America: With Many Pharmacists Refusing to Accept, or Even Confiscating, Women's Birth-Control Prescriptions, Right-Wing Catholic Activism Is Beginning to Permeate This Country

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Exactly two days before the Pope died, I was in Florida. I was following the saga of Terri Schiavo, the 41-year-old woman whose feeding tube was removed because she had been in a persistent vegetative state for 15 years. The ugliness of the rhetoric had to be seen, as well as heard, to be believed: every day, the "right-to-life" advocates came out with increasingly wild claims about poor Mrs Schiavo, not only insisting that she was "responding" but even that she was "lucid".

We were told how the Christian right--I hate that expression, mainly because I see it as a contradiction in terms--had hijacked the issue because it was politically so potent. I was therefore particularly fascinated by the spectacle of one clergyman, Father Frank Pavone, fulminating outside the hospice shortly after Mrs Schiavo had died. He ranted to anybody who would listen that Michael Schiavo, the man who had fought to have his wife's life support taken away, was guilty of "heartless cruelty"--and that her death was "a killing ... an atrocity ... murder".

Just another hate-filled preacher, typical of the rabidly right-wing Bible thumpers of the South? That was what I thought, until I took a closer look at Pavone's clerical collar, and realised that he was actually a Catholic priest: one who, I later discovered, was from New York. And the three men constantly surrounding Terri Schiavo's parents--her family had tried to keep the feeding tube inserted--were Franciscan monks who had jetted in from St Paul, Minnesota.

I had always accepted the truism that Catholics in America are left of centre: statistics certainly show that they were solid Democratic voters for much of the past century. Their support proved decisive in electing the first Catholic president, John F Kennedy, in 1960. But in the past three decades--the period that largely encompassed Pope John Paul II's reign at the Vatican--significant sections of the country's 64 million Catholics have shifted to the right, both politically and culturally.

They have been adopting many of the right's favourite causes, too. I had thought it was just a coincidence that so many of my Catholic friends in Washington seem to want (for example) to reintroduce school uniforms, level Iraq with carpet bombs and shoot Kofi Annan, but now I see that they actually embody a national trend. It is simplistic to say that they have been taking their lead from a reactionary pope: John Paul may have delighted US sensibilities by opposing the Soviet bloc, but he also took strong exception to all-American habits such as invading Iraq and executing people.

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In many ways, in fact, American Catholics have been diverging from the Vatican in recent years. Nearly two-thirds of those polled say they want more lay people involved in the Church--a view diametrically opposed to that of Rome. Sixty per cent are in favour of allowing the clergy to marry, and the ordination of women. No fewer than 82 per cent believe it is imperative that the Church do more to halt the sexual abuse of children.

Politically, the data supports my thesis too. In 1996, Bill Clinton won 60 per cent of the Catholic vote in the presidential election. Four years later, Al Gore got 50 per cent, against George Bush's 47 per cent. Last November, a majority of Catholic voters--52 per cent--helped put a right-wing Republican back into the White House. Bush courted their vote by visiting the pontiff three times, and he is the first American president in history to attend the funeral of a pope. …