Catholics who are serious about their faith and want to live it out in the public arena are challenged in today’s political environment. The choice of a party is difficult. The parties themselves have serious flaws, and they often appear to flaunt precisely the issues most at odds with Catholic teaching. This teaching is rooted in the reverential respect and protection of the life and dignity of every human from conception to natural death. Our country’s founders employed the phrase “self-evident truth” to convey the universal applicability of such teaching.
To their credit, Democrats have for at least a century recognized that government has a legitimate role in helping the poor and vulnerable. But these days Democrats more often grab headlines through their efforts to redefine marriage or by trying to determine which church activity is “religious” or by attempting to force Catholic institutions to provide employee health coverage for sterilizations and contraceptives, including abortion-inducing drugs. To their credit, Republicans for the last 50 years have opposed the abortion-approving Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade and have espoused family values. But Republicans now make headlines by advocating the slashing of federal programs, including those for the poor, and proposing anti-immigrant legislation.
Catholics have responded in various ways. Ross Douthat, a New York Times columnist and Catholic convert, says Catholics use their most deeply held values, whether that means defense of the unborn or care for the poor, to choose a party, but sooner or later they join “the side they’re on.” This is the opposite of what the U.S. bishops advocate in their document “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship.” “As Catholics,” it says, “we should be guided more by our moral convictions than by our attachment to a political party or interest group. When necessary, our participation should help transform the party to which we belong; we should not let the party transform us in such a way that we neglect or deny fundamental moral truths.”
The idea is that Catholics should work within their parties to change them, creating a diverse and substantial group motivated not so much by ideology but by challenging cultural issues, large and small.
This is easier said than done. The bishops are asking Catholics to raise uncomfortable issues in sometimes exceedingly hostile environments. Many Democrats have worked strenuously since Roe v. Wade to purge dissenters on legalized abortion from party ranks. They have succeeded to the extent that pro-life Democrats find themselves in a no-man’s land, often reviled for their views and distrusted by pro-lifers because of their party affiliation. More recently, Republicans have sought to purify party ranks of even the slightest variations from party orthodoxy. Republican candidates and legislators espouse increasingly hard-line positions punitive to immigrants and cut disproportionately programs that help the poor.
In this partisan environment, Catholics may feel “politically homeless,” to borrow a phrase from John Carr, executive director of the Department of Justice, Peace and Human Development of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. The parties’ retreat from the ideological center has left Catholics with the understandable, but unfortunate impression that their only political option is to choose a side and join in to win the culture war. The resulting toxic acrimony has long since seeped into the church. Catholics must reverse this trend.
A Faith-Based Worldview
Cardinal Francis George of Chicago has advocated an end to the fixation over whether someone is a “progressive Catholic,” an “orthodox Catholic,” a “Vatican II Catholic” or a “traditionalist Catholic.” He urges instead a focus on being “simply Catholic.” In his final presidential address to the U.S. bishops, Cardinal George observed, “For too many, politics is the ultimate horizon of their thinking and acting,” and the value of the church’s role in public discourse is judged by how it will serve a partisan agenda.
Catholics must reject this mentality and act in a way that reflects a belief in a higher truth, seeing a greater horizon beyond that of a partisan agenda. This is the essence of “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship,” which urges Catholics to place the church’s priority teachings at the heart of their worldview and moral decision-making. Practically speaking, this means that political positions should be judged by how well they express the values and truths of the faith, not the other way around. This requires examination of conscience and individual conversion. It requires Catholic voters honest enough not to ignore principle in favor of partisan preference. It requires legislators brave enough to risk the acceptance of their caucus and support among their constituents. It also requires a significant increase in trust and acceptance of people’s good will at face value. In a scorched-earth political climate, partisans seldom raise a concern or value of the other side unless it is to denigrate it (call it socialist, anti-woman, etc.) or to say why it should not matter.
U.S. Catholics make up 29 percent of the current Congress—far more than any other single religious denomination—and hold 17 of 50 governorships. If any group can make an impact by unifying around its core principles, it is this formidable, diverse and culturally eclectic group. Pundits and pollsters point out that in the last few election cycles the candidate who has won the Catholic vote has also won the White House. But Catholics do not vote as a bloc, nor will they in the foreseeable future. Still, Catholics can make a positive difference on society.
Latino Catholics provide some hope. With strong pro-life, pro-family sensibilities and pro-poor and pro-immigrant views, they defy easy classification. They could transform either party that welcomes them and their concerns—a model for other U.S. Catholics. Pioneering modern Catholic social teaching in 1891 with his encyclical “Rerum Novarum,” Pope Leo XIII proposed a middle way between the socialist and laissez-faire philosophies of the day. A case could be made today that a unified Catholic effort could bring both major parties to openness toward Catholic views.
One can only imagine the increased appeal of a Republican Party that extends its pro-life concerns to the years between birth and infirmity and applies its family values to poor and immigrant families. The same goes for a Democratic Party that embraces the challenge to society made by Edward Kennedy in 1971, to “fulfill its responsibility to its children from the very moment of conception,” a challenge later abandoned.
Toward the Catholic Vision
One catalyst for promoting such a change should be the realization by people of both parties that they need each other to accomplish even their partisan political goals. Sometimes conservative goals have liberal solutions and vice versa. Both parties should pursue the common good more than partisan advantage. For instance, as Catholics work for legal protection for the unborn as a matter of justice, they can also advance pro-life goals by strengthening and enforcing anti-discrimination laws for pregnant women in the workforce. And they can advocate for more generous parental-leave benefits. The United States is one of the few countries in the world that does not require employers to provide paid parental leave for workers. If Bolivia and Haiti, among the poorest countries in this hemisphere, can offer two and three months of paid leave, the United States—among the richest nations in history—can certainly do more. Increased attention to this issue would show that the United States places a high value on human life. And it would help forge a cultural perception that pregnant women really do have options and that abortion does not have to be tolerated, even as a “necessary evil.” The pro-life cause is also helped by making poor families a priority instead of an afterthought, so that no one can hide behind the excuse that people need abortions because “they just can’t afford another child.”
Meanwhile, the challenges of the highest domestic poverty rate in 15 years are too great for one party or philosophy to solve. Democrats must take seriously the concerns of Republicans that the government cannot be all things to all people. Republicans must take seriously the concerns of Democrats that the government has a role to play. Members of both parties must acknowledge the risk of future unsustainable deficits and put everything on the table to address the problem, including revenue, unnecessary defense spending, and just and fair entitlement reform.
The Catholic vision is one of collaboration, not coercion, among individuals, governments, businesses and other institutions. Its focus is not on profit or a winning ideology. Its focus is on creating conditions in which people can develop and ultimately flourish, in which their lives enjoy non-negotiable protection from conception to natural death, and thus can fully reflect the dignity God intended. This applies to every level, from individual to global. Following the principle of subsidiarity, the Catholic vision is to ensure that problems are tackled in the best possible context and that all stakeholders meet their responsibilities to one another. Subsidiarity locates responsibility at the lowest feasible level of society and requires other levels to support them in meeting their responsibilities. Both parties lack this vision or at least do not trust each other enough to make decisions that favor the common good consistently. Catholics could help and lead by example.
Catholicism has appeal across centuries, cultures and ideologies. Today the church can evangelize by working among people with various perspectives to counter the excesses of ideology. It might often make people angry, but it also would make the Catholic voice more difficult to ignore, elevating it above mere partisan agendas. It would give the church renewed credibility as a moral voice and force in the culture. In the words of “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship,” “We are called to bring together our principles and our political choices, our values and our votes, to help build a better world.”