For Catholic women, the relationship between faith and politics is subtle—and sometimes in conflict

Having spent two years as a volunteer in Amate House, a Chicago-based Catholic volunteer program, Leslie Carranza is committed to the values of service, faith, social justice and community. She now brings what she learned about Catholic social teaching into the voting booth with her. But the church’s influence on her choices is, as with many Catholic voters, complex.

As someone whose parents made her go to church without providing a reason, the 24-year-old likes to question, “Why?” And her experiences as a volunteer helped her be aware of “the influence I know that policy will have on other individuals” and not just herself, she said.

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So when Ms. Carranza learned more about Catholic social teaching, ideas about the fundamental importance of life, the dignity of the human person and preferential option for the poor and vulnerable spoke to her deeply. The daughter of naturalized citizens, she has worked with unaccompanied immigrant minors from India and cares passionately about church teaching on migration, as well as on the environment and the death penalty. She is personally pro-life and favors a strong social safety net that would allow women to support their children. At the same time, having worked with women who have been raped or abused, she believes they have a right to make their own reproductive decisions.

“I often feel like I have opposing viewpoints,” said Ms. Carranza, who leans Democratic. “There are definitely times where a phrase [from Catholic social teaching] has caught me, and my reaction has been along the lines of, ‘Wow, this has settled a conflict within me.’ It confirms that it’s fine that I believe these things, even if they seem at odds.”

Ms. Carranza’s perspective—that the relationship between her faith and politics is subtle and sometimes contradictory—may not be all that unusual. A nationally representative survey of Catholic women commissioned by America in partnership with the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University has found that few Catholic women say they look to the church for help in deciding how to vote, even while about half say Catholic teaching on key political issues is important to them.

Few Catholic women say they look to the church for help in deciding how to vote, even while about half say Catholic teaching on key political issues is important to them.

Personal experience is typically more influential than church teaching on political opinions, said Michele Dillon, a sociologist at the University of New Hampshire who has studied Catholics’ political opinions. “Just like Americans in general, for the most part, Catholics vote regardless of what the bishops say,” Ms. Dillon said. “In fact, poll after poll shows that...they are not going to be widely influenced” by the church.

Indeed, the America survey, conducted in August 2017 (see Page 12 for executive summary), found that only 9 percent of Catholic women say that statements by the U.S. bishops or their pastor or parish priest will help them decide how to vote in 2018. Pope Francis is slightly more influential, with 19 percent reporting that they find his statements helpful.

Only 12 percent of Catholic women say Catholic social teaching helps them decide how to vote—with splits along party lines and Mass attendance. Twenty percent of Republicans, versus 7 percent of Democrats, see Catholic social teaching as helpful. Even when considering only women who go to Mass weekly or more, only a quarter say it is helpful.

The two sociologists who reviewed the survey data prior to its publication agree, however, that few U.S. Catholics are familiar with Catholic social teaching.

“For some people, social teaching will be about the church’s concern for the poor,” Ms. Dillon said. “For others who are answering the same question, social teaching will be the church’s teaching on marriage, same-sex marriage and abortion.”

Unlike the respondents to the survey, those interviewed for this story are not nationally representative. They tended to be more liberal and educated than Catholic women at large and typically had given deep thought to the role of faith and politics. Nevertheless, they represented a variety of points of view on how the two go together.

Margaret Schettler, 63, took a class on Catholic social teaching when she was a student at Loyola Marymount University. She credits that class with allowing her to stay in the church and see its teachings as relevant to her politics.

Margaret Schettler
Margaret Schettler

“It was the first time I was aware that there was a whole body of teachings on things like rights of workers and labor unions,” she said. “Because it was more thought out, I was more inclined to be open to it.” Before the class, she had assumed “Catholic thought about politics and voting to be very dogmatic and not a discussion that was reasoned and studied,” she added.

Two of Ms. Schettler’s friends, both Catholic and in their 70s, share similar points of view. One attends Mass weekly, and the other only attends a few times a year. Yet neither sees Catholic social teaching as influential on their vote because of how they understand those teachings.

“So much of what [the church] has emphasized is what they call the bedroom issues, but those are not the only issues that are important in people’s lives,” said Maureen McLaughlin, one of Ms. Schettler’s friends, explaining why she is wary of what she considers to be Catholic social teaching. “My criticism of the church on political issues is more omission over commission. It isn’t that they come out in favor of prejudice or in favor of wealthy people over poor people. They just don’t stand up for them.”

As a Republican, Catherine Montalbo, 55, sees pro-life issues as an essential part of Catholic social teaching, and for that reason she does see it as influential on her vote.

