On the evening of the Foundation dinner, Governor Ridge arrived in Altoona via a turnpike lined with pro-life billboards. Every possible approach to the Casino at Lakemont Park in Altoona was highlighted with more pro-life billboards. At a dinner with 325 attendees paying $125 a piece to hear a pro-abort speaker, 1000 pro-life protesters showed up for the peaceful prayer rally outside in the rain, lining the roadway into the Casino with hand signs and quiet prayer. Television crews from throughout central Pennsylvania covered the peaceful event, and attendance outstripped the organizers’ wildest expectations.
Subsequent news cycles gave this event even broader coverage, and overall the objectives set by the organizers were exceeded. The state now knew Ridge’s pro-abortion views. The Republican party had been put on notice that their pro-life base would no longer tolerate pro-abort candidates. And the hierarchy knew that to allow them to speak at Catholic events was, simply, wrong. The story could easily end there. Just getting out 1000 protesters, and garnering the media attention and saturating the following news cycles with the pro-life message, all of which were accomplished by the rally, would be enough for any small, local pro-life group. And it was.
Yet later that year, things happened that take on a new significance when viewed through the lens of the events related above. Ridge won reelection in Pennsylvania, to the disappointment of pro-life groups across the state. An AP news clip from the New Orleans, Louisiana, The Daily Progress, November 21, 1998, showed Ridge’s continued ambitions for national leadership:
"Tom Ridge may be one of 31 Republican governors produced from this last election "who wake up every day, look in the mirror and see the next president of the United States .... Ridge asked at least one fellow governor to support him as a potential vice presidential pick when the time is right"
Unfortunately, developments later that fall, summarized by a brief December 4, 1998 National Catholic Reporter article, "Pennsylvania governor warned on abortion stand," by Teresa Malcolm, cast a cloud over Ridge’s hopes:
"Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge, a Catholic, has been informed by the bishop of Erie, Pa., that if he continues to support abortion rights, he will no longer be allowed to speak at Catholic-sponsored events."
"Bishop Donald W. Trautman issued the warning to Ridge, who also supports the death penalty, and to other Catholic politicians after release of the U.S. bishops' document "Living the Gospel of Life: A Challenge to American Catholics." Approved at the bishops' general meeting Nov. 16-19, the pastoral statement is intended to direct American Catholics to better incorporate the church's pro-life teaching into public life."
"No public official, especially one claiming to be a faithful and serious Catholic, can responsibly advocate for or actively support direct attacks on innocent human life," Trautman told the Erie Daily Times."
"Ridge's press secretary, Tim Reeves, said the governor has already begun to decline speaking invitations at Catholic functions. Reeves said that decision was made last spring, after abortion opponents demonstrated at a diocesan dinner in Altoona. "He decided that it puts some of his Roman Catholic friends in an awkward position and he would rather not put them into that situation," Reeves said."
Further, the Montgomery County Observer, 12/2/98, reported:
"Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge, who is Catholic, says he accepts the decision of Erie Bishop Donald W. Trautman to make him and other pro-choice politicians persona non grata at Catholic-sponsored events.
" . . . However, Mr. Ridge does not believe that the abortion issue should preclude him from being considered for the GOP vice-presidential nomination in 2000. "Well, whatever the profile the vice president is in the year 2000, that has not been written yet. It'll be the presidential candidate that writes it. And if it fits in the profile, then I guess I may be considered. If I don't fit into the profile, I won't be considered," Mr. Ridge said Saturday on CNN's "Evans, Novak, Hunt and Shields."
Throughout the rest of the year 2000 presidential campaign trail, Ridge’s name was frequently mentioned as a top contender for the VP slot. Typical of the coverage was a 12/13/99 Philadelphia Inquirer article, "Vice-presidential buzz caps a big year for Ridge":
"NEW YORK - In late October, the politician-turned-journalist Chris Matthews was asked by interviewer Charlie Rose to pick the likely Republican vice presidential nominee.
"I think it's Ridge," the Philadelphia-born Matthews replied without hesitation on the PBS broadcast. "I'll bet money on Ridge. ... He's a regular kind of straight-arrow guy. He'd fit in pretty well." "
" . . . The Los Angeles Times singled him out as early as January as "one name to watch" for vice president. In late November, the New York Times featured him prominently . . . The story, which included a picture of Ridge jogging with Bush along the Susquehanna River in Harrisburg during the Texan's June visit, noted that the Bush campaign purchased a BushRidge.com Internet domain name . . . "
" . . . USA Today, in a recent story about Bush's closest advisers, identified Ridge as one of three governors who have Bush's ear, along with Michigan's John Engler and Montana's Mark Racicot. Ridge has been close to the Bush clan since 1980, when, as an assistant district attorney, he served as Erie County chairman of the elder George Bush's 1980 presidential campaign. . . "People say [Bush] likes Ridge; [that] they're friends, [that] they're copacetic," CNBC's Matthews said last week."
