Blending In

The November 2010 mid-term congressional elections came and went without many people noticing that Election Day this year was the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s election to the presidency in November 1960.

It is hard today for younger Americans, including younger Catholics, to appreciate just how close 1960 still was to the days when anti-Catholic bigotry and even violence was everywhere one turned in American society. “Anti-Papist” prejudice was intertwined with anti-immigrant, ethnic and class prejudices. But by the mid-20th century, most anti-Catholic sentiment in Anglo-Protestant America centered squarely on religion.


In 1960, open attacks on the “Americanism” and patriotism of Roman Catholics were no longer standard fare. Instead, the attacks were a bit more subtle, even subliminal. During the Democratic primary in West Virginia in 1960, supporters of Kennedy’s main rival, Hubert H. Humphrey, a Congregationalist, took to playing or singing “Give Me That Old-Time Religion.”

In the century leading up to Kennedy’s victory, successive generations of Catholic clergy and lay leaders used words, deeds and symbols to neutralize nativist nonsense and Know-Nothing canards about Catholics as citizens. The shield of Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, for instance, founded in 1851, sported 32 stars, one for each state, plus that all-American Latin phrase, E Pluribus Unum.

Most Catholics today know nothing about the Know-Nothings. Rather, post-1960 Catholics have moved so far into the American mainstream politically and culturally that they are now, as a religious bloc, what political scientists call “median voters.”

On nearly every public policy issue on which there is good national polling data—from immigration to environmental protection, the death penalty to welfare spending and myriad other issues—Catholics as a group come as close as any religious denomination does to mirroring what most Americans believe.

A plurality of Catholics, like a plurality of Americans generally, call themselves moderates, while about a third call themselves conservatives, and about one fifth consider themselves liberals.

In the run-up to the 2008 elections, Republican or Republican-leaning citizens constituted about 35 percent of the voting-age population and 33 percent of the Catholic electorate, while Democratic or Democratic-leaning citizens made up about 47 percent of the voting-age population and 48 percent of the Catholic electorate.

In 2008 the national popular vote was about 53 percent to 47 percent for Obama over McCain, while the Catholic vote was about 54 percent to 45 percent for Obama over McCain. In 2010 Catholics led the country in swinging back to the Republicans: about 54 percent of all Americans, including about 54 percent of all Catholics, who went to the polls and voted in a House race voted for a Republican.

On the one hand, nobody, save perhaps closet anti-Catholic bigots, pines for the pre-1960 days, when Catholics were ridiculed and caricatured as un-American or worse.

On the other hand, Catholics’ post-1960 march into the all-American political and cultural mainstream has come at a price.

The country’s Catholic bishops face a flock that includes large numbers of people who hold positions at odds with church teaching (on abortion, the death penalty, programs to assist the poor and many other issues).

Among young Catholics who attend college, over four-fifths now go to non-Catholic institutions, many with majority or plurality non-Catholic student bodies—and blend right in.

And beneath all the data on “Catholics” are divisions between church-going conservative Catholics and “less religious,” more liberal or lapsed ones, and between Democratic-leaning urban Latino Catholics and Republican-leaning suburban white Catholics.

Have American Catholics been folded so completely into the nation’s political and cultural mainstream that they can no longer be its political salt and cultural light, or so divided among themselves that they can never speak truth to power in one faith-filled voice? I pray not, but I fear so.

