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Commentary: Are they really Catholic?

By UWE SIEMON-NETTO, UPI Religion Editor

WASHINGTON, Sept. 30 (UPI) -- Pardon this religion columnist, a Protestant, for being puzzled by two political frontrunners, who are Catholics. One is retired Gen. Wesley Clark, a man who converted to Catholicism during the Vietnam War. Now he is leading the pack of Democrats wishing to be nominated presidential candidate.

And what are his opening remarks when asked by doubtful interviewers about his party credentials? "I am pro-choice!" he keeps insisting in a manner that strikes some of us a trifle too forceful.

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The other guy is actor Arnold Schwarzenegger, Republican, father of four, in-law of the Kennedy clan, evidently on his way to becoming governor of California, if polls can be trusted. He too presents himself as "pro choice." Both gentlemen thus favor what their church calls an "abominable crime" for which perpetrators automatically incur excommunication.

Of course there's nothing new about Catholic politicians promoting what Pope John Paul II calls the "culture of death." Sens. Edward Kennedy, John Kerry and Tom Daschle come to mind. Yet Clark's and Schwarzenegger's stridently "pro-choice" position at a time when public support for a right --especially an unrestricted right -- to abortion is on the wane strikes this outside observer as particularly incongruous, given their personal histories.

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First Clark. In my life I have come across and befriended many senior officers from a variety of democratic countries. Without exception, they had one thing in common: they abhorred shedding innocent blood. In Vietnam, I have often observed professional soldiers going into a deep funk when their units mistakenly killed civilians, especially children.

Since killing is part of a warrior's craft, he tries to limit it to an absolute minimum. Good soldiers hate to destroy life; in fact, they consider it their premier duty to prevent the destruction of life. Perhaps there are other colonels and generals out there who see nothing wrong with the fact that since Roe v. Wade 30 years ago some 40 million unborn babies have wound up in trash cans or incinerators.

If so, I have not met them. Gen. Wesley Clark is the first of his species I have heard say, "I am pro-choice," and who -- when pressed by a CNN interviewer -- would not even voice horror over partial birth abortions, which grisly practice involves sucking out a baby's brain to make his or her skull collapse so that the little body can be yanked through the birth canal.

That's scary -- especially when a four-star general striving to be commander-in-chief of the most powerful nation in history evidences so little compassion for the most vulnerable -- the unborn.

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Now to Schwarzenegger. It was a despicably cheap shot when some smart-aleck reporters made a big thing out of his father's Nazi past. First, the assumption of collective guilt is inadmissible in civilized societies; second, Gustav Schwarzenegger, the father, was a petty brown shirt in Austria and a sergeant major in the military police. There is no evidence that he has as much as hurt a fly.

Having said this, though, I believe that postwar Austrians and Germans -- I belong to the latter -- have a special responsibility deriving from our countries' Nazi past. Our legacy compels us to be particularly sensitive to the sanctity of life, even when we change passports and operate successfully under the Californian sun.

If you wonder why Schwarzenegger seems oblivious to this special obligation he inherited as a blameless child of Austrian parents, and if you wonder why a general nonchalantly dismisses the fate of the most defenseless from his conscience, don't wreck your brain. The answer is: ambition, and ambition is linked to hubris, an expression of original sin, according to theologian Paul Tillich.

Which leaves us with one final question: don't politicians, including political greenhorns like Schwarzenegger and Clark, have bishops willing to excommunicate them or at least reading them the riot act for trampling the Church's teachings underfoot? Why do bishops close their eyes to the enormous offense Catholics in public service give to the Catholic faithful --and the rest of us?

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As the Rev. Richard John Neuhaus, president of the New York-based Institute on Religion and Public Life, says: Remaining quiet these bishops themselves give enormous scandal. The drama is that the likes of Schwarzenegger and Clark, Kennedy and Kerry "can count on bishops not having the nerves to be bishops."

"That, at least is how many faithful Catholics see the matter," Neuhaus laments. Many other faithful Christians feel the same way. One can only affirm Neuhaus' conclusion: "If they are wrong, maybe the bishops, or at least some bishops, will explain why they're wrong. Publicly."

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