The Massachusetts Office of Campaign and Political Finance issued a press release concerning spending on referenda in 2012 and this line caught my eye: “The Committee Against Physician Assisted Suicide reported the highest amount of expenditures for any ballot question committee, $4,027,098, in a successful effort to defeat Question 2. The largest donors to the committee were the Boston Catholic Television Center, $1 million; St. John’s Seminary Corporation, $1 million; Knights of Columbus, $450,000; and The Catholic Association, $420,000.”
If you have discerned that opposition to Question 2 the Death with Dignity measure was funded by the Catholic Church, go to the head of the class. And the ballot question, which had been way ahead in polling before an onslaught of television ads against it, lost. So what does this mean for the potency of the Catholic Church in Massachusetts politics?
Death with Dignity was a proposed change to state law. The opponents outspent the proponents by a factor of six, according to the Globe. In doing so the committee funded by the Church, The Committee Against Physician Assisted Suicide, deployed the money to hire some of Massachusetts most effective (and expensive) communications strategists. Unlike the senatorial race where grass roots organizing was a substantial advantage to Elizabeth Warren, the death of Death with Dignity was a story about money and the television ads it can purchase.
The bishops also commanded that opposition to Death with Dignity be addressed from the pulpit during Sunday masses. We lack the data to tell us what impact that may have had, but it could have had some. Research suggests that on personal matters of morality like birth control, Catholic lay people feel themselves more expert than are the bishops. But there may be some room for influence on other issues like war or the death penalty, and Death with Dignity could be such a question.
Elsewhere in 2012 the Catholic position seemed not to matter much. Senator Scott Brown explained his support of the Blunt Amendment, which would limit access to contraceptives, as his sensitivity toward not infringing on the religious conscience of Catholics. Ambassador Flynn, who has become well known for advocacy of Catholic positions in the twenty years he has been out of office, endorsed Senator Brown. That didn’t help.
The Church’s previous big push on a public policy matter was a grass roots effort to pass a constitutional amendment to define marriage solely as the union of man and woman, following the SJC’s decision recognizing same-sex marriage. In that contest in 2006 it fell to advocates of the proposed constitutional amendment to collect over 65,000 valid voter signatures in favor of placing the amendment on the ballot. Working through Catholic Citizenship, a 501(c)(3) lay organization approved by the bishops of the four Massachusetts’ dioceses, the Church collected over 72,000 signatures toward a record-setting haul of 170,000 signatures brought in by a coalition supporting traditional marriage. Most of the signatures gathered by Catholic Citizenship were pulled in at Sunday masses, often with the urging of the parish priest. The amendment eventually failed because it could not get sufficient votes in a Constitutional Convention to earn a ballot position. Catholic Citizenship was envisioned by Ambassador Ray Flynn, among other leaders, as a grass roots organization. It never took off.
The Church hasn’t made much effort to influence candidate elections since voters rejected the efforts of Cardinal Humberto Medeiros to defeat Barney Frank in 1980. Catholic Citizenship may have had some success in a few legislative elections recently, but it seems unlikely that the Church will come roaring back on the grass roots level.
My absolute favorite recounting of the power the Church once had in this state is John Farrell’s story in Tip O’Neill and the Democratic Century of the effort against a ballot measure to liberalize access to contraceptives in 1948: “Any doubts about Catholic militancy were answered in early October, when 80,000 Catholic youth paraded in Boston; a million of the faithful lined the streets to watch, and scores knelt to kiss the ring of the new archbishop, Richard Cushing.”
The Church won’t be putting a million people on the streets again anytime soon. But if it can put several million dollars into television ads, it has a chance.