Cao’s Catholic conscience

Indicted CongressmanWhen the House narrowly passed its health care reform bill on Saturday night, it received 219 votes from Democrats and one from a Republican. I mentioned already that I was at the hospital with my daughter when it passed so I was passing time following reporters and pundits on Twitter. Many of them expressed shock — or at least surprise — that any Republican would support the bill. And when it was revealed that the lone vote came from Louisiana Rep. Joseph Cao, people referred to him mostly in that “oh yeah, he’s the guy who beat the corrupt William Jefferson” sort of way. Note this lede from a Christian Science Monitor story:

Rep. Anh “Joseph” Cao (R) of Louisiana must not have gotten the message from House Republicans that no one in the GOP caucus — repeat no one — would vote with Democrats on a sweeping overhaul of the US healthcare system.

In a vote late Saturday night, Representative Cao — a vulnerable freshman in a Democratic district still devastated by hurricane Katrina — broke ranks, casting the lone Republican vote for the legislation.

“I have always said that I would put aside partisan wrangling to do the business of the people. My vote tonight was based on my priority of doing what is best for my constituents,” he said in a statement after the vote.

In Cao’s district, 3 out of 4 voters chose Barack Obama in the 2008 presidential elections. In 2004, President Bush won only 24 percent of the vote here.

Now, other stories point out that Republicans knew that Cao’s vote would likely be in favor. But anyone who pays attention to the religion angle of Cao’s story would know the same. Heck, he said he favored the legislation three months ago . . . with one major caveat. We looked at media coverage of his statement last August.

He had told the New Orleans Times-Picayune that he could not support any bill that permits public money to be spent on abortion. He said that any bill without strong language prohibiting the use of federal funding for abortion would be “a no-go” for him. He explained:

“Being a Jesuit, I very much adhere to the notion of social justice,” Cao said. “I do fully understand the need of providing everyone with access to health care, but to me personally, I cannot be privy to a law that will allow the potential of destroying thousands of innocent lives.

“I know that voting against the health care bill will probably be the death of my political career,” Cao said, “but I have to live with myself, and I always reflect on the phrase of the New Testament, ‘How does it profit a man’s life to gain the world but to lose his soul.’ “

So not much of a surprise, then, that he voted in favor of the bill, considering the passage of the Stupak amendment barring taxpayer funding of abortions.

Many of the stories that mention Cao’s vote take notice of his Catholicism, however obliquely. But I do have to point out this bit from a post titled “Who is Cao” from Jay Newton-Small at Time:

Cao originally became a Roman Catholic Priest, serving six years in a Jesuit seminary after getting his bachelors degree in physics at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. After leaving the priesthood he received a master’s in philosophy from Fordham University in New York and a law degree from Loyola in New Orleans in 2000, where he also taught undergraduate philosophy.

Uh, not exactly.

You can read this wonderful Dec. 2008 interview of Cao by one Dan Gilgoff over at U.S. News & World Report for more information, but in it he explains that he only made it halfway through Jesuit formation and was never ordained. That interview, which includes a fascinating explanation of why he left the seminary, also quotes Cao saying that health care reform is a priority for him.

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  • jh

    Great article but with a major correction, CAO was never a Priest. He went to seminary but was never ordained

  • jh

    Oh never mind I see you were quoting another article and caught the mistake

  • tmatt

    There was a formatting error. It’s fixed.

    That should have been a block quote.

    Please remember that MZ is dealing with some major health issues with her youngsters right now and is really writing on the fly.

  • Mike Hickerson

    Dumb question from a non-Catholic: What does Cao mean when he calls himself a Jesuit, since he’s not a priest? Is he simply identifying with his Jesuit seminary training, or can a layperson become a Jesuit in some way?

  • Erin

    As far as I know there’s no lay association or lay order affiliated with the Jesuits (as there are for some other religious orders). He probably refers to himself that way because he closely identifies with the Jesuit tradition and still feels a part of the worldwide Jesuit community.

  • Mike Hickerson

    Thanks, Erin!

  • Joel

    Not a dumb question at all, Mike. I asked the same thing when the earlier story on Cao came up, and I am Catholic.

    I don’t think we ever actually hashed out what that meant in the context. I’ll have to go back to the earlier story and see what resolution there was.

  • MichaelV

    This Catholic also wondered that, Mike!

  • Charles

    Mike H., this Catholic priest also wondered about that. Expanding on Erin’s reply, I humorously add that in some circles, folks compare the early Jesuits to the U.S. Marines, so perhaps there’s an ethos, comparable to that of the Marines, out of which men such as Cong. Cao would say, “Once a Jesuit, always a Jesuit” and “There’s no such thing as an ‘ex-’Jesuit, only ‘former’ Jesuits.”

    As an ex- no, make that, “former” journalist, I’m unpleasantly not-surprised that Jay Newton-Small misidentified Cong. Cao in two blog entries as having been a priest, and she (yes, “she,”) appears not to have posted corrections yet.

    Finally, thanks so very much, Mollie, for have posted this correction and providing the link to the Gilgoff interview; it is, indeed, “wonderful” and very informative.

  • Luce

    BTW–my prayers for the quick recovery of Mollie’s young’uns.

  • Mollie

    Thank you, Luce.

  • John Pack Lambert

    I am used to seeing Mormon positions poorly explained, but I figured with there being so many Catholics in the United States people would not describe a man who was never ordained as a former Catholic priest. I guess the media gets religion even less than I thought.