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Mike Evans
7 years 11 months ago
Well it seems to me that the preoccupation of church leadership with things such as covering up the sex abuse crisis, making more latin out of our English in the liturgy, and their hostility to health care reform, minimum wage, living wage, and most social and health issues leaves the laity to totally form their own opinions, many of which are tea party radical and anti-gospel. I just a few minutes ago finished a half day of serving the poor in our small community with 350 thanksgiving baskets, turkeys and special care. As I watched the people come through to pick up their food baskets, I could not help but be struck by their abject poverty, poor overall health and yet good spirits as they recognized familiar people from our local churches reaching out to them. Too bad we don't see photos of a bishop or two simply helping a hungry person out to their car or bringing in a few case of turkeys. People will follow good example.
Norma Davila
7 years 11 months ago
I heard on NPR that a study of the run up to the election said that while Catholic teaching also emphasized social justice and other matters, from the pulpit all Catholics heard was about abortion.  Maybe the issue is that we've become to some a one issue religion. I know it isn't true but I have to admit that I too ,during the election period,  only received communication   on abortion.  There is so much more to our teaching than being anti-abortion. Yet that is what the church leaders focus on.  They have to show that we are a moral force beyond that one issue.
Christopher Kuczynski
7 years 11 months ago
Deacon Mike:  From your many comments on this site, it's clear that you are salt and light to your world.  Thank you for that.

Davila:  You are exactly right that when it comes to the political arena, it seems the only issue that matters to Catholics is abortion.  And our inability to articulate a constructive way forward on that issue (all we do is state the same "all or nothing" position over and over again) doesn't enhance our credibility.  Itt's too bad that many Catholics don't understand our social teaching that respects all life from conception to natural death. 

And that leads to my ultimate point, which is that it is impossible to be salt and light to the world if we do not understand what we believe and why we believe it.  Although I disagree with many of the positions they take, both theologically and politically, there is no doubt that Christian fundamentalists have been able to affect public discourse profoundly in recent years - so much so that the public automatically associates their views with anyone who calls himself a Christian.  Most fundamentalists I know take a lot of time to read and meditate on the Bible and to engage actively in studying what they believe.  The fact is that by comparison, most of us Catholics lack intellectual curiosity about our faith.  Sure we are all busy; there are many things to distract us.  But access to information about our Catholic faith is more available to us than it ever has been.  How can we hope to affect public opinion as Catholics if we don't understand what Catholicism teaches about our role as citizens?  And why should our children want to affect our world as Catholics when we, as Catholic parents, cannot explain what our faith has to offer in a world in which secular humanism also seems to have the power to do "good?" 

Charles Erlinger
7 years 11 months ago

Reference the author's final question and conclusion.

"Have American Catholics been folded so completely into the nation’s political and cultural mainstream that they can no longer be its political salt and cultural light, or so divided among themselves that they can never speak truth to power in one faith-filled voice? I pray not, but I fear so."

The author does not demonstrate, but merely assumes to be true, that if Catholics are folded into the political and cultural mainstream that they can never speak truth to power in one faith-filled voice.  I question whether the presence of different opinions on practical and prudential matters of specific proposed legislation, for example, or expressed doubts about the efficacy of specific policies in the attainment of claimed practical outcomes, can be counted as evidence of inability to speak truth to power on matters of faith in a fairly unified way.  As for the attainment of absolute, exceptionless unity, even on matters of faith, that has been out of reach for Catholics for millenia.  And for most of those millenia, Catholics did not have political choices at all, so, presumably, would have been counted in the mainstream had they been professionally surveyed.

James Axtell
7 years 11 months ago

I can think of several reasons why American Catholics may have lost their unified, faith-filled voice.  First, scandal in our house tends to make us a little less likely to participate, and comment by priests and bishops on any subject is shouted down by those bringing up the scandal.  Second, while it's good that Catholics are members of both parties, they're generally not found among the extremists, and the extremists seem to rule the public debate these days.  (Look at what happened in the health care debate and the election to the anti-abortion Democrats.)  Third, with the exception of America, the Catholic press is in contraction, especially when it comes to social and political issues.  For example, diocesan newspapers which once reported national events from a Catholic perspective have been replaced by magazines which are more devotional or inner-directed.  While these periodicals are good, they tend to avoid the kind of reporting and analysis which inform opinion.

