Zealots deal the 'Catholic card' down and dirty


PORTLAND, Maine - So it takes an ecumenical group of zealots charging anti-Catholicism in an ad running in a state with a Greek Orthodox senator to make me fully understand the word chutzpah. I guess this is what it means to live in a multicultural society?

This display of sheer gall began with the nomination of Alabama Attorney General William H. Pryor Jr. to the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Mr. Pryor is anti-abortion, anti-gay rights, pro-school prayer. And Catholic. He most notably said, "God has chosen, through his son Jesus Christ, this time and this place for all Christians ... to save our country and save our courts."

Mr. Pryor was approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee on a straight party-line vote, 10-9. But before he faces the full Senate, the right wing is trying to position an anti-Pryor vote as an anti-Catholic vote.

The Committee for Justice ran print and radio ads in both Rhode Island and Maine in an attempt to pressure three moderate Republican senators, including Olympia J. Snowe, who occasionally fail to genuflect to the one true political belief: Bushism. The print ad featured a closed courtroom door with a sign saying "Catholics Need Not Apply."

Playing the "Catholic card" infuriated many, especially four Catholic Democrats on the Judiciary Committee. This same quartet had to sit through a committee meeting where a Mormon and a Methodist parsed a good Catholic from a bad Catholic. Mr. Pryor's positions were defined as being "what a good Catholic believes." And what were those Catholics who disagreed with him? Chopped liver? Are we getting multicultural again?

In Boston, the Irish ironically describe someone as "more Catholic than the pope." This time it's true. In 1991, anti-abortion groups called on the pope to excommunicate two dozen prominent American lawmakers - from Mario M. Cuomo to Barbara A. Mikulski - who supported abortion rights. It never happened.

More recently, the American Life League published ads targeting 12 Catholic politicians - from Patrick J. Leahy to John Kerry - as the Deadly Dozen. This year, Deal Hudson, the editor of Crisis - often described as a Catholic adviser to the president - wrote a fund-raising letter to expose "imposters" who try to make voters believe you could be Catholic and pro-choice, Catholic and pro-gay, or Catholic and pro-contraception.

Letting Mr. Hudson define Catholicism is like letting Osama bin Laden define Islam. But it's usually the conservative end of the religious spectrum that defines their one true religion and dismisses others as anti-religious.

There's no question the Vatican holds strong views against abortion. On Thursday, it urged politicians to oppose gay marriage. But the church has never excommunicated a politician who disagreed and never revoked the right to call yourself a Catholic.

Ironically, the folks parsing good from bad Catholics seem to pick and choose their own papal line. Consider, for example, the Vatican opposition to the death penalty. Not to mention the war in Iraq. Is a pro-war Catholic "bad?"

No one in the Senate that I know of has raised religion as an issue in judicial nominations. The only one who has talked about disqualifying Catholics is Antonin Scalia, who disagreed with his church's teaching against the death penalty. Last August, the Supreme Court justice said that a Catholic judge who believed the death penalty was immoral "would have to resign."

Frances Kissling of Catholics for a Free Choice calls this whole flap "a bullying tactic. No one wants to be called anti-Catholic. It's designed to shut people up."

The main "religious" controversy is, of course, over abortion, with gay marriage coming up a fast second. But it's our own fundamentalists who don't want to separate religion from politics. Recently, Judie Brown of the American Life League described one politician, Sen. Rick Santorum, as "a very good example of the Catholic who practices his faith 24 hours a day. He does not leave it at home when he goes to the office." Alas, the "office" is the Capitol, not the vestry.

Mr. Pryor was questioned about his "deeply held beliefs." It doesn't matter where a judge got his deep beliefs, but it does matter what he believes. In that values arena where religion and politics meet, we have every obligation to argue over the way a judge appointed for life looks at the law.

The Bush Republicans have poked more than a few holes in the wall between church and state. We've seen faith-based policies in the White House, Bible study in the attorney general's office, and senators parsing good and bad Catholics in the Senate. Now anyone working to patch up the wall is accused of attacking religion.

How do you spell that word again? C-H-U-T-Z-P-A-H.

Ellen Goodman is a columnist for The Boston Globe. Her column appears Mondays and Thursdays in The Sun. She can be reached via e-mail at ellengoodman@globe.com.

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