The Blog

Tom Daschle's Duty to Be Morally Coherent

A Weekly Standard Exclusive: The Senate minority leader is ordered to stop calling himself a Catholic.

12:00 PM, Apr 17, 2003 • By J. BOTTUM
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

TOM DASCHLE may no longer call himself a Catholic. The Senate minority leader and the highest ranking Democrat in Washington has been sent a letter by his home diocese of Sioux Falls, sources in South Dakota have told The Weekly Standard, directing him to remove from his congressional biography and campaign documents all references to his standing as a member of the Catholic Church.

This isn't exactly excommunication--which is unnecessary, in any case, since Daschle made himself ineligible for communion almost 20 years ago with his divorce and remarriage to a Washington lobbyist. The directive from Sioux Falls' Bishop Robert Carlson is rather something less than excommunication--and, at the same time, something more: a declaration that Tom Daschle's religious identification constitutes, in technical Catholic vocabulary, a grave public scandal. He was brought up as a Catholic, and he may still be in some sort of genuine mental and spiritual relation to the Church. Who besides his confessor could say? But Daschle's consistent political opposition to Catholic teachings on moral issues--abortion, in particular--has made him such a problem for ordinary churchgoers that the Church must deny him the use of the word "Catholic."

Much of the discussion about Daschle's standing has gone on in private over the last few years, although Bishop Carlson and Senator Daschle had a very public spat about partial-birth abortion in 1997. During the run-up to a Senate vote on the issue, Daschle proposed what he called a "compromise," banning the procedure while allowing exemptions for any woman who claimed mental or physical health reasons for having such a late-term procedure. Pointing out the way the exemptions gutted the ban, Carlson called Daschle's proposed compromise a "smokescreen" designed solely to "provide cover for pro-abortion senators and President Clinton, who wanted to avoid a veto confrontation."

Daschle, in turn, rose on the floor of the Senate in Washington to denounce his own bishop back in South Dakota for speaking in a way "more identified with the radical right than with thoughtful religious leadership." Carlson later told the Sioux Falls Argus Leader that he remains mystified by Daschle's position on abortion. "NARAL claims him as one of their number-one supporters. I don't understand how he can be in touch with South Dakotans as much as he is, and yet consistently have a pro-abortion record."

This year, on January 16, Bishop Carlson received additional ammunition for his discussions with Daschle when Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger's office, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, issued in Rome a "Doctrinal Note" on Catholics in political life. "A well-formed Christian conscience," the note declared, "does not permit one to vote for a political program or an individual law which contradicts the fundamental contents of faith and morals."

The Doctrinal Note marks at least the beginning of the end of the Vatican's toleration of what the pope's biographer George Weigel has called "Cuomoism" in the American Church: the effort to finesse abortion by declaring oneself personally opposed but politically supportive of laws allowing abortion. Catholics have a "duty to be morally coherent," the Doctrinal Note declares, and the Catholic fight on the life issues--abortion, euthanasia, and cloning--is not some merely prudential question, to be decided by political give and take. The Catholic Church doesn't take political positions--except when politics intrudes into something, like the right to life, that ought to be beyond the power of politicians.

Bishop William Weigand of Sacramento was the first American bishop to use the new note from Rome. At a pro-life Mass on January 22, he spoke of California Governor Gray Davis's claim to be a "pro-choice Catholic." After describing the efforts by Davis's pastor to get the governor to see the moral incoherence of his position, Weigand declared, "As your bishop, I have to say clearly that anyone--politician or otherwise--who thinks it is acceptable for a Catholic to be pro-abortion is in very great error, puts his or her soul at risk, and is not in good standing with the Church. Such a person should have the integrity to acknowledge this and choose of his own volition to abstain from receiving Holy Communion until he has a change of heart." (Russ Lopez, a spokesman for Davis, responded with the hilarious and deeply revealing complaint that Bishop Weigand was "telling the faithful how to practice their faith." In Lopez's mind--as, indeed, in the minds of many--the promise of the separation of Church and state, in which no political figure gets to tell believers how to practice their faith, has turned into a need for the separation of Church and Church, in which not even a religious figure gets to tell believers how to practice their faith.)

There's quite a list of pro-abortion Catholics in Washington--beginning with Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic minority leader in the House--who could use similar instruction in "the duty to be morally coherent." Just in the Senate, there's Biden, Collins, Daschle, Dodd, Harkin, Kennedy, Kerry, Landrieu, Leahy, Mikulski, Murray, Reed, and more. But at least Tom Daschle has now been forced by Bishop Carlson to assume some responsibility for moral coherence--even if it is, unfortunately, a coherence achieved in the wrong direction.

The diocese in Sioux Falls would not say what brought the issue of Tom Daschle's Catholicism to a head at this moment, although one South Dakotan suggested it may have to do with Daschle's crossing of yet another line recently when he began direct fund-raising for NARAL. Senator Daschle's office has not yet responded to a request for comment. It's a serious thing when a bishop breaks a pastoral relation, no matter how tenuous that relation may have grown. But Bishop Carlson is right that the time has come to banish Cuomoism from American politics. This isn't a matter of favoring Republicans or Democrats. Regardless of their party, public figures who aren't going to oppose abortion shouldn't call themselves Catholic anymore.

A native of South Dakota, J. Bottum is Books & Arts editor of the Weekly Standard.