There's lots of good writing in America and elsewhere, but mainstream Catholics don't get much traction in these polarized times.
7 years 11 months ago
I truly believe that  there is great need today for continuing adult religious education/faith formation.  It seems obvious to me that for average Catholics their religious education ended after junior high/or confirmation.  There are so many books/articles etc. out there (even our local public library has some of these books/magazines) that deal on Catholic beliefs/teachings/spirituality.  We should encourage one another to read them or form study clubs.
Jack Hauser
7 years 10 months ago
The gap in voting is directly related to the Vatican appointment of American bishops. I disagree with the statement that the bishops "face a flock that includes large numbers of people who hold positions at odds with church teaching," at least on the social issues of the day with the possible exception of gay unions. The bishops have become a one issue conference focused solely on the issue of abortion. A great majority of Catholics agree that abortion is wrong but the question continues as to how does a society legislate and enforce this immoral act. The bishops remain silent on any form of enforcement. This same silence continues on multiple other social issues of the day including WAR, the ECONOMY, and RACISM. Instead of leading the bishops say nothing or give lip service. I do not recall one U.S. bishop making a remark or statement after Pope John Paul II was personally critical of President Bush regarding torture and the war in Iraq. At the recently concluded conference the bishops made no statement on the economy and the responsibility of government to insure the poor and marginalized are cared for and a need for legislation that will end the ability of the greedy few that made huge financial gains because of a lack of government controls. The bishops also remain silent on racism both within the Church itself and in society as a whole. No bishop to my knowledge has spoken to the racism experienced by the current President on his religion or his citizenship allowing Catholics to join in this subtle and powerful form of racism. I am afraid the bishops based on their silence on many of today's issues have become at odds with the teachings, at least social teachings of the Church. 
7 years 10 months ago
I believe Post #6 by Norma, on "Blending In" by Professor John J. D'Iulio, Jr., hit the nail on its head. We Catholics are in many cases confused about what it means to be Catholic, to be the "light and salt" of the world as Jesus mandated. And we're quite content to not care about it. We've become pretty jaded about our Faith and have been taken over by a kind of "hohum,"  "been there,"  "done that," mentality.

Too often "Catholic Truth" no longer informs conscience, largely a residual effect of the moral mishmash of the post Vatican II catechetical free-fall. The "new evangelization" of JP II is badly needed by those of us already evangelized, so that we'll know once again what it means to be Catholic. We also need attentive ears to what PB XVI is teaching, trying to undo the mess caused by some teachers with "itching ears" who have led many  astray (often unintentionally) validating the words of Jesus, "If the blind lead the blind, both fall into the pit!"

I also believe Post #6 by Deacon Mike makes sense. If Bishops would enflesh Gospel mandates of service by physically "dirtying their hands" in Corporal Works of Mercy, being the "Caretakers" they are called to be, like St. Paul who unashamedly worked with his hands mending fishing nets, some of that "salt and light" would certainly rub off and invigorate the Catholic faithfull. They  long to see authentic Christianity made tangible by Leadership. Some Bishop do this, but I fear too many afraid of the smell of the poor, hang out istead in well polished and sweet smelling places, allowing others to do the "dirty work." Something is missing there! "WWJD?"

Charles Erlinger
7 years 10 months ago
I originally had the impression that the author was drawing a causal relationship about the way that Catholics sin from polling data about the way that Catholics vote, and, at the end, expressing nostalgia about some past era (as evidenced by his use of the phrase "no longer") during which, supposedly, Catholics spoke truth to power in one, unified, faith-filled voice.

After reading the comments, I thought that I had misread the article, and that it had something to do with the way Catholic leaders lead, Catholic preachers preach, etc.  So I reread the article and it seems that it is about what I originally thought it was about.

Regarding the author's nostalgia, there never was one, unified Catholic voice.  Not in the history of Catholicism in the U.S., and not in the Catholicism of Jerusalem, Antioch, Alexandria, Byzantium, Rome, England, Germany, North Africa, etc.  Think of some obvious moral scourge, and try to find one, unified, Catholic faith-filled voice speaking truth to power.  How about slavery?  Name one, any one.

In regard to the purported causal relationship between the way that Catholics sin and the way that Catholics vote, this implies that the issues presented to U.S. Catholics in elections admit of no differences of opinion with regard to practical matters of governance, but that one opinion only, influenced solely by the candidate's party affiliation, is admissable.  The premise is absurd.


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