WASHINGTON — The 111th Congress convened on Jan. 6 with strengthened Democratic majorities and increased political clout once Barack Obama becomes president.
The new Congress also has a significant number of Catholics, but whether that will make a difference in favor of the Church’s teaching on hot-button issues remains to be seen. Catholic pro-lifers familiar with congressional politics are not optimistic.
A recent Pew Forum study showed that 30% of members in the new Congress identify themselves as Catholics. Two years ago, when the 110th Congress was seated, there were 155 Catholics in the Senate and House of Representatives. This year, there are 162.
Two Catholic members of Congress speaking to the Register noted that the most important issue now is the ongoing economic crisis. Congressional leaders are preparing a government-spending bill to stimulate the economy.
“As a Catholic, I look at this issue like everybody else, that this is a huge problem, and we need to do everything we can do to solve it without creating more problems or long-term problems,” said Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan. “We need to do things that are stimulative in the short run but that don’t create further problems in the long run.”
U.S. Rep. Thaddeus McCotter, R-Mich., agreed, “As a Catholic, clearly I think it will be an uphill battle, and I think that’s stating the obvious,” he said.
Nevertheless, both Brownback and McCotter admitted concern for the unborn, as hard-fought abortion restrictions are now threatened by new leadership.
“I am very concerned with Obama’s stated support for the Freedom of Choice Act, very concerned about what he’s going to do on the Mexico City Policy, and it’s almost a foregone conclusion that he will support using taxpayer dollars to implement these policies,” Brownback warned.
The increase in Catholic membership does not necessarily mean much for issues of concern to Catholics, particularly on pro-life issues, says Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League.
“We could have 90% of Catholics in the Congress and it really wouldn’t mean anything if they disagree with the official teachings of the Catholic Church on public policy matters,” he said.
Nonetheless, one new U.S. representative says he is on board with the teachings of the Church: Ahn “Joseph” Cao, a former Jesuit seminarian and refugee from Vietnam. “My faith has been the center of my life all these years,” Cao told the Knights of Columbus website FathersForGood.org. “I go to church almost every day to discern what God is calling me to do with my life.”
The Freedom of Choice Act remains a top concern for pro-life activists, but they warn that the immediate battles lie in the federal budget process. As appropriations are considered, pro-abortion organizations are likely to receive federal funding.
“You’re going to watch a lot of bills move in a very quick period of time, given the nature of one party running Congress and the executive branch,” Congressman McCotter warned. “We have to be careful that when these bills are leaving that we make sure that there is no funding for abortions.”
A recent report entitled “Advancing Reproductive Rights and Health in a New Administration,” drawn up by a coalition of pro-abortion organizations, was recently posted on Obama’s transition website, Change.gov. The report calls for major policy reversals regarding abortion and requests up to $1.5 billion in federal taxpayer funds for the abortion industry.
The report prompted a fierce reaction from pro-life groups who are working to raise awareness about the ambitious requests from the abortion industry.
“You name the program and the abortion community will find an abortion that should be there,” said Susan B. Anthony List President Marjorie Dannenfelser, listing budget requests for taxpayer-funded abortions in the Peace Corps, on military bases, in prisons, and for recipients of Medicare. “Everywhere the vulnerable exist, they want more abortions, it seems,” she added.
The Susan B. Anthony List, an organization supporting pro-life women in politics, immediately started a grassroots campaign urging activists to stop what they labeled as the “abortion bailout.” The group has already generated up to 40,000 letters of protest to the Senate.
Brian Burch, president of Fidelis, a Catholic advocacy group, agreed. “As far as this year is concerned, I think that the major issues are going to be lifting funding restrictions or allocating further funds to these groups using taxpayer dollars for abortion-related services,” said Burch, noting that even the long-standing Hyde Amendment preventing taxpayer dollars to fund abortions is threatened.
“In the context of the economic crisis that we are in, it’s outrageous that Congress is prepared to spend as much as a billion dollars on one of the most divisive issues,” said Burch.
Other issues of concern to Catholics include additional federal funding for research on embryonic stem cells. That is also likely to be a legislative priority for congressional Democrats now that Obama is likely to remove Bush-imposed policy restrictions.
Burch also noted that as government gets further involved in funding heath insurance, it may follow with government-imposed mandates for every hospital and every doctor to provide abortions or contraception.
In spite of the looming battles ahead, however, pro-life advocates insist that it’s now more important than ever to remain vigilant, and they are redoubling their efforts.
“We do what we always do, said McCotter. “It doesn’t change whether we are in the minority or the majority. As a member, you have to be ever vigilant and do your moral duty to defend the unborn, in spite of your circumstances.”
“It’s getting back to pure, organic grassroots politics, which is the upside of losing miserably,” noted Dannenfelser.
“Before there was this lulling sense that things were being taken care of. That’s gone now. It’s getting back to why we do these things in the first place; it’s over every individual child that is loved and willed and necessary for this world that is not going to make it.”
Charlie Spiering is based in Washington, D.C.
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