Catholic Bullies and the Unraveling of the Seamless Garment

On the eve of the last election a young man sent out a rather breathless email from what once would have been called a letterhead organization, meaning it has no members, but in this case a nice website and a few donors.

Chris Korzen, who runs something called Catholics United, said, “I am writing to you tonight from suburban Philadelphia…” Note that he is writing “tonight.” This is urgent, baby. And that he is not writing from some cozy D.C. office but right at the frontlines of suburban Philly.

Mr. Korzen wanted his readers to know that “a team of Catholics United activists is helping protect parishes…” from what? From white-hooded Klansmen who want to burn down Catholic churches. Well no. Mr. Korzen is protecting churches from “leafletting” of “unapproved election materials.” That’s right.

Mr. Korzen infiltrated a national conference call staged by Father Frank Pavone of Priests for Life in which Father Pavone announced plans for a national effort to place leaflets on cars during Mass the Sunday before the election. Pavone’s leaflets said that abortion was the most important issue in the election, a proposition agreed to by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Mr. Korzen objects to that notion, and was calling upon vigilantes to put a stop to it.

Mr. Korzen referred to the leaflets as “potentially” illegal. Nice touch that, a none-too-vague threat to Pavone’s leafleteers that Mr. Korzen’s “members” just might call the constabulary. Mr. Korzen said, “it is our right and our duty to protect the sacred space of our churches from this sort of electioneering, and to defend parishes from potentially illegal activity.”

Was Mr. Korzen invited by the parish priests or the bishops to defend parishes from these marauding pro-lifers? Well, no. It is also interesting to note that Mr. Korzen does not himself rally to defend the bishops on the question of abortion but is willing to precipitate direct confrontation over leaflets the bishops have not approved.

Father Pavone unfortunately gave his opponents some ammunition they otherwise would have lacked. On the national conference call, which Mr. Korzen recorded, Pavone made a joke about that Sunday being “National Getting Thrown Off of Church Property Day.” The tone of Father Pavone’s response to Korzen was not helpful either – bellicose and threatening when he should have suggested coolly that the answer to objectionable political speech is not vigilantism but more speech. He should have invited Mr. Korzen to spread leaflets with his own views, if he was able, rather than set up potentially dangerous confrontations.

Mr. Korzen is part of a good cop/bad cop routine with a lovely woman named Alexia Kelley who runs another liberal-leaning group called Catholics in Alliance. Ms. Kelley used to work at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and toward the end of the 2004 election ran the religious outreach of the Democratic National Committee. Ms. Kelley, who I know personally and like, plays the conciliator to Mr. Korzen’s bomb-thrower. They wrote a book together in which they insist they care deeply about the abortion issue, but then went on to explain that it is only one issue among many and that, anyway, the Democrats are better at reducing abortions than the Republicans.

Mr. Korzen and Ms. Kelley were part of what became a very effective effort by the pro-abortion Obama campaign to wean some Catholics away from the Republican Party, though it should be noted that a majority of practicing Catholics still voted for McCain, if in lower numbers than for Bush in 2004. Their arguments are well known: that Obama will reduce abortions through expansion of social services. It should be noted that Obama does not call for reductions in abortions but for the reduction of the need to resort to abortion. There is a difference.

How serious is this pro-life commitment of Mr. Korzen and Ms. Kelley? A few days after the election – and a few days after Mr. Korzen’s call for confrontations in church parking lots – Ms. Kelley’s group sent out its own email asking her supporters to vote on the issues they think are the most pressing for the new administration. They were asked to pick three out of a list of six. The list included climate change, immigration reform, health care, living wages, poverty reduction, and ending the war in Iraq. Wait a second, you might ask. Where is the reduction of abortion in all this? Many liberal Catholic s insist that abortion is a part of a seamless garment-approach to social issues. But it looks like their seamless garment has lost a thread.


Austin Ruse is the President of the New York and Washington, D.C.-based Center for Family & Human Rights (C-Fam), a research institute that focuses exclusively on international social policy. The opinions expressed here are Mr. Ruse’s alone and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of C-Fam.