Raised in a staunch Catholic family with five brothers (and two sisters), I really looked forward to the rare nights the guys could get together, to talk about old times and ponder the new. Five of us still lived, more or less, in the Chicago area, but tonight would be special, because Mike, the "Boston brother," was visiting on business and would be in attendance. "The Boys are Back in Town!" I thought to myself, as I began humming the hit that became the tragic Irish band Thin Lizzy's trademark, as well as the unofficial theme song of the brothers O'Toole barroom reunions.
As it turned out, Jim, the eldest brother and only agnostic amongst the six, would not be present (Jim had a previous engagement he couldn't break, but had seen Mike earlier in the day), but even this news barely dampened my spirits. Although sister Kathleen, the artist, had long since flown the Chicago coup for Malibu, Mike was not just the only brother who had left the Midwest, but the sibling best suited to bring all our distinct personalities together, thus making his presence all the more powerful. Also, as the most successful of us from a business standpoint, Mike was now the corporate star to my struggling writer, the Harry Bailey to my George. But none of that seemed to matter when we clanked and drank beers together...
After 90 minutes or so of talk of glory days and family escapades, my brother Larry, who heads a downstate organic farm and gets up long before the sun does, excused himself, and we were down to four. And, as fun as it was getting caught up, I was now growing weary of small talk. There was something I needed to ask my little brother, if just to be reassured.
"So... who are you voting for this time?" I polled Mike. Like myself, Mike had dabbled with the Democratic Party in the past—but surely not in this election.
"I don't think we want to go in that direction," Mike said with a laugh that felt both half patronizing, half agonizing—a laugh I did not recognize as his.
"Why not?" I wondered. But suddenly, it was as if something came over my brother, and I knew. Mike was voting for Obama!
"But do you not realize that he is pro-abortion? And not only pro-abortion, but for partial-birth abortion, and even voted for killing babies that came out of the womb alive?"
"Tom, there are other issues too... a LOT of issues that he is more correct on than McCain..."
"Ah, but do you not realize the truth of Mother Teresa's statement, that if a man cannot get even the most basic life issue—the protection of defenseless babies—right, he cannot be trusted on anything else?"
"I really don't think we should talk about it..."
"But do you not believe that abortion is murder?"
For a brief moment after my question there was dead silence, and, as my and Mike's eyes met, I thought the weight of that statement might sink in. Instead, the man who still looked like Mike but acted anything like him flew into a rage, as if to shake off the righteous words that had now crept under his skin. Finally, the scary moment passed as Mike, realizing he was no longer the peaceful presence that "The One" desired his followers to be, began to recite Obamaisms in an attempt to calm himself down. Meanwhile, my brother Dan, who as a hard-core Chicago cop might still support McCain if Obama's tactics on terrorism get any softer, attempted a different, if just as convoluted, pro-choice argument.
"Tom, did you ever hear of the study that showed how the drop in inner-city crime corresponded exactly with the legalization of abortion?"
"Well, what do you think ?"
"It makes me think about Mark Twain."
"Yes, and his comment, 'There are lies, damned lies, and then there are statistics.'"
"But TOM," Dan replied with dead-seriousness, "there are NO other factors to explain this."
"Okay Dan. Let's assume you are correct. Let's say there are no other factors but the drop in 'unwanted' pregnancies to 'unfit' parents to explain this decrease. Are you saying it's then okay to kill these babies in the womb because there's a greater chance they may kill someone else 15 to 30 years down the road than the average kid? Sort of a first-strike theory?"
"Yes... I mean no."
"Are you saying then that the ends justifies the means?"
"I'm saying that..." Dan paused, searching for words that many pro-choicers had searched for, words that do not exist.
"You are saying that the ends justifies the means?" my brother, Fr. Bill, a parish priest in Indiana, suddenly chimed in. Bill, perhaps because he had had this talk with Mike previously and had given up hope, had until now been strangely silent during this conversation. Bill was wearing street clothes again tonight, and it seemed to me he wore his priest outfit less and less in public as time went by.
"No, I'm just saying it's something to think about," Dan said before he quickly steered the conversation in a different direction.
As Mike continued to defend Obama's policies, it gives me little consolation, looking back at that night a month later, that Barack has drifted toward center (and more toward Senator McCain) on things like energy, the war, and the economy since. Instead, as Mike seamlessly began to shift from Barack's platitudes to problems my brother now had with the Catholic Church, I recalled in my mind a conversation we had twenty some years ago, when Michael was still a student at Notre Dame....
"I really admire your writing and the stances you take defending your faith," Mike confided.
"Yes, but I bet you don't admire the pitiful amount of money I make doing it!" I joked.
"No, really Tom... it doesn't bother me that you have to take jobs like the park district and youth ministry that allow you to both work with kids and allows you time to write."
"Well, thanks Mike."
"In fact, I wish I could be more like you."
Back at the bar, Mike was now finishing off his current soliloquy on the virtues of gay marriage and woman priests with words I found to be far less assuring. "And, just like you, I'll always love Notre Dame!" Mike enthused. "And don't worry, Tom. I'll ALWAYS be Catholic," the rich young man my brother had become, said with conviction. "No one can ever take that away from me."
Don't be so sure, Mike, I thought to myself as the remaining brothers O'Toole emptied the establishment, to find another muggy Chicago summer night awaiting them.