, and health insurance plans, emergency contraception, elimination of the global gag rule and access to emergency contraception, which provides EC free in emergency rooms to victims of rape and incest.”
MR. DIONNE: She’s reading from Bob Casey —
REP. DELAURO: This is Bob Casey’s document. Is there the possibility to have common ground on this area? You bet there is.
JIM WALLIS, SOJOURNERS: It follows on Mike’s single-issues comment. One of the most significant things that have happened in the country since the election is the definition of what a religious issue is. The media and others portrayed during the election that there were two issues: Abortion and gay marriage were the two religious issues.
Now in the media, the environment is a religious issue, and so are Darfur, sex trafficking, poverty, war and peace. I think defining it has helped us to move away from single-issue thinking, which opens up the political process, too.
I’m wondering, Rosa, in Congress, is there any possibility of the old Tip O’Neill days where your colleagues across party lines went out to talk about politics and policy over some drinks? Could the kind of conversation that you are having within your Democratic Caucus about religion and politics — could that or is that crossing over at all, so that maybe some Republican colleagues would want to push you on the life issues regarding abortion? You guys should be stronger and take this more seriously, and where could we find the common ground? And you could push them on your statement about, how do you defend as a Catholic Republican a budget that, as you said, offends the common good? That’s a pretty strong religious indictment, too. Is there any possibility of religious dialogue across lines — maybe between Catholics about what Catholic social teaching implies for policy — that could help us open up this terribly polarized political process in general?
REP. DELAURO: I think it’s hard at the moment, Jim, to do that, though I think that is what we have to work at and strive for, because I think there are a number of common interests in this area. But because the institution, I think, is so highly politicized at the moment, it is very hard to make that step. It’s not there at the moment.
I think it can begin if maybe you can pull a few people together and start some conversations that are very quiet before people have to get up and declare themselves. But it’s very hard to get beyond the politics of the moment, especially in an atmosphere where there’s a potential for changeover; and nobody wants to give quarter at the moment.
MR. WALLIS: Maybe after the election something that the Pew Forum might consider doing is to challenge the selective moralities of both left and right, which I think exist on both sides. It would be helpful to have that kind of forum and talk about cases of Catholic social teaching or religion across those party lines.
MS. DELAURO: I think that would be great. I really do. That would be terrific.
MR. DIONNE: I think that is a good suggestion, Jim.
JOE FEUCHERD, NATIONAL CATHOLIC REPORTER: Thank you. You mentioned church sanctions against politicians who, for example, are pro-choice and could be denied communion, for example. That clashes with freedoms guaranteed in the Constitution and warnings against giving the church power over the State. The church is a voluntary membership organization. Where does it get its power? And how do you see the church’s legal and constitutional obligations toward elected officials?
MR. DIONNE: How many precinct captains does the Pope have? (Laughter.)
REP. DELAURO: He has a lot. (Laughter.) It’s one very well-organized field operation. (Laughter.) As I said, I think they do have a real role, one that I welcome, which is that they should be persuading. They should be educating. They ought to be pushing. There’s going to be disagreement — disagreement is not a bad thing. But their role is to push and to pastor and to help educate. But as I said, I don’t believe they should dictate.
MR. FEUCHERD: Is there anything that would prohibit, other than good taste or good public-policy procedures, your bishop from telling you, Rosa, vote this way or you can’t take communion next Sunday? Do you see any constitutional issue there?
REP. DELAURO: I don’t think it’s a constitutional issue. There are areas of disagreement and, again, it appears as if the result from 2004 was essentially to allow bishops to make prudential judgments. As an elected official, I’m charged with making prudential judgments about issues.
MR. THOMMA: I want to ask you about Iraq, which you talked about a little in passing at the beginning. I spent last week out on the road talking to Democrats, particularly about anti-war sentiment, which seems to be getting a lot hotter and particularly angry among Democrats in Washington. But I hear a lot of talk about the war, complaints about it in terms of geopolitics, about it distracting from the war on terrorism. I don’t hear a lot of Democrats talking about it in moral or religious terms, in terms of whether it’s a just war or not. Why not?
