The Common Good
June 2006

A Thorn In Both Their Sides

by E.J. Dionne Jr. | June 2006

If the church causes discomfort only to one political party when both are in need of repentance, it is not being the church.

The strange thing is that the “Catholic Vote” doesn’t exist. Catholics are the largest single religious group in the United States. They—we—vote in large numbers. We are terribly important to the outcome of elections. But we do not vote as a bloc. The extent to which Catholics ever did vote as a bloc has been exaggerated. In the two presidential elections of the 1950s, for example, Catholics split roughly evenly between Dwight Eisenhower and Adlai Stevenson.

As Tim Reidy suggests in this issue, Catholics have been a competitive group since 1968. Catholics and Mainline Protestants are the two great “swing” religious constituencies in American politics. Mainline Protestants are a swing constituency because they are less Republican than they once were, Catholics because they are less Democratic. Roughly 40 percent of Catholics are reliably Republican. A comparable group is reliably Democratic. The rest move around.

Just contemplate these names: Ted Kennedy, Mario Cuomo, Bob Casey, Richard Neuhaus, Peter and Peggy Steinfels, Rick Santorum, Bill Bennett. All are Catholics, but there is enormous disagreement within this group on and around election time. This year, Santorum and Casey are running against each other for one of Pennsylvania’s seats in the U.S. Senate.

Argument among Catholics is normal because the church’s formal political positions, largely consistent over the last 30 years, do not map neatly with those of our political parties or our conventional ideologies. The Catholic Church is strongly opposed to abortion, stem cell research, assisted suicide, and gay marriage. It is also strongly opposed to the death penalty, skeptical of an interventionist foreign policy, committed to a substantial government role in fighting poverty, and wary of unregulated capitalism.

Tensions between Catholics who emphasize the “life issues” and those who lay heavy stress on social justice have been a central component of Catholic life since the Roe vs. Wade decision in 1973. The late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin sought in the 1980s to bring the entirety of Catholic social teaching together under the rubric of the “seamless garment.” Support for life included opposition to abortion but also opposition to the death penalty, skepticism about war, and help for the poor. The 1980s saw the high point of Catholic progressivism as the nation’s Catholic bishops issued two pastoral letters, on war and peace and on the economy. Both were seen, rightly, as critiques of Reagan administration policies. More-conservative Catholics were critical of both letters and of the seamless garment framework, which they saw as subordinating opposition to abortion to a more progressive agenda.

In the ensuing two decades, the leadership of the American church has become more conservative, though not uniformly so, as the late Pope John Paul II’s bishops gradually replaced the bishops named by Pope Paul VI. There has been a renaissance of conservative Catholic thinking led by such figures as Neuhaus, Michael Novak, George Weigel, and Princeton University’s Robert George. The formal positions of the church remain relatively unchanged. The church took what is seen conventionally as the “liberal” side on such questions as welfare reform in the 1990s, the war in Iraq in 2003, and immigration this year. But the public voice of Catholicism is decidedly more conservative than it was in the New Deal or civil rights eras.

President Bush shrewdly saw how critical the Catholic vote was nationally and in swing states such as Ohio, and he has pushed the conservative trend along. His campaigns and his party invested heavily in moving the middle fifth of the Catholic vote in the Republicans’ direction. Bush did so not only by emphasizing his support for a “culture of life,” but also by calling for a “compassionate conservatism.” This appealed to wavering Catholics who were uneasy with what they perceived as Republican indifference to the poor but who were also socially conservative and disenchanted with the old welfare state. Compassionate conservatism was made to order for such voters in acknowledging an obligation to the poor while asserting that the best way to express that concern was through one-on-one, local initiatives. Bush was not shy about using the classic Catholic word “subsidiarity.” He regularly cited John Paul II, whose work his brilliant chief speechwriter Michael Gerson had closely studied. In joining John Paul in calling for a “society of free work, of enterprise, of participation,” Bush emphasized the link between individual and social responsibility. He also campaigned hard for the votes of Latinos, particularly among those who were evangelical Protestants, but also among religiously devout and pro-life Latino Catholics. Bush lost Catholics narrowly in 2000, but carried their votes, narrowly, in 2004.

