Behind the Debates

What They Wished Forby Lawrence J. McAndrews

University of Georgia Press. 472p $49.95

History happens. In 1960 as John F. Kennedy ran for President, I headed to graduate school to study American political history. J.F.K. enchanted me; after that no president won my heart. Catholicism filtered—sometimes shaped—my judgments about politics and presidents. And, I have to admit, my judgments about politics and presidents sometimes filtered my understanding of faith and my judgments about my church. The dialogue of faith and culture, so beloved by theologians, was for me a bit of a wrestling match. Lawrence J. McAndrews has now turned my own complicated civil religion into history as he tells us in great detail about how Catholics (more precisely Catholic bishops) and American presidents dealt with one another, from J.F.K. to George W. Bush.


Professor McAndrews offers a chapter for each president, and each chapter has three sections, corresponding to what McAndrews takes to be the central areas of Catholic teaching: war and peace (the just war tradition), social justice (Catholic social teaching) and life and death (Catholic teaching on human life, especially abortion). McAndrews, a diligent researcher, has made good use of presidential libraries and the archives of the national bishops’ conference. The overall pattern he describes is familiar: liberal engagement around civil rights, social welfare and peace, climaxing with the pastoral letters of the 1980s on peace and economy, slowly giving way to political and theological divisions among the bishops and across the Catholic community, followed by an increasing emphasis on “life” issues, “non-negotiable” demands directed particularly at Catholic politicians. Kennedy, the first Catholic president, enjoyed strong Catholic support; John Kerry, the next Catholic candidate, upset many bishops and lost the Catholic vote.

McAndrews enriches this familiar story with reports from previously unavailable sources in the White House and in the offices of the bishops. McAndrews is a good scholar: he wants to set out the record, not tell a story or make a case. And there is far more here than can be covered in one volume. So he makes selections within each area: for example arms control and not Vietnam with Kennedy; ill-fated efforts at guaranteed annual income, not environmental regulation or aid to higher education, with Nixon; and the Clintons’ ill-fated health care initiative but almost no mention of so called “welfare reform.” Yet bishops were as deeply and effectively engaged with some of the omitted issues as with the ones covered.

Readers will find much here to think about. They will admire the range and sophistication of Catholic advice on many public policies. They will sympathize with the persistent public engagement of the bishops and their staffs, all the while trying to avoid partisan politics. They will be impressed with the attention (usually respectful) that presidential staffs gave to questions coming from the bishops. And they will be reminded of some remarkable Catholic achievements, including the church’s central role in the resettlement of Vietnamese refugees and the church’s timely and intelligent commentary on nuclear arms control and disarmament.

They will also find that honest differences existed among the bishops over every major policy, including family allowances under Nixon, housing and full employment under Gerald Ford, arms control with Jimmy Carter and health care under Clinton. And they will see Cardinal Joseph Bernardin’s consistent ethic of life in action and the gradual displacement of Bernardin-era negotiation by a more confrontational insistence on pro-life doctrines, the stance that hurt John Kerry.

Those who follow these matters will wonder that there is almost no discussion of education, a major concern of Catholics, especially in the Kennedy-Johnson-Nixon years. There is even less of higher education, although Catholic colleges and universities might well have gone under without assistance from the government (assistance unavailable to elementary and high schools). McAndrews recalls extensive discussion of world hunger in the Ford-Carter years but says little of development, foreign assistance or human rights questions in other administrations.

The material here offers Catholics some help for current reflections:

1. Politicians control the agenda. Administrations of both parties paid lip service to their support for issues the church cared about, but their actions often lagged far behind.

2. Bishops and their staffs know what they are talking about. On domestic social justice issues, the bishops can draw upon the on-the-ground experience of Catholic charities—both their own and those of religious orders and independent movements. On abortion and life issues, they can draw, when they choose (as Pope Francis reminds them), on wide pastoral experience with real people facing problem pregnancies. On global matters, they have the resources of the Vatican and the global church, and effective relationships with hierarchies in other lands.

3. Catholic capacity for influence is greater on domestic questions than on international ones. Each bishop has a charities office and a pastoral presence among people with great needs. There are personnel on the ground ready to receive and implement teachings about poverty, racism and homelessness. And active pro-life volunteers are ready to help on abortion and related issues. But almost no diocese any longer has offices dealing with peace or international justice, and the religious orders that used to take care of these matters are far weaker. So when the bishop gets mail about poverty. he has someone to give it to; that is not true on global questions.

So this is a history worth thinking about: the hard reality behind debates about faith and civic and secular responsibilities. The common good matters, but it is hard to turn that into policy. It is wonderful that peacemaking, not peace, is the center of Catholic teaching, but translating that into policy for Syria or Colombia is both intellectually challenging and politically ambiguous. Readers of McAndrews’s fine book will sympathize with the bishops, and they may emerge perhaps more sympathetic as well to the likes of Kennedy and Kerry, John Boehner and Nancy Pelosi.

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