Agree to disagree? Not before engaging in vigorous debate

May 1, 2012

Washington Post opinion columnists will share the stage at the Catholic Health Assembly

No one told writer E. J. Dionne Jr. that polite society never talks religion or politics in mixed company.

"I laugh when I hear that phrase because I grew up in a very politically diverse family, and we would argue about politics all of the time," said Dionne, who was raised in Massachusetts. "We've lost the art of disagreeing passionately without despising and mistrusting each other. I don't like milquetoast politics; I don't like fake moderation; and I can hit the other side pretty hard, but I don't think of the other side as morally evil."

Dionne, a columnist for the Washington Post and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, will serve as a keynote speaker at the 2012 Catholic Health Assembly June 3-5 in Philadelphia. He will be joined by friend, syndicated columnist and Pulitzer Prize winner Kathleen Parker. Parker, unlike Dionne, kept her mouth shut at the dinner table. But she kept her ears open.

"That fact that I write an opinion column is a miracle of sorts, because I don't think I was allowed to speak until I was 18," said Parker, who grew up in Florida. "I listened a lot. I was raised by my father — my mother died very young — and my household was often filled with men, and I was fascinated by their conversations. I think I grew up thinking this is something men do."

Despite their different backgrounds, both the liberal Dionne and the conservative Parker agree Catholics and the health care debate will be important in this election cycle.

Dionne, a Catholic himself, believes Catholic voters tend to be moderate. He notes that Catholic voters aligned themselves more with Mormon Mitt Romney than the race's more conservative Catholic candidates, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum, who has since withdrawn from the Republican primary contest.

"Liberal Catholics are more pro-life or are worried about abortion in a way other liberals might not be, and more conservative Catholics have at least some sense of communal obligation that comes from church's social teachings on issues like poverty," said Dionne. "And so Catholicism often pushes liberals and conservatives towards a kind of moderation."

Parker knows many of Romney's Catholic advisors. She says they are connected, passionate and influential.

"They shape policy through education," said Parker. "So, for example, when Mitt Romney was making his decision about whether to be pro-life, he had Catholics talking to him about protecting the unborn. So they explained to him on a micro-level how it all works."

Catholic voters
Yet Dionne and Parker acknowledge there is no monolithic Catholic vote. So given that Catholics occupy all parts of the political spectrum, how important will Catholics be this election?

"How about this — there is no Catholic vote, and it's important," said Dionne.

"What I mean is that Catholics are now a swing group in the electorate, and it's very hard for Republicans to get less than 40 percent of the Catholic vote, and it's very hard for Democrats to get less than 40 percent," said Dionne. "But in any given election you will have 15 to 20 percent of the Catholic vote that is in play. One of the most interesting things about the Catholic vote is that Catholics almost always vote for the winner. That's because they are diverse philosophically, but also diverse ethnically and racially. You do have this real difference between those Catholics who lay the heaviest stress on the church's social justice tradition and those who lay the heaviest stress on abortion and gay marriage and stem cell research."

Dionne believes the contraception debate has further divided Catholics. To the surprise of some of his liberal followers, he blasted the Obama administration for insisting Catholic hospitals and organizations cover contraception. Still, he accepts the current accommodation proposed by the administration.

"I thought there was a compromise sitting out there," said Dionne. "I felt it was wrong to use a rule that said these Catholic social service and health organizations were not religious in character. When the president made his compromise, I thought it was reasonable." Dionne said he was disappointed that the bishops didn't say, "'Let's declare victory and make sure this compromise works.' In the beginning, liberal and conservative Catholics were on the same side, but now you have the same division you used to have."

Parker calls the debate over contraception coverage a distraction, though she said it ultimately may have benefited President Barack Obama, who has seen an uptick in support from women. She is not satisfied the accommodation addresses the legitimate concern of self-insuring religious organizations.

"Democrats were quite crafty in creating the narrative that Republicans were waging war against women, but the truth is Republicans didn't choose that battle," said Parker. "It really is a religious liberty question. A lot of people feel very betrayed. It was all terribly political. Some conversation took place somewhere where they said, 'The Catholics are going to go nuts if you do this.' And he decided it was worth it. Did he decide it was worth it because women would have to be outraged and Republicans would have to step up to the plate and no matter what they said, people were never going to hear, 'religious liberty?' They were going to hear 'war on women.'"

Parker is not Catholic, but she calls herself a "Catholic sympathizer."

"My father left the church, so I was raised in a variety of churches because I had five mothers," said Parker. "Every time you get a new mother, you get a new religion and new decor. We had the French provincial Episcopalian period, the country-western Baptist period and so on. But I'm drawn to Catholicism, and I would be a Catholic if I thought I could be a good one."

Health reform
Parker believes, like most Catholic health care providers, the disparities in the health care system must be addressed. But she considers the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act unwieldy. Her guess is that the Supreme Court will strike down the individual mandate portion of the legislation.

"And then the whole thing will collapse," said Parker. "There are still ways to approach the health care crisis in incremental ways without tackling it in this big, national way that is so complicated. I've tried to read the darn thing, and I've interviewed many, many people, and no one understands really how it's going to play out."

Dionne, however, hopes the bill stands. He said Catholic health care providers know better than the politicians the enormous problems reaching the underserved.

"The essential question is how do we make sure everyone, particularly the least among us, gets the health care they need," said Dionne. "This debate has had so many distractions — we've talked about death panels in the bill that don't exist; we've talked endlessly about cost and whether it covers abortion, which I don't believe it does. We've gotten away from the whole point of this struggle."

Moral authority
Despite their divergent opinions, both Parker and Dionne agree Catholics can bring moral authority to a national discourse often debased by craven politics.

"Catholics are unyielding, and I can't be unyielding in my personal life, but I am glad someone is really upset about life issues and wants to talk about that in a serious way," said Parker. "There are so many individuals who do put social justice at the forefront, who do see a compassionate immigration policy as essential to Catholic teaching. I want to hear what they have to say."

Dionne calls Catholic social thought "one of the church's greatest contributions to American life." Still, Dionne is concerned that Catholic calls for social justice may be drowned out by more conservative voices.

"It reflects a really balanced view of the role of government and the market and our obligations to each other and the poor," said Dionne of church teachings on social justice. "But I worry that Catholics themselves aren't always as aware of Catholic social thought as they might be. With so much focus on contraception and gay marriage, the church may be underselling itself by not talking about what the church does in the social sphere — the work of Catholic hospitals, social service agencies, the amazing work done by Catholic Relief Services overseas. This is really doing the work of the Gospel."


Copyright © 2012 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States
For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3477.

Copyright © 2012 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States

For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3490.