Who’s supporting the P5+1 deal with Iran? Many Democrats, liberal celebrities, and… the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.
The result could be a conundrum for Republican presidential candidates seeking to woo Catholic voters—but more likely will be an example of how some Catholic positions are more equal than others.
The USCCB, the official association of U.S. bishops, is known for taking a wide range of socially conservative positions—entirely against abortion and contraception, the USCCB led the attack on Obamacare’s so-called “Contraceptive Mandate,” and was ahead of the curve in calling for “religious freedom” laws such as Indiana’s.
At the same time, it has long taken many economically and militarily progressive ones. The USCCB strongly supported the DREAM act, has long favored increased government aid to the poor, and opposed nuclear weapons.
So it was not out of character when the bishops applauded the negotiations with Iran in 2013, and, this week, supported the P5+1 framework.
Still, the open letter to Congress by the chairman of the USCCB’s Committee on International Justice and Peace went a step further. Not only did it “welcome the most recent step the United States and its international partners have taken with Iran” but it also took time to “oppose Congressional efforts that seek to undermine the negotiation process or make a responsible multi-party agreement more difficult to achieve and implement.”
This places the USCCB squarely in opposition to Congressional Republicans, their usual allies on social issues. The bishops are also on the other side of the Iran issue from all the declared and not-yet-declared Republican presidential hopefuls, including Marco Rubio, who is Catholic.
(In fact, Rubio’s faith defies easy categorization: he was baptized a Catholic, but raised as a Mormon for several years, and now attends both a Southern Baptist megachurch and a Catholic church.)
Will the USCCB’s clear position on Iran cause a political crisis, or even a crisis of faith, for Republican presidential candidates?
In a word, No.
First, we are decades past the days in which Catholic politicians were asked whether they could ever disagree with Catholic doctrine. Those questions smacked of anti-Catholic prejudice when they were asked of John F. Kennedy, and of political opportunism when they were put to Mario Cuomo. By the time of John Kerry, the altar boy turned pro-choice feminist, the mainstream media was over it.
More importantly, politicians and journalists alike seem to have selective attention when it comes to Catholic doctrine. For example, popes have often made statements on economic policy that would make Socialists blush. This is certainly the case with Pope Francis, but it was true even of Pope John Paul II, who crusaded against communism but sharply critiqued capitalism as well, especially in his 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus.
Likewise with the Church’s longstanding opposition to nuclear weapons, its more recent concerns about climate change, and its staunch opposition to the death penalty. When the Church is pro-life in the context of reproductive justice, suddenly politicians are conscience-bound to follow its teachings. But when it is pro-life in the context of criminal justice or international affairs, not so much.
What differentiates compelling Catholic teachings from less compelling ones? Easy: conservative Protestant politics. Where Catholic positions align with conservative Protestant ones, they align with the Republican consensus and are warmly trumpeted as essential elements of our “Judeo-Christian heritage,” even if (as in the case of LGBT equality) a majority of practicing Catholics disagree.
But when Catholic teachings align with liberal Protestant ones—a coalition of liberal Protestants sent its own letter supporting the Iran deal—they have no constituency. Republican’s aren’t interested in the liberalism, and Democrats aren’t interested in the religiosity.
Think about it—when is the last time you heard a politician oppose war because of our “Judeo-Christian heritage”? Liberal Christian organizations do that all the time, but no one knows what to do with them.
For Democrats, this is perhaps a shame. Pundits routinely complain that Democrats aren’t as good as Republicans when it comes to waving banners of God and country. Statements like the USCCB’s letter on Iran give Democrats the opportunity to do so—but they’re probably too worried about alienating the base, or compromising the separation of church and state, or whatever.
That’s why the Bishops’ letter will probably fall with a thud. Pacifism is the part of Catholicism (and Christianity) in which conservatives have no interest.
There is one possibility, though. Marco Rubio is not “just” a Catholic. He has written that, though he loved the Baptist church service, “I craved, literally, the Most Blessed Sacrament, Holy Communion, the sacramental point of contact between the Catholic and the liturgy of heaven” and that “every sacrament, every symbol and tradition of the Catholic faith is intended to convey, above everything else, the revelation that God yearns, too, for a relationship with you.”
Of course, a cynic would dismiss such professions of faith as mere posturing, but they do have the ring of sincerity. And if so, while it would not be fair game to demand that Rubio square his political opinions on Iran with those of his Church, it is worth asking how he reconciles them in his own conscience. Is the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops wrong on the facts, wrong on the values, or both? Is there a moral case for giving peace as many chances as possible, or isn’t there?
And, perhaps not for Senator Rubio but for the many politicians who claim to speak on behalf of all Christians, do all Catholic Church teachings count—or only the ones which drive conservatives to the polls?