RealClear Politics has a roundup of three interesting articles on the recent flap over whether Senate Democrats’ filibustering of Alabama Attorney General William Pryor’s nomination as a US circuit court judge on the basis of his deep moral opposition to abortion constitutes anti-Catholic discrimination. Michael Schattman finds the charge outrageous, noting that most American Catholics are “cafeteria Catholics” who pick and choose the teachings of the Church they want to abide by and that, on the main, the Democrats are more aligned with Catholic theology than the Republicans:

I am Catholic. I was nominated to be a federal judge by President Clinton. I was blocked by Republicans.

I was opposed by Republicans because my adherence to Catholic principles of social justice put me at odds with them and their values of social injustice.

I helped a police chief prevent a race riot. I believed in the 14th Amendment, equal rights under the law, the dignity of every individual. I questioned the wisdom of the death penalty but not its constitutionality. I rejected war’s morality but recognized its historic unavoidability.

This argument strikes me as amazingly specious. No one has been rejected for the bench–let alone filibustered–because they believed in equality or disliked the death penalty.

Republican rhetoric is more aligned with Catholic teaching on abortion, but that is the only point of convergence.

Once the unaborted are born, will Hatch and his gang support unemployed teen-age mothers, milk for poor schoolchildren, Head Start, jobs programs or housing assistance? In a pig’s eye. But that would be the Catholic position.

But Hatch and Company aren’t arguing that being a devout Catholic is a requirement for the bench; they argue only that it shouldn’t be a disqualification. A Catholic Democrat that believes in social redistribution wouldn’t be denied a judgeship on that basis, unless he advocated imposing that from the bench.

Hugh Hewitt makes an equally implausible case in the other direction. He cites the long history of religious oaths in colonial times and the Constitutional prohibition on them.

As the majority of Framers couldn’t even conceive of a situation where atheists would be denied office on the basis of their non-belief, it is a very safe bet that they would be shocked at the exclusion of William Pryor from the 11th Circuit because he upholds the Catechism of the Catholic Church in his personal profession of faith even as he promises to follow Supreme Court instruction on the subject.

It is both laughable and pathetic for Senators like Leahy, Tom Daschle, and Richard Durbin to protest their innocence on the charge of anti-Catholicism with the argument that they are Catholics and thus cannot be anti-Catholic. This is a variation on the “some of my best friends are Jewish” refrain, and would not for a moment be admitted as a serious response in any other civil rights debate involving any other minority. The fact of discrimination is not in the motive of the offender but the effect upon the offended. Labels have nothing at all to do with the reality of bigotry.

This is a non sequitur. Leahy, et. al. aren’t saying their best friends are Catholic; they’re saying they themselves are Catholic. Accusing, say, Ward Connerly of hating blacks because he opposes affirmative action is simply idiotic given that Connerly himself is black. Now, being Catholic and being black are different things, in the sense that, despite the claims of some, one can not cease being black by changing one’s behavior.*

Terry Eastland addresses this point:

Nonetheless, the point of the ads was to reach Catholics, there being large Catholic populations in both Maine and Rhode Island. And the ads have succeeded in getting the attention of Catholics not just there but nationwide, in part because of the Democrats’ sharp response. Indeed, Sen. Richard Durbin of Illinois, himself a Catholic, has managed to lend credibility to the charge of a religious test.

“As a person who was raised Catholic and is a practicing Catholic,” Mr. Durbin said before the Judiciary Committee vote on the Pryor nomination, “I deeply resent this new line of attack. . … Many Catholics who oppose abortion personally do not believe the laws of the land should prohibit abortion for all others in extreme cases involving rape, incest and the life and health of the mother.”

It is odd that Mr. Durbin should bring up what other Catholics, contrary to their church’s teaching, believe about abortion — unless he thinks that perspective is relevant to an assessment of Mr. Pryor’s nomination. Could it be that for Mr. Durbin, some Catholics (who think as he does on abortion) may apply for judicial office but not others (who believe the church’s teaching)? That indeed would be a religious test.

Mainly, though, he focuses on the politics of the issue and thinks this might help the GOP:

Catholics, writes Amy Sullivan in the May issue of the neoliberal Washington Monthly, “are natural Democrats. … But as religiously minded voters, they also feel alienated from the Democratic Party over a range of moral and cultural issues, including abortion.”

Bill Clinton, she observes, managed to return to the Democratic Party many Catholics who had voted Republican during the 1980s. But George W. Bush won back many of those voters. And in 2002, 56 percent of active Catholics voted Republican. If enough of them vote Republican in 2004, a renominated Mr. Pryor might not face a filibuster.

True. I don’t think it’ll happen–the stars would have to align themselves awfully well for the GOP to get to 60 Senators.

But Eastland gets to the heart of the case: This is about politics, not religion. While I think that a litmus test that says one can not be confirmed if he strongly opposes abortion has the effect of disqualifying practicing Catholics, “Pro Life” isn’t a code word for “Catholic.” Teddy Kennedy doesn’t hate Catholics; he simply opposes many of the Church’s teachings.

*Michael Jackson may be an exception to this rule, but that’s a whole ‘nother post.

FILED UNDER: US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Randy says:

    James, Ward Connerly has been accused of being ashamed of his own race, and worse. The proof offered has been that he married a white woman.

  2. James Joyner says:

    Randy: That’s true. The whole “Uncle Tom” thing has been around for decades and is regularly applied to black conservatives. But it’s so obviously silly that few take it seriously.