REP. DELAURO: I don’t know why they aren’t. If you take a look at Bishop Gregory’s letter, he was speaking for the pope. If you take a look at the church’s reasons for not being for the war, and you take a look at the number of speeches on the floor of the House, and I would say including my own — (chuckles) — you would find a lot of similarities in the reasons we give for why we shouldn’t move in this direction,. As I said, I never got a call the next day saying thanks for voting against the war. But that’s okay.
MR. THOMMA: You mean a call from the church?
REP. DELAURO: Right. But I’m just saying that you would see the similarities in terms of what we spoke about on the floor, about what our concerns were in voting against the war. I would go back and look at that document. I spoke on the floor of the House and for me it’s very real in terms of what has happened. It was, in my view, one of the best votes I cast, one of my proudest votes.
Why aren’t they talking about it in moral and immoral terms? I think some are, some may not. But again, it’s the individual and how they describe what it is.
MR. THOMMA: I’m really curious because the last time the United States had a robust religious left was during the civil rights and the anti-war movements of the 1960s. Some of those ingredients are here today, but I don’t see the same effect.
REP. DELAURO: I think that Sept. 11th was a searing occurrence and there was the response to that with Afghanistan. But I think that there was a divided country on Iraq, and then the vote on Iraq and everything that followed. There were the concerns about whether or not you were a patriot or not. And lots of what people said at that time is coming true. I don’t think it was described in moral/immoral terms at the outset, and I think more and more many people are starting to talk about that. I don’t know the history of whether or not that was led by Democratic politicians or not, but the country viewed it as immoral.
MS. CLIFT: Abortion has been used very successfully politically as a wedge issue. What about stem cell research as a wedge issue against the Republicans?
MR. DIONNE: Why don’t we hold this — let me put them all on the table and then you can answer them in three minutes or less, or however much time your staff gives you. Stem cells. Amy.
MS. SULLIVAN: You mentioned in passing that the church has been selectively punishing pro-choice Catholic Democrats and not Republicans, but then you said let’s not get into that. And I would like you to get into it.
MR. DIONNE: Okay. I have two. My question is almost exactly like Amy’s. Why do you think this imbalance exists? And the last question is, what has happened as a result of this statement — good things, problematic things, whatever?
REP. DELAURO: You know, I go back to where I come from. Why would I want to make stem cell a wedge issue for Republicans? I am a survivor of ovarian cancer. Biomedical research saved my life.
MS. CLIFT: I mean, promoting it.
REP. DELAURO: I know. I understand that. No, no, I understand that.
MS. CLIFT: Not opposing it.
REP. DELAURO: And I think if you take a look around the country, I think the public understands that stem cell research saves lives. And I think that the weight of that will carry that issue. I don’t believe that we ought to promote stem cell as the wedge issue.
MR. DIONNE: And then Amy’s question on why not Republicans — why is it just pro-choice Democrats who seem to take the hit?
REP. DELAURO: Have you ever had a conversation with the bishops about that? I’m not going to say. (Chuckles.) Republicans feature at their conventions, front and center people like, Giuliani, Pataki, Schwarzenegger, etc. — and no one attacks them. I don’t understand. I think, unfortunately, religion has become a political tool and in a number of instances a partisan political tool. It should not be.
MR. DIONNE: And lastly, what has come out as a result of the statement?
REP. DELAURO: The statement is very much who we are. We’re comfortable with it. We think it’s a good statement. We think it’s a powerful statement. And there has been tremendous support, particularity from a lot of the Catholic lay groups. I was pleased with the response that we received from the bishops, who talked about continuing and opening up a dialogue.
So I think that the response has been positive. I know that our letter in 2004 was the subject of the discussion in Colorado with the bishops. I know that this current Statement of Principals was the subject of discussion with the bishops again. I think that’s all to the good. I think that what both of these efforts did is to open up our opportunity to have a dialogue with our church on the issue.
MR. DIONNE: I’m going to say two things. One is Rosa has just proven that she’s read more church documents than 98 percent of American Catholics, and second, I think it’s very clear that her work in this statement has deepened the dialogue around religion and public life issues. And that is good for the common good. Thank you very much.
REP. DELAURO: Thank you. Thank you all very much. (Applause.) Amen. (Chuckles.)