Courting the Catholic Vote

Feeling wooed? You should be, at least according to pundits and Washington insiders. It seems that 2001 has been the year for courting the Catholic vote. The term burst on the scene shortly after the inauguration and has consistently shown up in news stories ever since, particularly with respect to the president’s political strategizing. Initially taken aback, I now find it bothersome to hear discussion of the Catholic vote. There is no such thing. In reducing a vast group of people with a broad range of political (and religious) views to a homogenous, univocal entity, widespread reference to courting the Catholic vote misses one point and raises another.

The first question is what profile did the Bush team have in mind? Is it the same constituency that reached full efflorescence during John F. Kennedy’s foreshortened term? Is it the same group that traditionally has shown strong support for labor and social programs? Or is it those voters once known as Reagan Democrats? Clearly, during the debate about embryonic stem cells, Bush had in mind the church’s pro-life stance. But even this is a political, if not religious, oversimplification, since it is not the church that casts votes, but individual Catholics, whose views on scientific research of all kinds vary enormously.

So the question becomes, Is it meaningful to talk about, let alone court, the Catholic vote? One reason why the very term strikes an odd chord is that in the last few decades many Catholics stand squarely between the two labels liberal and conservative, progressive and traditional. When the elder George Bush derided a kind of American intellectual he characterized as Cambridge-Brookline liberals, he may have rallied certain Catholic voters to his side, but he alienated others. Some Catholics vote solely on the basis of one issue, but most do not. What is the Catholic stand on the environment? education? election reform? defense spending? farm policy? Mideast policy? Social Security reform?

The fact that there is no answer does not imply that one’s faith is in no way political and ought not to influence the decisions and actions one takes as a voting citizen. But it makes more sense to talk about the Catholic’s vote than the Catholic vote, because the individual’s vote is more reflective of his/her distinct consciousness and conscience as a Catholic than as Catholic. Some may find this distinction offensive, but it is not at all a bold or controversial assertion. Nor is it to be lamented. The truth is that as long as being a Catholic does not require a litmus test, the flock will always pulse with the interplay of eclecticism and like-mindedness, the contemplative and the rabble-rousing, the liberal and the conservative.

While being a Catholic by no means determines one’s political viewpoint, I believe that to be Catholic can be a profound political act. It demands taking one’s faith into the world of choices and consequences. In the most basic sense, it requires accountability beyond oneself and one’s own private space and a step into the social realm where ideas and views meet opposition. It is in the context of these collisions, out of which the Catholic faith first took root, that being Catholic can be hardest and richest.

Considering the tradition whence we come, a question that cannot help but stir us is, What is it about being Catholic that is political? In an atmosphere of political correctness, electing to reveal one’s Catholicity is a bold political act. For members and nonmembers alike, the Catholic Church represents a history and tradition that can include some heavy institutional baggage in the arena of personal, no less than civic, politics. One need not be running for office or deciding how to vote in order to feel its weight. In many circles, simply mentioning that you’re a (non-lapsed) Catholic casts grave doubt on your intellectual and democratic credentials.

To be sure, membership has its rewardsone of which, I would argue, is precisely this tension with the dominant culture. And insofar as the Catholic faith continues to embody an implicit challenge to the values and assumptions of the secular world, being a Catholic will have political consequences. Part of the joy of being a Catholic is the deep spirituality overlaid with ritual and a kind of practicality: an imbricated texture that honors the human condition of being in the world but not of it.

Of course, one need not venture outside the church itself to find tensions between a dominant culture and an insurgent one. But a church full of compliant members would hardly foster either the depth or complexity that persuades many Catholics to stay. Differences of a doctrinal as well as a political nature divide Catholics today, and, I submit, teaching our youth how to negotiate those differences will help determine the make-up and character of tomorrow’s congregations.

The so-called Catholic vote has little to do with how one casts a ballot and everything to do with the relationships we forge in our family, our parish, our neighborhood. Whether or not we elect to speak and act with courage and candor and compassion in the face of conflict is the political question that matters most.

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