For Debra Crosby, 58, Catholic social teaching helps her decide how to vote, but she understands this to mean looking for honesty, integrity, humility and competency in political candidates.

“I’ve never been a student of theology or Catholic doctrine, so I can’t pontificate about it,” she said.

The average Catholic, however, rarely reads encyclicals.

The term Catholic social teaching does have a specific meaning. “Catholic social teaching refers to Roman Catholic reflections on contemporary social, political and economic realities, from the industrial revolution to today,” said Meghan J. Clark, an associate professor of moral theology at St. John’s University in New York and a member of America’s board of directors. Starting with Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical letter “Rerum Novarum” in 1891, encyclicals became the way for popes to provide guidance on “how to live the Gospel in an industrialized, globalized reality,” she said.

The average Catholic, however, rarely reads encyclicals. Even with “Laudato Si’,” Pope Francis’ encyclical on the environment, polls showed that only a quarter of Catholics were aware of the encyclical a year after it was released, Ms. Dillon said.

“Despite all the publicity and claims in the media of the Francis effect on environmental awareness...in terms of changing Catholics’ opinions about climate change or what to do about climate change, it’s minimal at best,” she said.

Reading the Numbers

Nevertheless, America’s survey found that two-thirds of Catholic women say that the church’s teachings on care for the environment are “somewhat” or “very much” important to them.

Sixty percent of Catholic women find the church’s teachings on abortion to be somewhat or very much important to them. Although abortion was slightly less a priority than environmental concerns, the church’s teachings about abortion are slightly more influential on voting decisions than its teachings on care for the environment—55 versus 52 percent, a difference just larger than the sampling error of plus or minus 2.5 percent.

Other issues that are important to a majority of Catholic women, according to America’s survey, include migration and refugees and the death penalty.

The level of influence on the individual issues shows that the church’s teachings are relevant to women’s lives, says Mary Johnson, S.N.D.deN., a professor of sociology and religious studies at Trinity Washington University in Washington, D.C.

Sister Johnson points out that the data show high levels of influence despite the diversity of U.S. Catholic women, who include every party, age, race and education level. Women seem to agree widely on a “consistent ethic of life,” she said—on caring for the most vulnerable from before birth through every stage of life, including death—even if they are unfamiliar with this term or the term “Catholic social teaching.”

“These women aren’t caught up in how it’s described; they are believing this and living it in large numbers and in a significant way,” Sister Johnson said.

Women seem to agree widely on a “consistent ethic of life.” 

The church is less influential on the subjects of physician-assisted suicide, same-sex marriage and artificial birth control. But even with artificial birth control, the issue with the lowest rates of approval in this survey, 43 percent say that church teachings matter somewhat or very much to them, and nearly half say it affects their voting somewhat or very much.

Even as high numbers of women report that the church teachings influence their vote, however, it is unclear what they mean by “influence.”

Ms. Dillon uses same-sex marriage as an example. Some have found support for same-sex marriage within what they understand to be the church’s opposition to discrimination. “Increasingly in America, Catholics believe that their support for same-sex marriage is aligned with the church’s teaching on same-sex marriage, even though objectively it’s not,” she said.

“The body of social teaching is complicated. There are many strands of it, and within that, there are certainly ambiguities,” Ms. Dillon said.

Those ambiguities leave room for individuals to find what resonates with them in Catholic social teaching. Ms. Crosby, for instance, likes what Pope Francis says about the environment but admits that it merely confirms what she already believes about protecting the earth.

Ms. Schettler, too, said that her college class on Catholic social teaching merely provided her with a religious rationale for her political beliefs, which were shaped by growing up in the 1960s and witnessing the civil rights movement. The assassinations of Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. happened when she was in eighth grade.

“It gives a framework to describe something that I agree with,” she said. “I’m not aware that there have been areas where I’ve changed my thinking based on [Catholic teaching].”

Faith and Politics

Just as Ms. Schettler was influenced by growing up in the 1960s, Ms. Carranza, the 24-year-old former volunteer, wonders what effect coming of age during Barack Obama’s presidency—and starting to take her faith more seriously under Francis’ pontificate—has had on her faith and politics. In general, her generation is influenced by secular concerns more than religious ones. More than a third claim no religious affiliation, according to the Pew Research Center, and Catholic millennials tend to be less connected to the church than previous generations.

Sociologists have found that childhood, family and community shape one’s political beliefs, Ms. Dillon said. One’s generation can also exert a significant influence. Historical events, like the civil rights era or election of the first black president, “tend to make their imprint in the consciousness of those people coming of age...and that tends to have an enduring effect across the life course on how these people think about a lot of issues,” she said.

