In a May 19 column on the website of the Archdiocese of Denver, Archbishop Chaput clarified his position and challenged members to lobby for pro-life issues in the Democratic Party.
The controversy began after excerpts from an earlier column were posted on the website romancatholicsforobama.com as a possible solution to the “voting dilemma” of supporting Obama, whose “position on abortion is in conflict with the vision of the Church.”
The group quoted Archbishop Chaput saying, “Catholics can vote for pro-choice candidates if they vote for them despite — not because of — their pro-choice views.”
Following the excerpts, the group offered this assessment: “After faithful thought and prayer, we have arrived at the conclusion that Senator Obama is the candidate whose views are most compatible with the Catholic outlook, and we will vote for him because of that — and because of his other outstanding qualities — despite our disagreements with him in specific areas.”
In his column, Archbishop Chaput admonished the group for the “incomplete” use of his statement, noting that they omitted his challenge to find a “compelling proportionate reason” to justify their vote.
Archbishop Chaput defined the “compelling reason” as “the kind of reason we will be able to explain, with a clean heart, to the victims of abortion when we meet them face to face in the next life,” noting that, “if we’re confident that these victims will accept our motives as something more than an alibi, then we can proceed.”
Although he questioned the group’s motives, Archbishop Chaput used the incident as a chance to instruct Democrats, offering a unique look at his own difficulty as a Catholic Democrat confronted with the party’s support of abortion. He revealed that as a seminarian, he had volunteered for Sen. Robert Kennedy’s presidential campaign in 1968, and that as a young priest he supported the presidential candidacy of Jimmy Carter.
“Carter the candidate waffled about restricting” abortion, Archbishop Chaput wrote, but, “I believed he was right on so many more of the ‘Catholic’ issues than his opponent seemed to be. The moral calculus looked easy.”
After Carter lost his reelection bid, the archbishop noted, “the belligerence, dishonesty and inflexibility of the pro-choice lobby has stymied almost every effort to protect unborn human life since.”
He also watched as Catholics faltered on the issue, noting that those who claimed to be “personally opposed” to abortion failed to act. “For most, their personal opposition was little more than pious hand-wringing and a convenient excuse — exactly as it is today.”
Archbishop Chaput also noted that Catholics should work to change their candidate’s position.
“Changing the views of ‘pro-choice’ candidates takes a lot more than verbal gymnastics, good alibis, and pious talk about ‘personal opposition’ to killing unborn children,” he wrote. “I’m sure Roman Catholics for Obama know that, and I wish them good luck. They’ll need it.”
Archbishop Chaput’s rebuke quickly spread among the Roman Catholics for Obama e-mail listserv group, consisting of about 200 members. Some members pointed out that in spite of the quote that was taken out of context, a link to Archbishop Chaput’s full column was on the front page.
Following the May 19 column, administrators updated the website to expand Archbishop Chaput’s quotation and encouraged readers to read the full column.
John Sylvest from Louisiana posted a response on the group’s blog. Although he stated that he was not a spokesman for the group, he said he was the only “Bill Buckley conservative” in the group.
Sylvest wrote that it was important to practice “another Catholic virtue” — “political realism” — and added, “I won’t presume that I can change any pro-choice minds, at least, not any better than our bishops can or have.”
He also suggested that voting for Republicans had not changed the abortion issue.
“Reducing and eliminating abortions takes a lot more than voting for ostensibly pro-life candidates and nominating ‘ostensibly’ pro-life justices or even turning things over to the states, where the cumulative demographics are overwhelmingly stacked against us,” he added.
Other members of the group complained that Archbishop Chaput sounded too much like a Republican: “Bishops that take up the Republican talking points are doing it out of political convenience,” wrote one member, “I don’t for one moment believe they are sincere.”
“Alas,” wrote another member, “I’m afraid that when Archbishop Chaput speaks, he speaks not for the hierarchy or the magisterium, but for Karl Rove.”
Other members raised their concern about the Iraq War.
“I would be curious as to the archbishop’s citation to the definition of ‘proportionate reason’ as something we will have to ‘explain’ to anyone in the next life other than God.” a member wrote, “I haven’t heard his excellency articulate a similar standard for support of the invasion of Iraq.”
The Catholic League, a Catholic civil rights organization, stated that it was “misleading” for the group to put Archbishop Chaput’s statement on their website.
“Taking the whole thing down would make more sense,” Kiera McCaffrey, director of communications, said about Archbishop Chaput’s letter. “Archbishop Chaput has been a very clear leader in defending the culture of life, noting that abortion is a fundamental issue and a very grave matter. I think that people familiar with his position know that he wouldn’t be wishy-washy on this issue,” she said.
Democrats for Life
Kristen Day, executive director of Democrats for Life, agreed with the archbishop’s call for action. If Obama is the Democratic nominee, Day noted, “Democrats have to let Sen. Obama know that he is the leader and he is representing the entire party and that people have different opinions on abortion.”
Day added that it was important for Democrats to remain the “big tent” party and make room for pro-life members.
Obama recently received the endorsement of NARAL Pro-Choice America.
“Maybe Roman Catholics for Obama will do a better job at influencing their candidate,” wrote Archbishop Chaput. “It could happen. And I sincerely hope it does, since Planned Parenthood of the Chicago area, as recently as February 2008, noted that Sen. Barack Obama ‘has a 100% pro-choice voting record both in the U.S. Senate and the Illinois Senate.’”
Charlie Spiering is based in Washington, D.C.
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