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 Washington Notebook

April 21, 2004
Vol. 1, No. 15

Joe Feuerherd, NCR Washington correspondent


"I don't think the issue [of abortion] will ever go away because we're dealing in areas where both Caesar and God are claiming controlling jurisdiction."

Joe Califano
A former secretary of health, education and welfare, Califano opposed federal funding for abortion while serving in Jimmy Carter's cabinet.

House Catholics promote dialogue, but few want to talk (or listen); Chris Smith sees inconsistency, Joe Califano complexity; Who killed JFK?

By Joe Feuerherd

A small group of Catholic House Democrats have been meeting over the past several months to thrash out where their faith, their cultural heritage, and their jobs intersect.

Lead by Reps. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) and Nick Lampson (D-TX), the half-dozen members of Congress meet informally, DeLauro told NCR, with a goal of promoting dialogue among Catholic elected officials and the church hierarchy. Some are pro-life, others pro-choice, but they are united in frustration that the range of issues they and the church care about -- such as economic justice, immigration, foreign policy and war -- don't get nearly the attention as the "one or two issues" -- such as abortion and gay rights -- that dominate public discussion of religion and politics.

The group is concerned, said DeLauro, that "we are not having a full and open conversation about the whole range of social teachings that the church has been a leader on."

The task didn't get any easier last week, when The Hill, a Capitol Hill newspaper, reported that the group was preparing a "scorecard" to demonstrate that House Democrats are more faithful to church teaching on the range of issues of concern to the church than are their Republican counterparts. In fact, said DeLauro, no such scorecard is slated for public release and any research the group has conducted is for the members' edification.

Meanwhile, Washington Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, chairman of the bishops' committee charged with drafting guidelines on how the hierarchy should interact with Catholic politicians, refused to meet with the group.

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Adding fuel to the fire, the Republican Congressional Committee charged that Lampson is "trying to redefine Catholicism to hide his record." They cite his pro-choice abortion record, but also his votes on the Ten Commandments (he doesn't favor displaying them in public buildings) and his opposition to funding for "community-based abstinence education programs" as examples of where the four-term congressman strays from the faith.

Lampson, said a Congressional Committee spokesman, "has about as good a Catholic voting record as John Kerry."

So much, perhaps, for the notion that the candidacy of John Kerry, the first Catholic major party candidate for president in more than four decades, represents a "teaching moment" for the church.


And another view.

What are the obligations of a Catholic politician when it comes to abortion? New Jersey Republican Chris Smith, a 12-term Congressman and pro-life stalwart who frequently votes to the left of his party on economic issues, has some advice.

Asks Smith: "If the actual deed of abortion is what I and Catholics and Protestants and so many others say it is -- an act of violence against children -- then why wouldn't you want to treat it as a severe act of child abuse, and exploitative of women, rather than something you can disregard?"

Good question.

"If Kerry or someone like him were to say 'I am for abortion' then they would have my opposition and I will argue against them, but I will at least respect them," Smith told NCR. "But I find it very hard to respect someone who says I'm against it, but I'm going to vote for it, I'm going facilitate it, I'm going to defend it, I'm going to fund it, [and] I'm going to try to make it reach the four corners of the globe by repealing the Mexico City policy [which restricts U.S. foreign aid funds to countries with liberal abortion laws]."


And then add Joe Califano to the mix.

"I don't think the issue will ever go away because we're dealing in areas where both Caesar and God are claiming controlling jurisdiction," the former secretary for health, education and welfare and top domestic aide to Lyndon Johnson told NCR. Califano opposed federal funding for abortion while serving in Jimmy Carter's cabinet.

Author of a newly released memoir, Inside: A Public and Private Life, Califano says "the issue is framed by the preposterous litmus test that each of the political parties has. If you want to be the national Democratic nominee you must be pro-choice; if you want to be the Republican national nominee you must be pro-life."

Such standards, says Califano, ignore an essential fact: "It's an issue over a four-year-term that no president is likely to spend more than a few hours on. And we have a war in Iraq, we have health care problems, we have 13 percent of our people in poverty, we have millions of people addicted to drugs, we have unemployment. So why that particular litmus test?"


Meanwhile, Califano's book is a must-read for anyone interested in understanding American history in the latter part of the 20th century.

It's full of golden tidbits.

Who shot JFK? "President Johnson said Kennedy tried to get Castro, but Castro got Kennedy first," recalled Califano. As a Pentagon "whiz kid" under Robert McNamara, Califano staffed the committee charged with ousting (though not killing) Castro. He has come to agree with Johnson's assessment.

"The Kennedy brothers were obsessed with getting Castro," Califano told NCR. "In September '63 Castro tells an Associated Press reporter that 'the American leadership shouldn't think they're immune if they keep trying to kill me.' Then he sees on November 1 that [South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh] Diem is killed, murdered in a coup which was approved by President Kennedy."

On Nov. 23, 1963 Califano walked the grounds of Arlington National Cemetery with Robert Kennedy, picking the site for the president's grave and eternal flame. "His grief was monumental. He was like a skeleton with his bones hanging. I now believe that since he was leading the effort to get Castro, he was concerned that what he was doing might have had something to do with his brother's assassination."

Further, says Califano, despite his involvement in official anti-Castro efforts, no one on the Warren Commission ever talked to him. "There's not a word about the Cuban covert program in the Warren Commission report," said Califano. "It's a huge gap." Combine that with Lee Harvey's Oswald's known affinity for Castro's Cuba, and his months-long stay in the Soviet Union, and Califano arrives "at the same conclusion President Johnson did."

Catholicism, and the obligations of Catholic officials, is a theme of the Jesuit-educated Brooklyn-born lawyer's book. Califano was the Defense Department official charged with keeping the peace during the civil rights march on Washington in 1963. Part of the plan was to get everybody out of town after the march, which Califano engineered by denying charter buses the right to park overnight in D.C. and encouraging local hotels to raise their daily rates.

Washington Cardinal Patrick O'Boyle was aghast. "What about the old people? People who get sick? Who might collapse from exhaustion or have heart attacks if they have to go back that evening?" O'Boyle had cots set up in parishes around the city and at Catholic University's gymnasium. Nobody used them.

Later interactions with O'Boyle's successor, Cardinal William Baum, ended with similar ill-will. "He chastised me for not banning all federal funding of sterilizations and for opposing tax credits for tuition paid to Catholic schools. If Baum's view were carried to its logical conclusions, Catholics must adhere to the position of the Church or resign from public office. I pointed out that such a position would disqualify all Catholics from the HEW [health, education and welfare] post and thousands of other positions in local, state and federal government. My arguments about serving in a pluralistic democracy fell on deaf ears."

There's more about Califano's role as Johnson's top domestic aide at a time when progressive social legislation was the order of the day. Other highlights: his work as counsel to the Washington Post during Watergate and a salty Senate hearing room exchange with a young Hillary Rodham.

And this: As a high school student Califano was abused by a priest, a single incident during confession that has stayed with him for half a century. "I agonized long and hard over whether to put that in the book, but I decided to because I believe there are thousands of more cases of abuse then the 11,000 listed in the bishops' report."

Said Califano, "There are at least as many cases of young people who didn't report anything" because, like him, they were "embarrassed and shaken."

It's a terrific book.

The e-mail address for Joe Feuerherd is

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