Assorted Catholic voices have been raised lately calling on Catholics to give President-elect Obama a chance and look for common ground between him and the Church. Part of the message is: "Don't worry about the Freedom of Choice Act."
Among those saying these things are the editors of Commonweal, the National Catholic Reporter, Professor Douglas Kmiec, and former U.S. ambassador to the Holy See Thomas Melady. In principle, they're partly right. In practice, they could hardly be more wrong, especially where FOCA is concerned.
Ambassador Melady, who says he voted for John McCain, makes the case for "engagement" with Obama in an opinion piece on NCR online. Despite differences between Obama and the Church on abortion and education vouchers, he says, there is a "clear convergence" on things like poverty, health insurance, and ending race-based discrimination.
Who can argue with engagement? But it takes two to engage. Obama may yet get to that in his relationship with the Catholic Church, but there's no sign of it happening now.
Instead, in both his cabinet choices and his White House staff picks, the president-elect has so far been busy loading up his administration with pro-choicers, including Catholics like Tom Daschle (Secretary of Health and Human Services) and Bill Richardson (Secretary of Commerce).
The director of his Domestic Policy Council will be Melody Barnes, a former member of the board of directors of Planned Parenthood. Heading White House communications will be Ellen Moran, formerly executive director of the pro-abortion advocacy group Emily's List.
This, it must be said, is not the path to engagement.
At a news conference during last month's Baltimore meeting of the U.S. bishops somebody asked Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, the bishops' president, if he knew Obama. The cardinal said they'd met a number of times but never had a substantive conversation.
Perhaps the archbishop of Chicago should have sought out Obama somewhere along the line. But shouldn't the junior senator from Illinois, a state senator before that, sometime or other have sought out the archbishop of Chicago for a serious talk? However you look at it, this particular lacuna doesn't bode well for the incoming president's engagement with the Church.
Professor Kmiec, who actively supported Obama during the campaign, applauds Melady's approach in a comment appended to his online piece. People who disagree about Obama with him and Melady, he adds, are "plying falsehood to themselves and others." A large part of their "misleading tale" is that the Freedom of Choice Act is a real threat.
FOCA has been kicking around in Congress for two decades. The bill would declare abortion a "fundamental right," thereby providing a statutory basis for overturning federal and state restrictions on abortion, including laws prohibiting abortion by the partial-birth method.
Conscience clauses protecting doctors and nurses who object to abortion would go. The existence of Catholic hospitals, at least their ob-gyn departments, would be at risk. The bishops at their meeting committed themselves to an all-out campaign to oppose the bill.
The don't-worry-about-FOCA line is summed up in a Commonweal editorial calling it "abortion-rights propaganda…a fundraising device and a rallying cry for prochoice groups."
No doubt FOCA is all of that. And it's also a serious threat.
The bill has real support from real members of the United States Congress as well as the abortion lobby. Until recently, the congressional backers included Sen. Barack Obama, a cosponsor. During the campaign, candidate Obama pledged that if elected president, he would be happy to sign FOCA into law.
How do you prevent a dangerous bill from becoming law? The answer is, or should be, a no-brainer. Dangerous bills are blocked by vigorously opposing them. Shrugging one's shoulders and saying they're no threat is a good way to get them passed.
FOCA was stymied early in the Clinton administration by a major campaign mounted by prolife groups, including the Catholic Church. To make sure it's stymied in the Obama administration will require another such effort.
Writing in the Nov. 15 Washington Post, columnist E.J. Dionne Jr., a Catholic and a political liberal, warned that for Obama to push abortion as president would be "politically foolish and a breach of faith with the pro-life progressives who came to [his] defense during the campaign."
Fighting FOCA is essential to making that point. Maybe then — if the president is willing — we can all get to engagement.