Catholic Church Stokes Political Debate On Abortion, Gay Marriage

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An Irish Catholic congressman is entangled in a very public battle with a Catholic Archbishop. Rep. Patrick Kennedy, a Democrat from Rhode Island, says he was told not to take communion because of his views on abortion rights. The controversy illustrates a larger debate about the Catholic Church's priorities and core values. For more on the subject, guest host Jennifer Ludden talks with Frances Kissling, former president of Catholics for Choice, the Rev. Harry Jackson, pastor of Hope Christian Church in Beltsville, Md., Professor Stephen Schneck, director of the Institute for Policy Research & Catholic Studies at The Catholic University of America.

JENNIFER LUDDEN, host:

I'm Jennifer Ludden, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Michel Martin is away.

Coming up, next year's U.S. Census will include something new: An official count of same-sex couples who identify themselves as spouses. We'll hear more on that in a few moments.

But first, a showdown between an Irish-American congressman and a Catholic archbishop could be the makings of a Martin Scorsese flick, but it's real. The congressman is Democrat Patrick Kennedy of Rhode Island. Last month, he criticized the Catholic Church for lobbying for abortion restrictions in health care legislation, and he asked how the church could oppose, quote, the biggest social justice issue of our time.

Bishop Thomas Tobin of Providence publicly questioned Kennedy's faith and suggested he leave the church. Then last weekend, Kennedy fired back. He revealed that two years ago, the bishop had asked him to stop taking Holy Communion because of his pro-choice views. The controversy illustrates a larger debate about the Catholic Church's priorities and core values.

Joining us now to talk about this is Frances Kissling. She's former president of Catholics for Choice and a visiting scholar at the University of Pennsylvania's Center for Bioethics. Also, Bishop Harry Jackson, he's senior pastor of Hope Christian Church in the Washington, D.C. area, also founder and chair of the high-impact Leadership Coalition, a nationwide group of ministers who advocate for traditional family values. And Professor Stephen Schneck, he directs the Institute for Policy Research in Catholic Studies at the Catholic University of America. Welcome to all of you.

Bishop HARRY JACKSON (Hope Christian Church): Thank you.

Ms. FRANCES KISSLING (University of Pennsylvania's Center for Bioethics): Thanks.

Professor STEPHEN SCHNECK (Director, Institute for Policy Research in Catholic Studies, Catholic University of America): Thanks.

LUDDEN: Stephen Schneck, first let me ask you. The Catholic Church does appear to be putting its anti-abortion stance ahead of a social justice issue like expanding health care. Does it risk alienating some of its own members in this way?

Prof. SCHNECK: I think from the church's perspective - and I should be clear that I'm speaking for myself and not for the church or the university and so forth. From the church's perspective, they're equally serious about both commitments, that is equally serious about passing comprehensive health care legislation, believe that it's a fundamental right for Americans to have access to health care. But at the same time, their concerns about abortion and federal funding of abortion in this bill is, I think, something that we're all familiar with.

LUDDEN: Does the church take its image like this into account when it decides to speak out on these - social policy issue?

Prof. SCHNECK: The church likes to think that it's not acting on the basis of image, but instead making its decisions on the basis of, you know, what is the moral thing.

LUDDEN: Bishop Jackson, even if abortion restrictions are included in a final health care package, I mean abortion will still be legal in this country. So, explain to me what is the importance of having this fight now?

Bishop JACKSON: Well, I think the importance is the church has got to make it clear that she's not wavering on her commitment to a very high moral priority that she has. And I think that oftentimes when you are dealing with politicians you live in the world of compromise. In the world of faith, you live in a world of absolutes. And whenever you have to deal with faith intersecting politics, it becomes very very murky.

So, in essence, the Roman Catholic Church is saying what my own church says. We want to support people. We want to help people, but don't ask me to stop being a Catholic or evangelical or Baptist in order to help someone.

LUDDEN: Frances Kissling, you used to head Catholics for Choice. The stance against abortion is a fundamental belief to the Catholic Church. Why shouldn't church officials try to restrict federal funding for it?

