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“Stop the Climate of Polarization,” Says Catholic Leader

July 29, 2003

Washington, DC—The following statement by Frances Kissling, president of Catholics for a Free Choice, is on the nomination of Alabama Attorney General William Pryor to the Eleventh US Circuit Court of Appeals.

“Today we conveyed our concern to those members of the Judiciary Committee who have claimed that opposition to Mr. Pryor’s nomination constitutes de facto anti-Catholicism. Not only are such claims factually incorrect, but they contribute to an unhealthy and unproductive climate of polarization. Members of Congress can and do disagree on the merits of the Pryor nomination and those differences should be respected.

“It is disingenuous to claim that any senator opposes Mr. Pryor solely because he is a Catholic. US senators have often supported Catholic candidates for the judiciary and other confirmable posts. Those same senators have also opposed nominees—regardless of their religious affiliation—whose positions, the senators believed, disqualified them from holding the office for which they were nominated.

“To claim that there is a mandatory Catholic position on any public policy issue shows an appalling ignorance of how the Catholic church works and of the rights and freedoms of Catholic office holders. Indeed, such a claim in itself could be considered anti-Catholic. It is a throwback to the days in which Catholics were believed to follow in lock-step with every word and position of the hierarchy and were considered to be without any independent opinions or judgment.

“Catholics today have the freedom to exercise prudential judgment in deciding how best to implement the range of teachings and principles contained in the Catholic canon. Thus, some Catholics believe that abortion, while a serious moral issue, should not be illegal. Others believe that the taking of human life in war or by capital punishment is morally defensible, in spite of recent papal pronouncements against both. Few Catholic nominees are in agreement with the official positions of the Catholic church on every judicial issue.

“Claims of anti-Catholicism are increasingly frequent in the policy debate, made most often by marginal, ultra-conservative Catholic lay groups. These same groups increasingly claim that Catholic office holders who disagree with the church should be punished by church officials. The tone of such proclamations and advertisements is particularly vicious and degrading to elected officials. Few mainstream political leaders have engaged in such reprehensible attacks on opponents. Few have gone as far as Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia who articulated the strongest imaginable religious test for office holders when he suggested that a Catholic judge who agreed with the pope, and was therefore opposed to the death penalty, should resign from the bench.

“It is particularly tragic that respected senators with long-standing reputations for civility, including Orrin Hatch and Jeff Sessions, have joined these fringe voices in raising the charge of anti-Catholicism. We urge them to get back on the high road and make their case for nominees on the basis of the nominee’s qualifications—not by questioning or, worse, impugning the motivation of those who disagree with them.

“There should be no religious litmus test for a judge, a senator or any other public official—and no such litmus test has been suggested by those who favor a right to reproductive health care. It is time for those who use the charge of anti-Catholicism as a weapon against dealing with the substance of a nominee’s qualifications to drop the rhetoric and act with integrity.”