A Catholic Outlook on the New Congress

Here's how the bishops' top aides analyze the midterm results, and what can get done in this legislative session.

Richard M. Doerflinger, associate director of the Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Richard M. Doerflinger, associate director of the Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. (photo: CNS photo/Nancy Wiechec)

BALTIMORE (CNS) — Despite the “endless, endless commercials” during the 2010 political cycle, “you didn’t hear much about the poor and vulnerable,” said John Carr, executive director of the U.S. bishops’ Department of Justice, Peace and Human Development.

“Nobody talked about them — Democratic or Republican,” said Carr, who participated with two others in a panel discussion about Catholic policy priorities following the Nov. 2 election.

Nevertheless, the Catholic public policy agenda in the lame-duck Congress that will complete its work this year and in the 112th Congress that convenes in January will remain focused on the poor, the unborn, the immigrant and other vulnerable populations, the panelists told participants Nov. 5 in the Eastern regional convention of the Catholic Press Association in Baltimore.

Along with Maria Odom, executive director of the Catholic Legal Immigration Network, known as CLINIC, and Richard Doerflinger, associate director of the U.S. bishops’ Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities, Carr looked forward after the election, saying that campaign rhetoric or the results in terms of parties are not the Catholic Church’s focus.

“Our focus is the least of these,” he said. “And that is not the focus of Washington no matter who is in charge.”

Carr said that during the coming debate on tax policy, “there will be a huge argument on how people at the top get taxed.”

“But we are not focused on that fight,” he said. “We are looking at how it affects the most vulnerable,” such as those making less than $30,000 a year. He said Catholic lobbyists will work to get a refundable child tax credit and to preserve and expand the earned income tax credit.

Doerflinger agreed with Carr that the Catholic position “does not at all line up with” either political party, saying that church lobbyists on life issues look instead at whether a member of Congress can be considered a solid vote on the pro-life side.

By that criteria, “the pro-life agenda picked up 44 votes in the House and six in the Senate, according to NARAL (Pro-Choice America),” a group that lobbies to expand abortion access in the United States, Doerflinger said. He added that the contingent of pro-life Democrats in the Senate “increased by 50 percent” — from two to three — with the election of former Gov. Joe Manchin of West Virginia.

Catholic priorities on life-related legislation in the next months, Doerflinger said, will include passage of the Protect Life Act and the No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act to ensure conscience protections and a ban on abortion funding in the health reform and other laws; appropriations and reauthorizations bills that could include abortion funding in military hospitals or foreign aid programs, for example; and guarding against any expansion of government funds for embryonic stem-cell research.

He noted that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada had indicated a post-election willingness “to look at how to tweak the health care bill.” The Catholic bishops — who supported health reform but ultimately opposed the bill because of deficiencies they saw in the areas of abortion funding, conscience protection and inclusion of immigrants — “could be his best allies if Reid wants to make changes that will build support,” said Doerflinger.

Odom said the Catholic priorities on immigration include support for global anti-poverty initiatives that address the root causes of migration, expansion of opportunities for family reunification, and passage of the DREAM Act that would help the children of undocumented immigrants work toward legal status and get a college education.

In addition, she said, the U.S. bishops believe that “comprehensive immigration reform is necessary” for the estimated 10 million to 12 million undocumented immigrants. “They want them to be able to live out of the shadows in safety and dignity,” Odom added.

She urged members of the Catholic press to help “change hearts and minds” on the immigration issue by telling the stories of immigrants in ways that help readers “understand we are not that different from the person who crosses the border.”

Faced with an inability to provide for our children or threats to our family’s safety, “we would do the same for our children,” Odom said. “But we are not seeing that shared values conversation these days.”