These developments have created a crisis for progressive Catholics, a visible sign of which was the statement of principles issued recently by 55 Catholic Democrats in the House of Representatives. The group included both pro-life and pro-choice Democrats, and their unstated theme might be summarized: We’re here, we care, we’re not going away—and things can’t go on like this.

AT THIS POINT, I move from the analytical to the personal, writing less as a columnist or an academic and more as a Catholic in the pew, as someone

 

for whom the church has been a great gift and who is very worried over the prospect that this church so many of us love might be turned into the arm of one ideology, of one political party.

Many progressive Catholics are very upset after the last electoral campaign. The sense many of these progressives have, and I am one of them, is that conservative voices in the hierarchy were dominant, fearless, relentless—in brief, overwhelming. Progressive voices in the church leadership were, to be charitable, conflicted. It might be said that progressive church leaders had qualms because of the abortion and stem cell issues. That would be entirely understandable but for the fact that the conservative voices seemed not conflicted at all. The issues of poverty, social justice, and war did not seem to inhibit the conservative leaders in the Catholic Church from speaking out strongly in a way that left little doubt as to which side they were on in a bitter election. They supported the views of those leaflets that appeared inside so many Catholic churches—political pamphlets disguised as religious tracts issued by a group calling itself “Catholic Answers”—declaring that there were just five “nonnegotiable” issues for Catholics: abortion, stem cell research, euthanasia, gay marriage, and cloning. Not social justice. Not war and peace. Not the death penalty. The leaflet might as well have said that voting for President Bush was a nonnegotiable position for Catholics.

Some Catholic friends have suggested that the press is partly at fault here because the more-moderate statements by more-moderate bishops got, at best, moderate news coverage—or no coverage at all. There may be truth to this. There were certainly progressive Catholics making strong arguments about poverty and war, and several progressive Catholics I’ve spoken with have argued that it would have been easier for social justice Catholics to speak out more forcefully if John Kerry himself had spoken more forcefully about poverty and injustice.

But the impression created by the outspokenness of the conservative church leaders and the reticence of so many liberals and moderates was that the church as a whole had enlisted on one side of the campaign. Democrats who favored a woman’s “right to choose” were routinely and roundly condemned. Republicans who broke with the church on all manner of other questions related to poverty, social justice, war and peace, and the death penalty were left (so it seemed, anyway) largely undisturbed. Many progressive politicians who have worked closely with the church over the years on all manner of issues related to social welfare, international social justice, and peace wonder what they should say when Catholic representatives approach them for help again. Year after year, on issue after issue, progressives work with the church on these questions while conservatives often oppose the church’s view. Yet come election time, only the progressives get punished. This is a practical problem. And for many of us who are progressive Catholics, it is a source of genuine anguish.

Our anguish is because those of us who are progressive Catholics love the church as much as our conservative friends do. We feel an enormous debt for its moral guidance, for opening up to the possibility of faith, and for passing along the inspiration of Christian hope.

Over the years, the disdain that some liberals showed toward the Catholic Church and other churches bothered me—especially because I came to my own basically liberal views largely because of, not in spite of, Christianity and the church. As Pope John Paul II said over and over, it’s impossible to be a Christian and to remain indifferent to the suffering created by unjust social structures. A few months before his death, John Paul called upon us “to advance a radical commitment to justice and a more attentive and determined display of solidarity.” My own political views are shaped by such demands, even if they reflect them very, very imperfectly.

Long ago, C. S. Lewis warned that “[m]ost of us are not really approaching the subject in order to find out what Christianity says. We are approaching it in the hope of finding support from Christianity for the views of our own party.” I know that I can be as guilty of that as anyone. But progressive Catholics are certainly not asking that the church turn itself into some liberal or Democratic machine. On the contrary, its moral voice is especially powerful when it challenges both sides, all sides, in the political debate. “Radical monotheism,” as theologian H. Richard Niebuhr wrote, “dethrones all absolutes short of the principle of being itself.” Oddly, believers may be less credulous and naive than unbelievers when it comes to worldly institutions and systems of thought.

