America’s Catholic Moment, and Its New Breed of Catholic Politicians

As American politics become ever more polarized, a Catholic who wants to support the Church’s teachings in all things has no natural political home, writes Michael Sean Winters.

With all eyes on Rome and the installation of Pope Francis, American Catholics are having a political moment of their own. Six of nine Supreme Court justices are Catholic, as is Vice President Joe Biden, Rep. Paul Ryan who ran last year to replace him and 162 other members of Congress, an all-time high.

In recent years, many Catholic bishops have called on Catholic politicians to bring their faith into the public square—and they are. The problem is that the tenets of the Catholic faith do not easily translate into the idioms of contemporary politics, so Catholic politicians find themselves invoking their faith on some issues but trying to explain it away on others. Politically, a person who is 100 percent consistent with the Church’s teachings is likely to find himself politically homeless.

Catholic politicians fall into three groups. Old-style Democratic politicians, like Biden and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, share the church’s commitment to social justice issues, tend to be skeptical of war, support organized labor and immigrants' rights—all positions in line with the church’s teaching. They break ranks with the church on abortion rights, same-sex marriage, and the recent kerfuffle over the HHS contraception mandate, taking a more libertarian stance on such issues.

A younger breed of Catholic Republican politician is exemplified by Ryan, who shares the Church’s pro-life commitment and is opposed to legal abortion. But, while Ryan speaks about meeting the needs of the poor, his economic policies are more libertarian than communitarian, more Ayn Rand than Thomas Aquinas.

The third category is the smallest. There remain some Catholic politicians who have been willing to break with their party’s orthodoxy and stake out positions that are more in line with the church. Senators Bob Casey and Joe Donnelly are both pro-life Democrats. North Carolina Republican Rep. Walter Jones broke rank with the GOP over the Iraq War, which was strongly opposed by the U.S. bishops and Pope John Paul II. But breaking rank can come at a cost. Pro-life Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur, a Democrat, is widely believed to have been denied the chairmanship of the Appropriations Committee because of her pro-life stance.

“Catholics in Congress are caught in the same partisan, ideological rigidity that haunts the institution today,” says John Carr, who stepped down last year after serving as the key public policy adviser to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops for 25 years. “In the past, you had Catholics whose faith was reflected in their voting, in their willingness to break with party orthodoxies. Now that’s harder to do,” says Carr.

The political composition of Catholic politicians has changed over the years, says William D’Antonio of Catholic University’s Institute for Policy Research & Catholic Studies. He has been tracking Catholic congressional votes for a long time. His book, Religion, Politics & Polarization: How Religio-Political Conflict Is Changing Congress and American Democracy, will be published in May.

D’Antonio notes that in 1960, there were 76 Catholic Democrats in the U.S. House of R epresentatives compared to only 14 Republicans. After the 2008 election, there were 96 Catholic Democrats and 39 Catholic Republicans. “Then came the crash,” says D’Antonio. After the 2010 midterm elections, the number of Catholic Democrats plummeted from 96 to 69 while the number of Catholic Republicans grew from 39 to 63. Many of the Catholic Democrats who lost or chose not to run in 2010 were pro-life Democrats who supported the Affordable Care Act. Steve Driehaus and John Boccieri in Ohio, Kathy Dahlkemper in Pennsylvania, and Bart Stupak in Michigan did not return to Congress. They were targeted by the anti-abortion group, the Susan B. Anthony List, which claimed the ACA funded abortion, a claim that an Ohio court later dismissed. The results left the Democratic Party more solidly pro-choice and the Republicans more solidly pro-life.

The bishops’ former point man, John Carr, was a visiting fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School last autumn, and there he met many members of the incoming class of Congress. “A lot of new members have a sense of public service as vocation,” he says. “But they are struggling to overcome the ideological straitjacket that has become the U.S. Congress.”

Their efforts to shed that straitjacket might find support from a new generation of young, politically engaged Catholics who are tired of the culture wars and want to move past what they think is a largely sterile debate within Catholicism’s liberal and conservative wings. “For so many millennial Catholics, they have made a conscious choice to be or remain Catholic, so it’s not surprising they oppose both abortion and economic injustice,” says Robert Christian, who edits the blog Millennial for the group Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good. “And they are disappointed and frustrated with the political choices they have, having to choose between liberals who promise to get government ‘out of their bedrooms’ and conservatives who promise to get it ‘out of their wallets.’ This antigovernment rhetoric doesn’t resonate with people who believe that government can and should play an affirmative role in promoting the common good.”

On the other hand, a visit to almost any college campus will demonstrate the increasing popularity of libertarianism among many young people.

The estuary where religion and politics intersect is constantly changing. It may be that in a generation, the two parties will sort out their ideologies, with one party standing for libertarian impulses across the board and the other adopting a more communitarian approach. If that happens, the communitarian party might be the Democrats or it might be the Republicans, but either way, it would be a decidedly Catholic Party. Until then, a Catholic who wants to support the church’s teachings in all things will remain politically homeless.