Ms. KISSLING: Well, I would question whether it would be what we would call a fundamental belief. It's certainly a vehement belief on the part of the hierarchy that abortion is morally wrong, but there are a lot of other fundamental beliefs in the Catholic Church that cut against the grain in terms of believing that because you believe abortion is wrong you have to make it illegal. Or in the case of health care reform and the denial of federal funds for poor women, that you have to target the poor and the powerless as a way of making your moral point of view.

Church wants to work to make abortion illegal, I think they have a right to try and do that. I find it very difficult to accept a church that would pick on the poor as a way of making a moral point. The other element of this is that we also have a fundamental belief in the Roman Catholic Church and in most religions that individuals have a right to follow their conscience even when their conscience disagrees with what the church teaches.

You know, with all due respect, the Pope doesn't decide whether I go to heaven or not. God decides whether I go to heaven.

LUDDEN: So do you think that the church risks alienating some of its own members with this effort to insert abortion restrictions in health care legislation?

Ms. KISSLING: Well, it's going to alienate some of its members for doing this and it's going to make some of its members happy. There is no question that within the Catholic community, people have differing views on the subject of abortion and differing views on the subject of whether the bishops should get involved in the political process. It's certainly making a lot of legislatures unhappy and can't be making our president terribly happy because he's highly desirous of getting this health care reform passed.

LUDDEN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. The Catholic Church has had a visible role in the health care reform debates. Some say that's appropriate. Others argue it's overstepping boundaries. We're talking to Bishop Harry Jackson and Catholic scholars Frances Kissling and Stephen Schneck.

Now, there's another church-state battle right here in Washington, D.C. The city council is expected to soon pass a law that would recognize same-sex marriages and make sure that groups receiving city funds do that as well in terms of company benefits and so forth. Catholic Charities said if this happens it could no longer take city contracts to feed and house the poor. And we should add that Catholic Charities serves some 68,000 people, including about a third of D.C.'s homeless population. Here is a clip of Donald Wuerl, he's archbishop of Washington, D.C.

Archbishop DONALD WUERL (Washington, D.C.): We shouldn't have to give up our faith convictions, our profoundly held faith convictions, in order to be able to work with the District of Columbia.

LUDDEN: Frances Kissling, do you agree?

Ms. KISSLING: Well, I don't think that the church should give up its deeply held faith, but I think that when you decide to use public funds and to participate in social services in the context of a city or a democratic government, then you face a hard choice. But the choice here is the hard choice for the institutional church. If you don't want to follow these rules, then raise money from Catholic people to do these social services and don't expect to get government funds in order to provide these services.

LUDDEN: Stephen Schneck, what about that, is there a way to reconcile these conflicting priorities?

Prof. SCHNECK: Well, in the end I think that Councilman David Catania's suggestion to follow the San Francisco model on this question is probably the way to go. That is, in fact, to treat domestic partners, equivalent benefits to spousal benefits...

LUDDEN: Almost a don't ask, don't tell approach.

Prof. SCHNECK: Exactly.

LUDDEN: Bishop Jackson, you recently wrote a piece for Townhall magazine, essentially answering the question of whether these two priorities can be reconciled with a no and the title of that was called, �Can Jesus Be Blackmailed?� Can you tell us what you mean?

Bishop JACKSON: What I mean that is that the city has enjoyed the benefit of service for a number of years based on the doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church and other churches. Now, the city still wants the services. They make a contribution, but it's shy of about $10 million and it's also shy a lot of volunteer time. And we got homeless people that need mental care as well as physical care who are becoming more and more potentially violent.

And all of a sudden, because one group is going to be upset, we're making the laws, we want to say hey you have got to do this, it's your responsibility, Mr. Churchman. And I'd say, isn't that a little bit hypocritical? You accept my doctrine when I want to feed the poor, but as soon as I want to live out my doctrine in its fullest and say, hey, you knew I was a Catholic when you started this process, you come up with a law after we've been doing business for several generations, and now lickety split, I've got to transform myself, throw away my faith, and that's really not fair.

