Washington Notebook

February 24, 2005
Vol. 2, No. 8

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Joe Feuerherd, NCR Washington correspondent


"Your article gives the impression that the neo-con-rad-trad troglodytes along with their albino Opus Dei assassins and their handful of episcopal partners-in-crime scurried so quickly back under their respective rocks that none could be found for comment."

A reader responding to last week's column


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Karl Keating and the non-negotiables (Part II) or How this 'dissident cry baby' is getting over the defeat of his favorite culture of death poster-boy

By Joe Feuerherd

Karl Keating did not vote for George W. Bush.

That's right, the author and promoter of the "Voter's Guide for Serious Catholics" -- the 2,500-word pamphlet that urged Catholics to base their vote on five "non-negotiable" issues (abortion, euthanasia, embryonic stem cell research, human cloning, and gay marriage) -- did not support the Republican nominee.

More on Keating later. But first, to quote Toby Keith, I want to talk about me.

I wanted John Kerry to win the presidential election, though my reasons had little to do with traditional partisanship. In fact, the last time I voted for a Democrat for president was 1992, when I wrote-in Pennsylvania Governor Robert Casey's name. This time, I was under no illusions that Kerry would usher in an era of enlightened governance. To my mind he was, at best, the smaller evil of the two lessers.

But what really motivated me, what got me really excited, was the professional opportunity a Kerry presidency presented. The Catholic right would have suffered apoplexy: "President Kerry Denied Communion," "Cardinal So-and-So Condemns Kerry," "Kerry Excommunication Threatened," "Pope Scolds President." The stories would write themselves. Ohmygod, it would have been delicious.

With Bush, by contrast, we get four more years of code words of the kind the president told tapeist and erstwhile friend Doug Wead he uses when dealing with the religious right. Bush pledging support for "a culture of life," basking in an archbishop's glow, using just-war-doctrine language to support the latest invasion, pushing his "faith-based initiative."

Been there, done that. In a word, boring.

A change in leadership may or may not have been good for the country, but it would have done wonders for the Catholic-Washington news beat.

I bring all this up because, as a result of last week's column, a number of readers accused me of undue partisanship and unfair journalism. In that column, I reported on the research of a Catholic University of America professor who said that the Catholic Answers Voter's Guide was used unfairly by conservative Catholics committed to the five "non-negotiables." The professor, William Dinges, reported that the Catholic right employed all sorts of ill-mannered tactics (disrupting meetings, organizing dishonest e-mail campaigns targeted at the church employees) to supplant the US bishops official election-year teaching document, "Faithful Citizenship."

To their credit, the Catholic right was successful. By election day, the only thing most voters knew about John Kerry's religion was not that he was Catholic, but that he was a "bad Catholic." George W. Bush, on the other hand, supported a "culture of life" (though that apparently included exceptions for women impregnated by rape or as a result of incest, existing human embryos created for research purposes and Abu Ghraib inmates.)

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"Get over it!" wrote M.W.S. "You dissident cry babies are still pouting regarding the defeat of your favorite culture of death poster-boy." (Actually, Kerry's not even among my top five culture of death poster boys.)

"Your article makes it look like you are a sore loser," said J.S. (Am not, am not!)

"Your story made me believe that you don't understand Catholic teaching," said one Las Vegas writer. "Archbishop Charles Chaput expressed it very well. Read some of his works and you will learn how to lead a holy life pleasing to God." (I'll get right on that.)

"Get used to it," said J.G. "We are here to stay and to take our church back from those [who] support Call to Action more than our bishops." (Memo to self: don't forget to mail Call to Action dues.)

"May God have mercy on your soul for not protecting Jesus' little ones," wrote a Florida correspondent. (The only "little ones" I could fairly be accused of not protecting are the three teenagers I live with who spend my money, eat my food and present all sorts of logistical hassles.)

"Your twisted view of this situation has done nothing but support those that disagree with the teachings of the church," said a Michigan Catholic. (We all have to earn a living.)

