On Tuesday last week, as millions of Americans watched Pope Benedict XVI touch down at Andews Air Force Base and be welcomed personally by the president, Senator Brownback (R-KS) and Senator Casey (D-PA) jointly introduced a Senate resolution welcoming the pope to American soil. Both senators describe themselves as devout Catholics, and the language of the welcome would, one would think, be fairly uncontroversial.
Welcoming Pope Benedict XVI to the United States and recognizing the unique insights his moral and spiritual reflections bring to the world stage.You might think this was the kind of nice gesture which even in our highly partisan political atmostphere could fly right through the Senate on a wave of goodwill. After all, 25% of Americans identify as Catholic, the pope is a unique world figure, and the resolution was joint sponsored by a Republican renowned for his work on social justice issues and a Democrat who has been held up to Catholics as a sign of a new tollerance for pro-life Democrats and a "seamless garment of life" approach to moral/social issues.
Whereas Pope Benedict XVI will travel to the United States for his first pastoral visit as Pope and will visit Washington, DC, and New York;
Whereas Pope Benedict XVI was elected as the 265th Bishop of Rome on April 19, 2005, succeeding the much beloved Pope John Paul II;
Whereas the visit of Pope Benedict XVI will mark the 9th visit of a pope to the United States, recognizing the historical importance of the Catholic Church in American life, the deep faith and charity of its members, and the responsibilities of the United States in world affairs;
Whereas Pope Benedict XVI has spoken approvingly of the vibrance of religious faith in the United States, a faith nourished by a constitutional commitment to religious liberty that neither attempts to strip our public spaces of religious expression nor denies the ultimate source of our rights and liberties;
Whereas Pope Benedict XVI remains committed to ecumenical dialogue and, during his trip to the United States, will meet with leaders of world religions and representatives of other Christian denominations and will visit a synagogue in New York City, all demonstrating his commitment to sincere dialogue and unity among all members of the human family;
Whereas Pope Benedict XVI has authored 2 encyclical letters inviting the world to meditate on the virtues of love and hope, ‘‘Deus caritas est’’ and ‘‘Spe salvi’’;
Whereas millions of Americans have discovered in Pope Benedict’s words a renewed faith in the power of hope over despair and love over hate;
Whereas Pope Benedict XVI has been a clear and courageous voice for the voiceless, working tirelessly for the recognition of human dignity and religious freedom across the globe;
Whereas Pope Benedict XVI has spoken out for the weak and vulnerable, witnessing to the value of each and every human life;
Whereas Pope Benedict XVI seeks to advance a ‘‘civilization of love’’ across our world; and
Whereas Catholics in parishes and schools across the Nation, and countless other Americans as well, eagerly await the visit of Pope Benedict XVI to the United States: Now, therefore, be it Resolved, That the Senate welcomes Pope Benedict XVI on the occasion of his first pastoral visit to the United States and recognizes the unique insights his moral and spiritual reflections bring to the world stage.[source]
However, Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA), by whom I had the dubious honor of being represented before moving to Texas, held up the resolution until Thursday when Senator Brownback agreed to remove two "controversial" phrases:
"witnessing to the value of each and every human life"
"that neither attempts to strip our public spaces of religious expression nor denies the ultimate source of our rights and liberties"
Jay Anderson and his commentors note that one could see this as a startling honesty on Sen. Boxer's part, since generally pro-abortion politicians insist that there is no "human life" involved in abortion, but merely "pieces of tissue" or "potential life".
More deeply, though, I think this speeks to a chasm that runs through American politics. There is a not-so-small portion of the American citizenry for whom the idea that Pope Benedict and the Church he leads should have anything to say on issues such as human life, the source and nature of human freedom, etc. is not only incorrect, but also offensive. The Daily Kos is so consumed with hatred at the idea that the pope might mean anything for Americans and American civic discussion that in its coverage of the stalling of the Senate resolution, it refers to the pope only as "this pedophile enabler". And Senator Boxer sees the pope so exclusively through the lens of American partisan politics that she sees the phrase "witnessing to the value of each and every human life" as offensive.
It's clearly not the case that all those who tend to vote Democrat are radical secularists and abortion advocates. However, a large enough number of those who are radical secularists and/or abortion advocates are also passionate Democrats that any national-level Democratic candidate who wants to be successful at this time seems to feel it necessary to do nothing that will seriously offend that constituency -- and a certain amount to please them. (Thus the invariable realization by any Democratic politican who decides to run for national level office that any pro-life convictions he personally held were only "personal".)
This is what makes me deeply, deeply skeptical of the claim, by self-identified conservatives and Catholics such as Prof. Kmiec, that an Obama presidency would somehow bring in an era of self responsibility and respect for others that would help heal the abortion issue more than anything continued restrictions and conservative Supreme Court appointments could achieve. It's not that many on the liberal side of the political spectrum do not have passionate feelings about helping "the little guy" as they identify him, but those feelings are always couched in terms that make abortion, euthenasia, and a host of other, smaller (and thus far more widely accepted) assaults on human life not only credible, but merciful.
Some might argue that Senator Boxer is some sort of fringe character -- and it's true that California is one of the bluest of blue states. However she is by no means seen as fringy in the Democratic Party itself.
Boxer, and a not small portion of the base she represents, seems to see the pope and the Church he leads in strictly partisan terms. So rather than taking the phrase "witnessing to the value of each and every human life" to be something that everyone could agree to in a spirit of welcome (while in her mind holding to disagreement as to what the term "every human life" could be taken to mean) she sought to have it struck out, along with the suggestion that religious belief had a place in public conversation and as the root of our liberties.
Until someone seeks to root this kind of thinking out of the Democratic Party mainstream, I think serious Christians would be right to remain leary of a claimed openness in that party to "people of faith". If positions and beliefs are to be held to mean anything, it would seem that one of the things that the Democratic Party would like to tell us is: However much you may agree with us on other issues, pro-lifers and Christians need not apply -- unless you want to leave your faith at the door and act like a good little secularist.
No amount of platitudinous words will bridge this chasm which has been dug throught he center of American political discourse if there is no effort to get rid of the attitudes and ideologies which dug the chasm in the first place.