Prof. SCHNECK: Could I step into that just a little bit as well?

LUDDEN: Stephen Schneck.

Prof. SCHNECK: You know, in fact, you know, the church isn't claiming an entitlement in this matter at all. It's working actually just the reverse. That is, the city of Washington has hired the church over the years to perform this service. And, you know, if the church, you know, at some point wants to back out of the situation that they've been hired for, then it's perfectly in their rights to do so.

Ms. KISSLING: Absolutely, I totally agree.

Prof. SCHNECK: ...and if I could add one final thing about that, the church has never said that it's going to back down on its commitment to the homeless and all of the other charities that it performs in the District. It will continue to do so whether it receives funds from the District or not.

Ms. KISSLING: And I think that's appropriate. I think that the church should continue to provide those services, and I think when it wishes to provide them in a manner that is inconsistent with what government decides, which government also has a right to do, then it has the obligation to step up to the plate, raise the money from those Catholics who agree with it, and from secular forces that do agree with it and continue to provide the services.

Bishop JACKSON: Well, I disagree with you. What about the poor people? What about the guy, who I passed just a few minutes ago who is standing on the street with a coat on in the rain. He doesn't know what planet he's on. Doesn't he deserve care and help? And why is it that on somebody else's terms all the changes have to be made radically? I think in your world, you have a real beef with your church, I wonder whether you're a Catholic indeed...

Ms. KISSLING: Well, that's none of your...

Bishop JACKSON: ...or by name.

Ms. KISSLING: That's none of your business.

Bishop JACKSON: It is none of my business.

Ms. KISSLING: ...and it's totally inappropriate...

Bishop JACKSON: It's not, it's not...

Ms. KISSLING: ...for you to even suggest that.

Bishop JACKSON: ...inappropriate.

LUDDEN: Bishop Jackson, don't you think the city of D.C. could find someone else for these contracts, though, if the Catholic Church decided to not compromise.

Bishop JACKSON: I think they probably could develop someone else over several decades or long period of time. But again, this is a manifestation of the city council not thinking everything through. And again I'm not a Roman Catholic, but I have views consistent with this and we signed a commitment, a declaration called the Manhattan Declaration this past Friday. And what we're saying is that we will, in some cases, disobey the law in terms of saying you're not going to force me, because you changed your law, to do something that's inconsistent with my conscience as a person of faith.

LUDDEN: Both of these situations we've been talking about mix politics with religion - church, state. And it makes some Americans uncomfortable. Stephen Schneck, is the church going too far in these cases?

Prof. SCHNECK: Well, in regards to your general question, the mixture of politics and religion, of course, is always a volatile one. Politics, as the bishop already pointed out, is all about compromise. And religion includes all sorts of uncompromisable, you know, positions that are inevitably a part of it. And so the mixture of these two is always going to be problematic at its very core.

LUDDEN: Professor Stephen Schneck directs the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies at the Catholic University of America. Frances Kissling is former president of Catholics for Choice, and a visiting scholar at the University of Pennsylvania's Center for Bioethics. She joined us by phone from Boston. Bishop Harry Jackson is senior pastor of Hope Christian Church in the Washington, D.C. area. Thanks all for a spirited discussion.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. SCHNECK: Thanks, Jennifer.

Bishop JACKSON: Thank you.

Ms. KISSLING: Bye, bye.

(Soundbite of music)

LUDDEN: Coming up, in 2010 for the first time, the U.S. Census Bureau will count as married same-sex partners who identify themselves that way. Gay rights activists hope the results challenge stereotypes.

Mr. GARY GATES (Demographer, University of California, Los Angeles): Mainstream images of gay people tend to be white male, urban and rich. And it turns out that none of things adequately describe the community.

LUDDEN: How the census could change perceptions about what the gay community looks like. That's next on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Jennifer Ludden.

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