And W.B. offered this helpful suggestion: "Why not abandon your pet 'social justice' politics for a few elections and join those Catholics seeking to end legalized abortion? Once that issue (as well as the other non-negotiable issues) are moot, you can go back to promoting socialism with your Democrat friends." (But if I did this I'd have to stop attending all those laugh-a-minute socialist cell parties. The Eugene Debs birthday celebration is a blast!)

I can't imagine where Dinges got the idea that the Catholic Answers crowd could be uncivil.

There were, however, a few critics who stung, and some did it with wit.

"Your article on the 'Faithful Citizenship' initiative has its points, but -- forgive me, I mean this constructively -- it struck me as lazy and simple-minded," wrote G.P. "For instance, the last paragraph bemoans the fact that the ranchers and the farmers can't be friends, but your article makes absolutely no effort to represent the views and motivations of those conservatives who -- rightly or wrongly -- were publishing and promoting the alternative voter guides."

Good point.

"Was it beneath you to call Catholic Answers for a comment or to contact even one of the bishops who objected to "Faithful Citizenship?" Ouch. "Your article gives the impression that the neo-con-rad-trad troglodytes along with their albino Opus Dei assassins and their handful of episcopal partners-in-crime scurried so quickly back under their respective rocks that none could be found for comment." (In my defense, the albino Opus Dei assassin didn't return my phone call).

Others expressed similar sentiments.

One of the beauties of journalism is when you screw up, you live to write another day.

I called Keating and we spoke for about 20 minutes. I was prepared, carefully crafting a few questions directed at what I viewed as the most vulnerable aspects of the "five non-negotiables" for the man critics derisively refer to as "Pope Karl."

Question: Can I be a good Catholic and support a pro-choice candidate when I conscientiously conclude that his program will actually result in fewer abortions?

"When it comes to voting for a candidate it's not just the program that he may or may not endorse, but you are in essence also casting a vote for the principal being espoused," responded Keating. "In real life there are people who will be saying things like [social welfare spending will decrease the abortion rate], but in practice what they are doing is minimizing opportunities to reduce abortions."

Moving right along.

Question: Can a conscientious Catholic vote for a candidate who supports capital punishment because he believes that killers deserve to die (justice) or because he thinks it will act as a deterrent to murder? Now, this is not your typical bleeding heart soft-on-crime death penalty question. No, by my reading, the church condemns the death penalty for any reason other than society's need to protect itself from the bad guy -- which is clearly not the case in the U.S. because we're so good at locking people up. It's non-negotiable, right?

No, says Keating. Whether the social conditions exist that would eliminate the need for the death penalty is an open question. "A good Catholic can come down on either side of the question. The church does not demand a complete ban on it."

Damn, thought I had him on that one.

And what of the president-with-hand-on-the-nuclear-button-question and whether that's a non-negotiable item if you think one of the candidates is more likely than the other to destroy the world. Significant but not non-negotiable, says Keating.

Another bite at the apple: torture. This is a good one because the Catechism of the Catholic Church is crystal clear on torture, condemning the practice as "contrary to respect for the person and for human dignity." Non-negotiable, right?

Yes, agrees Keating, torture is non-negotiable. Got 'em!

Well, not quite. The Voter's Guide was published in January 2004, before the torture issue really hit home, he recalled. And no one actually favors torture, Keating noted. Certainly there are more than five non-negotiable issues, said Keating, but the Voter's Guide focused on those that were "in political play" during the election season.

The Catholic Answer man has got an answer for everything.

But then there's the big question: Weren't you in cahoots with the Bush campaign, pushing a partisan agenda designed to derail Kerry's campaign?

"I didn't even vote for Mr. Bush," says Keating, who didn't vote for Kerry either. "I sat this one out." He continued, "I've got problems with President Bush and problems with Senator Kerry" though his lack of support for the president, he said, was related mostly to issues "beyond what is mentioned in our Voter's Guide."

"I haven't been happy with any president since Grover Cleveland," said Keating.

Which is a non-negotiable point of agreement between Keating and me.

The e-mail address for Joe Feuerherd is jfeuerherd@natcath.org

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