" . . . For all the positive national press, Ridge knows his vice presidential chances may be imperiled by his support of abortion rights. Not only will that provoke howls of outrage from the GOP's right wing, but also, Ridge, a Roman Catholic, may draw particular enmity from the staunchly anti-abortion church hierarchy, Matthews and others say. In fact, syndicated columnist Robert Novak, in a July article that was read closely in Pennsylvania political circles, argued that the threat of heated Catholic Church opposition already had disqualified Ridge as a vice presidential prospect."
In the end, although Ridge did indeed seem to be one of Bush’s front runners, Cheney was chosen as the Vice Presidential candidate, and Bush is in the White House.
But what if? What if?
What if a handful of faithful Catholic activists had abided by their Bishop’s "determination" that Ridge’s appearance in 1998 at a Catholic Foundation dinner was not scandalous, and no protest had been launched. Would Bishop Trautman have subsequently made his determination that pro-abort politicians would no longer be allowed to speak at Catholic-sponsored events? For that matter, what role, if any, did the Altoona protest play in prodding the snail paced bureaucracy of the NCCB into releasing "Living the Gospel of Life: A Challenge to American Catholics" at their fall 1998 meeting?
Had no censure been placed on Ridge by Bishop Trautman (partly as a result of the debacle his brother Bishop Adamec endured in Altoona), thus allowing Ridge to maintain a low pro-abort profile, would Bush’s campaign have chosen his long time friend after all? And if so, in such a close race, would Gore be our president today, after the pro-life base walked away or stayed home?
In other words, "Is Catholic activism worth it?" The only answer to this is are the words attributed to Mother Theresa, "We’re not called to be successful. We’re just called to be faithful." It is this author’s opinion that small group of Catholic pro-life activists, through perseverance, courage and prayer, were not only faithful but also successful beyond any human expectations.
Which brings us back to 2001. Were do we go from here? If Catholic activism does indeed work, then what is to be our current objective? A good place to start would be to continue the fine work begun in the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown in 1998. The focus then was pro-abort politicians who persist in wearing the name "Catholic" and the failure of some of our hierarchy to do the right thing. Today there are grassroots efforts springing up independently in multiple areas across the country, primarily as a result of the blatant anti-Christian bigotry displayed by New England "Catholic" Senators in the Ashcroft hearings, calling for the formal excommunication of politicians like Ridge and Kennedy that vote to kill babies during the week then walk up to receive the precious Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Our Lord in Catholic Churches on Sunday. Its well beyond the time to give these politicians "the benefit of the doubt." Its time to apply the medicine prescribed by Pope John Paul II in Evangelium Vitae, para 62:
"By this reiterated sanction, the Church makes clear that abortion is a most serious and dangerous crime, thereby encouraging those who commit it to seek without delay the path of conversion. In the Church the purpose of the penalty of excommunication is to make an individual fully aware of the gravity of a certain sin and then to foster genuine conversion and repentance."
Its time for lay Catholics to take the lead in demanding our Bishops and prelates enforce that medicine prescribed by Pope John Paul II, for the good of the souls of those individuals as well as the soul of society at large.
There are many groups already working towards that end. One, the Saint Stanislaus Council, has already laid the groundwork, establishing the Canonical and theological underpinnings of such an endeavor. Their progress can be assessed by visiting their web site at www.excommunication.net.
Another group, Yankee Samizdat, has already established a site petitioning for the excommunication of these politicians at www.yankeesamizdat.org/ACBigots/Excom.html
. Although small, this organization recently collected several thousand Internet signatures on a petition in support of Ashcroft. The petition accused senators of subjecting Ashcroft to an "unconstitutional religious test for office." This particular angle had not made its way through news cycles until the Yankee Samizdat petition made its way around the Internet. During the closing statement of Senator Patrick Leahy, On The Nomination Of John Ashcroft, February 1, 2001, he stated, "I will say it once again, as clearly as I can, that no Senator during these proceedings has sought to apply any religious test to John Ashcroft."
If a small group in Altoona could have had an effect on a national election, if a small Internet apostolate could garner thousands of signatures on a petition to support the Ashcroft nomination and help stop an "unconstitutional religious test for office," how much more could an enlivened and emboldened Catholic laity across this nation and around this world accomplish?
Is Catholic activism worth it? Certainly. Lets begin anew right now.