Disquiet on the Thomas Nomination: Shared Anxieties Religion Rears Its Head


Boston. If you thought racial politics was a heady enough brew to serve up for one Supreme Court nomination, beware. There's a heaping cup of religion added to the recipe.

When Clarence Thomas stood on the president's lawn and thanked his grandparents, his mother and the nuns, a small warning sound, a tiny little uh-oh, went off in the minds of many who favor abortion rights. You don't have to be paranoid -- although it helps -- to assume that Mr. Bush was delivering a message to the pro-life wing of his party when he recited Judge Thomas' Catholic schooling.

A few days later a very different alarm bell went off when Virginia's Gov. Douglas Wilder suggested that Judge Thomas should be questioned as a Catholic: "The question is, 'How much allegiance is there to the pope?"' You don't have to be Catholic -- although it helps -- to hear an echo of the old bigotry against "papists" in power.

Now Governor Wilder has given the standard non-apology apology: "If I have offended anybody, I'm sorry." And conservatives of the stripe who did not vote for Jack Kennedy or Al Smith are chiding liberals for raising the specter of religious bigotry.

As somebody raised in Kennedy's hometown, an article of my secular faith says that religion should never be a test for holding public office. As somebody who was ably represented by a Jesuit priest in Congress, Robert Drinan, until the church gave him the hook, I nevertheless think we have the wrong culprit.

It isn't liberals and it certainly isn't Douglas Wilder who have reopened the can of worms marked religion. It's the Catholic hierarchy.

American Catholics have often lived with tension between their national character -- a feisty, don't-tell-me-what-to-think independence -- and a religious hierarchy that struggles to contain a set of shared rules and beliefs. The potential conflict was usually lightened by leaving a whole lot of room for freedom of conscience. Especially for Catholic politicians.

By 1960, the issue seemed to have been settled. JFK told a Baptist convention in Houston: "I do not speak for the church on public matters, and the church does not speak for me." Case closed.

But now the church, in an increasingly authoritarian period, has changed the rules of the game. The bishops now consistently tell Catholic officeholders how to vote on one issue: abortion. The National Conference of Catholic Bishops has said that you can't be a good Catholic and pro-choice.

Last month, Cardinal Bernard Law told a group of Massachusetts legislators there was "no way" to justify a xTC pro-choice vote. A year before that, Cardinal John O'Connor, who has carried on a vendetta against Mario Cuomo, threatened pro-choice Catholic officeholders with excommunication. And Cardinal Joseph Bernardin has said that "all Catholics are bound by the moral principle prohibiting" abortion.

As Frances Kissling of Catholics for a Free Choice says flatly, "The bishops have created the problem for the nominee. They are not the aggrieved victim."

It must be said, quickly, that Catholic officials aren't especially bound to the church's preaching. The 19 Catholic senators and 119 Catholic representatives are about evenly divided on abortion. On the bench, retired Justice Brennan voted for Roe vs. Wade, while Justices Antonin Scalia and John Paul Kennedy appear to be part of the anti-Roe bloc.

Nor does the Catholic population as a whole feel they have to obey the bishops. Only between 7 percent and 18 percent of Catholics agree that abortion should be illegal "in all circumstances." The one way they differ from other religions is in actually seeking abortions. According to the Guttmacher Institute, the rate of abortion is 30 percent higher among Catholic women than Protestants and Jews.

What does this say about Clarence Thomas? Raised and educated Catholic, he is divorced, remarried and attends an Episcopal church. He appears passionately, even rebelliously, independent.

There are hints that his religious education has left its imprints in pro-life sentiment and an apparent belief in the primacy of "natural law." This is the principle that the Catholic Church used to underpin its opposition to contraception as well as abortion. It's legitimate to plumb Judge Thomas' religious upbringing for a full understanding of his perspective -- without the flat-footed implication that he is a puppet of the pope.

But as this current flare-up suggests, religion in America is still a touchy subject. We are a diverse people, generally careful to defuse religious strife by separating church and state. If the line is traversed, don't blame Doug Wilder or Clarence Thomas. It's the bishops who have shown the way.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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