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January 22, 2015

In the past few weeks I’ve been posting based on my scholarly article in American Catholic Studies (gated), “Defeating ‘Death with Dignity’: Morality and Message in a Massachusetts Referendum.” So far I’ve provided and overview and more detail on two keys to victory: money and messaging. Today I’d like to address the third component of victory: coalition politics.

In an article in Margaret O’Brien Steinfels, American Catholics, American Culture: Tradition & Resistance the head of the California Catholic Conference noted that “The Church makes a poor coalition member.” This is because the Church is not nimble at compromise in this basic values. In the Death With Dignity fight however, the Church realized that to go it alone would be a great peril. As I wrote in the American Catholic Studies article:

“In 2012 the Church provided the money but wisely presented itself as but one of many concerned institutions and citizens in opposition to DwD. As Rev. Eugene Rivers, a leader in Boston’s black ministerial community recommended, "The smart way to fight this campaign is to do everything we can to not have this perceived as a Roman Catholic initiative. It is an ecumenical and interfaith initiative, and that is how we ensure our success in terms of the ballot question. I think that is a tactical imperative."

The Catholic Church took that advice seriously. It helped to organize leaders of over twenty other denominations and joined with physician, nurse, disability rights and other organizations in opposition to Question 2. It took advantage of secular and cultural arguments and emphasized support from the medical community. The CAPAS (The Committee Against Physician Assisted Suicide, Church funded) website highlighted the opposition to assisted suicide from prominent liberals and the endorsement of the No on 2 campaign by The Boston Globe and other prominent media.”

It was especially important to be seen as part of a coalition because of the sometimes controversial nature of Church involvement in public policy campaigns. In the past decades the Church has seen its ability to influence questions such as abortion and same-sex marriage dissipate – even among Catholic politicians and lay persons. In two referendum campaigns in Oregon, defenders of that state’s physician assisted measure attacked the opponents’ Catholic backing. One ad in 1997 screeched “Don’t shove your religion down my throat!”

Of course many of the opponents of assisted suicide did so of their own independent judgment. But in providing nearly all the funding for the opposition campaign, the Church wisely did not present as the domineering face of the opposition.

Cardinal Sean O'Malley, physician assisted suicide, Catholic Church, death with dignity

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