In principle, the believer always regards this world’s institutions and systems as inadequate. In principle, the believer should be an active critic of what is, not a passive follower of whatever might be in vogue. It doesn’t always happen this way, because believers can lose their vocation as critics when power and privilege come their way. We discover that we can dethrone all absolutes except the ones that benefit ourselves.

In questioning some elements of liberal orthodoxy, the Catholic Church has done a valuable service. There is a powerful link between the moral behavior of individuals and the kind of society we create. Family breakdown is causing enough problems for enough children that perhaps we could use a little rethinking on the subject of (yes, it’s a hackneyed phrase) “family values.” Of course we’d rather have teenagers use condoms than not. But is it so crazy to ask if it’s really possible to have much impact on high school students if we separate what we teach teenagers about sex from broader lessons about responsibility and (God forbid!) marriage and child rearing? And yes, our culture needs to show greater respect for life. That’s why it is heartening that many pro-life and pro-choice progressives are joining, as Amy Sullivan wrote recently in these pages (April 2006), in efforts to reduce the number of abortions in the United States.

IDEALLY, THE CHURCH’S role in politics is to cause discomfort, to encourage questions, to challenge narrowly ideological views. Oddly, a church that is seen as dogmatic has often had a moderating effect on politics. Conservative Catholics who cheer the church’s stance on abortion are affected by what it says about war and peace and social justice and the death penalty. They are pushed away from a narrowly ideological conservatism. Liberal Catholics who cheer what the church says about social justice and just war are affected by what it says about abortion and family life and assisted suicide. They are pushed away from a narrowly ideological liberalism.

Think of what this means for each of our political parties. Catholic Democrats are, or should be, a moderating force within their party on family issues, abortion, and assisted suicide. Catholic Republicans are, or should be, a moderating force in resisting a sink-or-swim free market and in insisting that our leaders exercise moral caution before marching us off to war. Catholic Democrats and Republicans alike call attention to the importance of mediating structures, of solidarity and subsidiarity, of the importance of both social and individual responsibility.

In other words, in my ideal world, the Catholic Church would not endorse my own political choices, but neither would it become part of the other party’s political machine. My sense is that the church’s ideal role is to be a ginger group, to borrow a British term, a kind of leaven in each coalition. On the whole, we are, as William Bole argued in Commonweal a few years ago, “soft communitarians.” We are likely to find ourselves quite loyally, but not always comfortably, supporting our respective parties. Discomfort is not a bad thing. A bit of discomfort may be exactly what contemporary politics needs.

But if the church causes discomfort only to one side in the debate when both sides are in need of repentance, it is not being the church. It is not good enough for Catholic leaders to point to the long list of issues on which the church’s stand is, by any rational measure, progressive. At election time, if all those progressive issues are ignored by the church’s most powerful spokespeople, or are spoken of in only a soft voice, then by the default of some and the intention of others, the church will inevitably be seen as taking a partisan stand. If the only nonnegotiable issues happen to be in only one party’s platform, what conclusion are Catholics expected to draw? What conclusion is the public expected to draw? And if Catholic candidates who do not agree with all of the church’s positions are subjected to far more criticism and denunciation than non-Catholic candidates, if some bishops would choose to deny them communion, what message is the church sending about Catholic participation in American political life?

Yes, this is a complex business. I devoutly believe that one can be a conservative and be a good Christian, and that one can be a progressive and be a good Christian. We know our obligation, as political scientist Glenn Tinder has put it, both to give and to receive help on the road to truth. I understand the frustrations of so many pro-lifers with progressives and liberals. I understand the commitment of political conservatives to finding a path to compassion and love. I understand that many good people in the church speak out about the problems with both parties.

But yes, I am worried. The 2004 election, more than any other in recent memory, left progressive Catholics worried that the institutional church was taking sides in a partisan fight. If this is a misunderstanding, the church has the urgent task of clearing it up. I do not presume to know how God would vote—and I don’t think anyone else should, either.

E.J. Dionne Jr. is a syndicated columnist and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C.

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