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Feb. 28, 2006 • Volume 14 Number 12

NBC's "Meet The Press" host Tim Russert moderated a lively public discussion on American politicians and the Catholic Church Feb. 27 at Conte Forum.

'Catholic Politicians' Forum Makes for Lively Evening

Church in the 21st Century panel tackles abortion, stem cell research, other social-political issues

By Greg Frost
Staff Writer

Almost 6,000 students, faculty, alumni and other members of the Boston College community gathered Monday night in Conte Forum to witness NBC's "Meet The Press" host Tim Russert moderate a lively public discussion on American politicians and the Catholic Church.

"Catholic Politicians in the US: Their Faith and Public Policy," sponsored by BC's Church in the 21st Century Center, featured an all- star group of Catholic pundits from the right and the left: Democratic strategist James Carville, Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne, former Republican National Committee Chairman Edward Gillespie and former Ronald Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan.

The 90-minute panel discussion had been billed as a look at the intersection of faith and public policy among Catholic politicians in America, but it became clear early on that abortion would be the evening's dominant topic - and that made for a few tense moments.

Carville raised the issue in his opening remarks, citing polling data that he said showed well over half of US Catholics believe that abortion should be legal in all circumstances.

"Every day Catholics prove that you can be a good Catholic and a good Democrat and have a different position from the Church on abortion," Carville said.

Noonan rejected the attempt to characterize abortion as a matter subject to compromise and said that being personally opposed to abortion but supporting abortion rights was the moral equivalent of being personally opposed to slavery in the 1860s but supporting the right to own slaves.

"Abortion is either OK or it's not," she said.

Carville extrapolated that analogy to suggest that Noonan was comparing young women who have abortions to 19th-century slave-owners - a charge she vehemently denied.

"Catholic Politicians in the US: Their Faith and Public Policy," sponsored by BC's Church in the 21st Century Center, featured an all- star group of Catholic pundits from left to right: former Republican National Committee Chairman Edward Gillespie Democratic strategist James Carville (hidden from view), former Ronald Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan and Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne.

The panelists took up other controversial issues such as stem-cell research and homosexuality, but they seemed to gravitate again and again to the question of whether a woman should be allowed to terminate her pregnancy. In that sense, the discussion reflected the overall debate among Catholics during the failed presidential bid of US Sen. John Kerry JD'76 (D-Mass.) in 2004.

Two US bishops that year said Kerry should be denied communion because of his support for abortion rights, and the Massachusetts Democrat went on to lose the Catholic vote - and the general election - to President George W. Bush.

Kerry's defeat stood in sharp contrast to Democrat John Kennedy's 1960 White House triumph, in which the Massachusetts Catholic senator was supported by more than four-fifths of American Catholic voters.

The migration of US Catholic voters from the Democratic Party to the GOP during the latter half of the 20th century proved to be an underlying theme in Monday's debate, with the conservative panelists declaring that Catholics had been turned off by liberal excesses.

Dionne and Carville argued that while many Democrats may differ from the Vatican on right-to-life issues, their party's platform was much more in line with the teachings of Jesus than that of Republicans.

Indeed, Dionne generated laughter from the audience when he joked that the Church's job when it came to politics was "to make all of us feel guilty about something."

Referring to Kerry's 2004 defeat, he questioned whether church leaders had focused too closely on Kerry's abortion stance.

"One of the troublesome things about the last election for a lot Catholics...is that the Church did not seem to be an equal-opportunity guilt producer," Dionne said. "It seemed to say that the abortion issue takes priority over all other questions, including questions of social justice, including questions of war and peace, including the death penalty."

Noonan said that while it was "almost inevitable" Catholics would wind up being conservative, she also indicated that being Catholic did not necessarily relegate a person to a particular party.

"Maybe, in part, to be Catholic is to be curious," she said. "I'm not sure it's easy being a Catholic and a Democrat or a Catholic and a Republican, just because it's hard in general to be a Catholic. But I think it's worth the struggle."

"Catholic Politicians in the US: Their Faith and Public Policy" will be available for viewing on March 1 via the "Front Row" Web site at frontrow.bc.edu. For more information, see the Church in the 21st Century Center Web site.

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