Obama, the Bishops, and FOCA

Dr. Paul Kengor | Grove City College | Thursday, November 20, 2008

Obama, the Bishops, and FOCA


November 20, 2008

A potential big battle has begun, one of special interest to all Christians and guaranteed to generate a lot of attention from all Americans.

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) has issued a stern warning to president-elect Obama and his incoming administration, highlighting grave concerns over what will happen to unwanted, unborn human life. The statement was delivered at the end of the annual assembly that represents all American bishops—i.e., the full American Catholic Church. It was issued by Francis Cardinal George of Chicago, president of the USCCB.

The subject is the once unthinkable Freedom of Choice Act (FOCA), which Barack Obama promised will be the “first thing” he signs as president. As the bishops forcefully noted, FOCA would eliminate countless reasonable restrictions on abortion enacted by bipartisan legislatures—Democrats and Republicans working together—over the past 35 years, including parental-consent laws and protection for babies who accidentally survive an abortion. FOCA, wrote the bishops, “would coerce all Americans into subsidizing and promoting abortion with their tax dollars.” Every American would be complicit in paying for abortions—you would have no choice.

This would not only be unprecedented in American history but light years removed from Obama’s claim that he “respects” those with different points of view in the pro-life camp.

Most shocking, and of special concern to the bishops, is the fear that FOCA would eliminate the freedom of conscience of doctors, nurses, and healthcare workers—Catholic, non-Catholic, you name it—to not participate in abortion procedures at their hospitals. The bishops noted that this would be an attack on Americans’ free exercise of religion. FOCA “would have lethal consequences” not only for prenatal human life but for the most basic freedoms that living, working Americans have long held dear.

Further, the bishops dread that FOCA would require all hospitals with obstetrics programs to do abortions, a natural expectation given that Obama has spoken of abortion as a “fundamental right,” a basic government service, and a vital component of America’s “safety net.” He calls groups like Planned Parenthood a “safety-net provider.” The bishops fear that this aspect of FOCA would mandate Catholic hospitals to provide abortions, which would force the hospitals to shut down rather than compromise their beliefs.

The bishops thus stated, “[FOCA] would be an evil law that would further divide our country, and the Church should be intent on opposing evil.” The consequences for what Pope John Paul II termed a Culture of Life are disastrous.

Many of those who voted for Obama will be shocked by all this. They shouldn’t be. Obama openly made these promises. Sadly, it’s a surprise to traditional pro-life Democrats who think they’ve voted for Harry Truman or Jack Kennedy.

As evidence of the rancor already taking hold in the Catholic Church, consider the striking scene at a parish in Greenville, South Carolina last week, where the priest insists that any parishioner who voted for Obama must go to Confession and do penance before taking Holy Communion. The priest’s reasoning is based strictly on the radical abortion policies of Obama.

That reaction by the priest points to what I sense is an added motivation by the bishops: They feel partly responsible for what occurred on November 4. Catholics, driven mainly by pocketbook issues—actually, driven by issues other than abortion—voted for Barack Obama over John McCain by a decisive margin of 54 to 46 percent. (John McCain won Catholics who attend Mass weekly, 50 to 49 percent, but lost in a landslide to Catholics who don’t attend weekly, 58 to 40 percent.)

Catholics, who were one-in-four of all voters, delivered 17 million votes to Obama, twice the overall popular-vote margin. They arguably made Obama president. And they voted this way in spite of an extraordinary effort by bishops to warn their dioceses about things like FOCA.

The bishops are also upset that Catholic politicians helped make this possible. A short list includes vice-president-elect Joe Biden and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, both pro-choice Catholics, and plenty of pro-life Catholic Democrats around the country, such as Senator Bob Casey Jr. (D-PA), who worked his tail off to deliver Pennsylvania’s crucial Electoral College votes to Obama. And there were groups like “Catholics for Obama,” men like Doug Kmiec and Pittsburgh Steelers’ owner Dan Rooney, and all those young people who voted in hordes for Obama, including the 60 percent of students at Catholic colleges who believe abortion should be legal, according to a new study commissioned by the Cardinal Newman Center.

What’s more, the bishops see that Protestants didn’t vote the same way as Catholics; they went for McCain in an exact reversal, 54 to 46 percent, with evangelicals voting McCain by at least two-to-one, and in some polls three-to-one. That’s painfully ironic to the bishops, since Protestants have no pro-life encyclicals like Humanae Vitae or Evangelium Vitae, no Catechism or Catholic dictionary or encyclopedia that in the first entry in the glossary defines abortion as “gravely contrary to the moral law,” no 2,000-year prohibition against abortion, no adamantly pro-life man in Rome like Pope John Paul II or Pope Benedict XVI, no Magisterium that constantly denounces abortion.

The bishops understand that Catholics held the potential in this election to spare America another 35 years of Roe v. Wade, the first 35 years of which produced 50 million aborted babies. Instead, the legal permanency of abortion in America now seems guaranteed. And now, the bishops are digging in for the political fight of their lives. Expect leading pro-life Protestants to join them.

And to both Catholics and non-Catholics, get ready for some fireworks.


Paul Kengor is professor of political science and executive director of the Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College. His latest book is The Judge: William P. Clark, Ronald Reagan's Top Hand (Ignatius Press, 2007).

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