Make Way for Liberal Pro-Lifers

Cardinal Sean O’Malley’s celebration of a high-profile mass on the US-Mexico border and declaration that immigration reform is “another pro-life issue” may shake up the long-standing alliance between the Catholic hierarchy and the Republican Party.

O’Malley told John Allen of the Boston Globe that serious Catholics could no longer “turn a blind eye to the human suffering and the tragedies that are taking place” regarding the treacherous border crossing and the mass deportation of undocumented migrants. He said serious Catholics need to support immigration reform.

O’Malley isn’t the first Catholic prelate to suggest that issues beyond abortion are “pro-life.” In the early 1980s, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin famously called for a “consistent ethic of life” uniting opposition to abortion with concern about nuclear proliferation and poverty. He did so after the Christian Right capitalized on abortion, which had been elevated to an issue of national political concern by the U.S. bishops, to capture the White House and Senate and push an agenda that was diametrically opposed to most of the church’s social justice concerns.

Bernardin’s “seamless garment” held sway for a time and provided cover to pro-choice Democrats like Mario Cuomo, but faded as he and other progressive bishops retired and were replaced with conservatives elevated by Pope John Paul II. By the time George W. Bush was elected, many influential members of the U.S. hierarchy, from Cardinal Bernard Law to Archbishops Edward Egan, were openly aligned with the Republican Party. They eschewed concern about the death penalty, poverty and environmental degradation for a single-issue focus on abortion that helped undermine John Kerry’s presidential campaign, contributing to his embarrassing loss of Catholic voters, and the election, to Bush and the subsequent Iraq War and Wall Street dance party.

The appearance of O’Malley (who’s referred to as the “American Francis” and is the pope’s closest U.S. advisor) in support of immigration reform puts some serious muscle behind the issue, according to Allen. It also potentially complicates the Republican Party’s tacit alliance with the bishops since opposition to immigration reform has emerged as a non-negotiable among the Tea Party and other factions of the party’s hard right, a point that wasn’t lost on one of the biggest conservative Catholic champions of the cozy relationship between the GOP and the bishops.

Appearing on the Eternal Word Television Network—the Catholic equivalent of Fox News—George Weigel, who was one of the biggest proponents of the bishops’ hardline stance against Kerry, accused O’Malley of politicizing the mass. He suggested that immigration reform wasn’t an appropriate issue for the bishop to elevate despite the church’s long-time focus on the issue and consistent lobbying for pro-immigrant policies. “It’s not clear to me that the principles behind a Catholic approach to immigration reform have been well articulated at all,” he said, apparently missing the whole “welcoming the stranger” part of Catholic teaching.

National Catholic Reporter columnist Michael Sean Winters called the charge “remarkable” given Weigel’s praise for the Catholic hierarchy’s use of a mass to open and close their highly political “Fortnight for Freedom” campaign to gin up support for the religious liberty issue:

Can Weigel explain why the “politicization of the Mass” that occurred during the Fortnight for Freedom was permissible but the “politicization” of the Mass at the border was not? Or why “holding a Mass in such circumstances” as the vigil before the March for Life on the anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision is not “politicizing” the Mass? … The real offense the bishops committed in Arizona for Weigel was calling attention to an issue on which the Republicans are in the wrong.

If the bishops keep up their emphasis on immigration reform it may prove a tricky issue for Republicans to dodge given that the preponderance of potential GOP hopefuls (Chris Christie, Paul Ryan, Marco Rubio, Bobby Jindal, Jeb Bush, Rick Santorum) are Catholic. Like Kerry on abortion, this makes them particularly beholden to explain significant deviation from Catholic teaching, while at the same time navigating the increasingly constricted narrows of the GOP primary process.

Rubio was unceremoniously slapped down for his progressive stance on immigration reform. Christie’s support for an in-state Dream Act was frequently mentioned as potentially problematic before he had a much bigger bridge problem. And over the weekend Bush struck a compassionate note on immigration that may just ensure that he’ll never be the party’s nominee:

[T]hey crossed the border because they had no other means to work to be able to provide for their family. Yes, they broke the law, but it’s not a felony. It’s an act of love. It’s an act of commitment to your family. I honestly think that that is a different kind of crime that there should be a price paid, but it shouldn’t rile people up that people are actually coming to this country to provide for their families.

Is there an opportunity for pro-immigration reform Democrats to claim the “pro-life” moniker? In 2008, Barack Obama successfully positioned support for anti-poverty programs, universal health care, and ending the war in Iraq as supporting the “common good” in line with Catholic teaching. The Catholic bishops released a voting statement that said Catholics could vote for pro-choice Catholics if they did so for other proportionately good reasons. But that détente ended over Obama’s support of same-sex marriage and contraception coverage in the Affordable Care Act. If the parties end up fighting over which is “pro-life,” would the bishops give equal weight to the Democratic claims? Would they publicly rebuke anti-immigration reform Republicans as eagerly as they censured pro-choice Democrats? Or like Weigel will they find an excuse to ignore the stranger?

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