As Democrats continue to sift through the electoral ashes of the midterm meltdown, a number of longtime activists have begun to insist that the party needs to reassert more clearly and forcefully its commitment to reproductive rights.
Their argument is that in key states where Democratic senators survived the prevailing anti-incumbent sentiment — notably California and, much more narrowly, Colorado, Nevada and Washington — voters who indicated the greatest concern with a candidate's stand on abortion provided the margin of victory.
It's hard to make a credible case that anything but the miserable economy and joblessness mattered in this midterm, but that hasn't stopped determined culture warriors on both sides of the aisle from arguing that their party's future prospects turn on reviving conflict over the most divisive social issues, including abortion, marriage equality and immigration.
In the Democrats' case, though, it's hard to imagine anything more ill-timed than an attempt to revive abortion as an electoral wedge issue. This midterm reaffirmed a contemporary political axiom: Elections are won among the independents and swing voters whose loyalties are determined by circumstance. Catholics, who now represent one in five Americans, are the biggest bloc of swing voters, particularly in the Rust Belt states, where Democrats suffered major reversals. For four decades, no presidential candidate has won the popular vote without carrying Catholics. Making support for access to abortion a litmus test ignores that historical calculus.
In fact, solving the Catholic electoral equation is likely to become far more difficult for Democrats in the wake of Tuesday's stunning events in Baltimore, where Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York was elected president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. It was an upset victory for the conservative prelates who've come to dominate the American hierarchy under Pope Benedict XVI and the first time since its reorganization in 1966 that the bishops' organization had not simply elevated the sitting vice president.
Archbishop Dolan is regarded as an articulate advocate for asserting the church's opposition to abortion ahead of any other issue. He defeated Bishop Gerald Kicanas of Tucson, who is regarded as the leading active disciple of the late Chicago Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, who advocated a so-called seamless garment approach to social issues in which opposition to abortion is considered alongside a range of social concerns. Like Cardinal Bernardin, Bishop Kicanas advocates pastoral dialogue with officeholders who favor abortion rights and who are otherwise disposed to work with the bishops on social justice issues.
Archbishop Dolan, on the other hand, takes a much more confrontational approach, and many of the bishops who voted for him agree with Denver's Archbishop Charles Chaput and soon-to-be curial Cardinal Raymond Burke that Catholics who hold positions favoring abortion rights or marriage equality positions ought to be denied communion. Cardinal Burke, who heads the Vatican's equivalent of the U.S. Supreme Court, has called the Democrats "a party of death" and argued that the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy should have been denied Catholic burial because of his stand favoring abortion rights. As he told one interviewer, "Since President Obama clearly announced during the election campaign his anti-life and anti-family agenda, a Catholic who knew his agenda regarding, for example, procured abortion, embryonic stem-cell research and same-sex marriage could not have voted for him with a clear conscience."
On Tuesday, the bishops elected as their vice president Bishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, Ky., the hierarchy's most vocal opponent of marriage equality.
The Jesuit magazine America wrote that Tuesday's "two votes suggest the [bishops] will continue to take a vibrant role in U.S. culture wars." The magazine's editors asked longtime Jesuit commentator Thomas Reese, "Should pro-choice Catholic politicians be scared?"
"'Yes,' was Reese's emphatic response. Reese said the vote should also figure 'in a much more conservative voice in the writing of the Faithful Citizenship statement which will help guide Catholic voters in the 2012 election. [Dolan will be president through that general election] … This just suggests how conservative the [bishops' conference] is becoming.'"
A confrontation at the communion rail between a conservative bishop and a visible Democratic officeholder — say, outgoing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi or Vice President Joe Biden — long has been the holy grail of GOP activists who would like to permanently wean Catholics from the Democratic Party. It's the sort of divisive event with unforeseeable consequences from which nobody ultimately would benefit. Cooler heads in all camps ought to avoid it.
Tim Rutten is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times, where this article originally appeared. His e-mail is email@example.com.