One’s life experiences have a place in Catholic social teaching, too. The Catholic Church emphasizes the need for an “informed conscience” to be aware of church teachings across the various documents, Ms. Dillon said. “But ultimately, the individual has to assent to the teachings...has to use reason to make sense of church teaching in the light of the circumstances of their own lives and the experiences that they are confronting.”

For instance, through her work in pastoral ministry, one woman—who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the issue—has seen how a woman might choose abortion in situations of abuse or when her life was at risk or “the baby’s condition was not compatible with life.” She, however, chose to continue carrying a baby when doctors told her it would be stillborn and recommended abortion.

Ms. Crosby’s family experience has led her to embrace the Catholic Church’s call for peace and concern for migrants and refugees. Her grandparents came to the United States from Mexico during a time of conflict in that country. While her grandfather had a good government job in Mexico, he ended up working—and dying—in the salt mines in the United States. “He came over to work, to look for a better life,” she said.

With same-sex marriage, knowing somebody who is gay—or being gay oneself—often has more influence on a person’s opinion than church teachings.

When she was young, Ms. Crosby’s father served in Vietnam. She still gets choked up remembering how she would look for him in the news footage from Vietnam every evening for the two years that he was there. When she hears the church speak out on war and migration, therefore, it resonates with her.

With same-sex marriage, knowing somebody who is gay—or being gay oneself—often has more influence on a person’s opinion than church teachings.

Ms. McLaughlin, 75, came out to her “staunch Catholic” mother at age 35 when she first got together with her now-wife. Ms. McLaughlin had stopped taking part in the sacraments, but her mother’s embrace of her and her partner, and later the kindness and acceptance of the local parish when her mother was dying, allowed her to return to the church.

But Ms. McLaughlin’s personal journey has made her feel it is impossible to look to the church for guidance on political questions. “I go to church because I like communal worship. I love the sacraments; I like the music, and we have developed a wonderful community of friends,” she said.

Part of the lack of connection between church teaching and personal experience for many Catholics, Ms. Clark said, comes from underestimating “what Catholicism means to who we are.”

“Even when my personal experience contradicts something that is official church teaching, it’s often rooted in a very deeply lived Catholic reality about who we are as persons, what it means to be made in the image of God, what it means to treat people with dignity,” she said. The church’s challenge today, she added, is to help people integrate their faith into how they interpret their experiences.

Kaitlyn Troilo has had that opportunity as a student at The Catholic University of America. Ms. Troilo grew up in a conservative Catholic family in San Antonio, Tex., where her grandfather was involved in fundraising and campaigning for local politics. Still, coming of age during the Obama presidency made her unsure of her political beliefs—she favored Mitt Romney in 2012 but also liked some of what she saw in Mr. Obama.

Kaitlyn Troilo
Kaitlyn Troilo

At C.U.A., Ms. Troilo started having serious conversations about both faith and politics and became involved with the pro-life movement and College Republicans. The combination of church teachings and her campus experience made her more confident in her conservative views. For instance, she always knew what the Catholic Church taught about pro-life issues, she said, but “I came into it by talking to people, by seeing this huge young Catholic community being for that movement.”

Relationships also shaped Catherine Montalbo’s political views. Her former husband’s Southern Republican family, whom she respects greatly, introduced her to what she described as the “true conservative principles” that she now embraces. Dialogue with them and reading conservative sources convinced her to favor small government, “rule of law” and pro-life policies. She disagrees with the church on issues that don’t fit with these principles. For instance, she disagrees with Pope Francis on the economy and capitalism, and on immigration she believes that we have to care for the poor and vulnerable but also values border protection.

Her “biggest issue with the church right now,” though, is contraception. She would love to see the church evolve in its position.

“It seems to me that the church’s position on illegal immigration is that anybody should be able to come into the country and we should welcome them with open arms and just take care of them and turn a blind eye to the fact that they broke the law, and I’m opposed to that position,” Ms. Montalbo said.

Her “biggest issue with the church right now,” though, is contraception. She would love to see the church evolve in its position.

Indeed, the survey shows little political divide between Democrats and Republicans on the issue of artificial contraception. “Most Americans have made up their own minds about contraception since the early 1970s,” Ms. Dillon said. While contraception may have been in the vanguard for Catholics dissenting from church teachings on issues of “private morality,” Ms. Dillon is quick to point out that U.S. Catholics also make up their own minds on large societal issues like policies on poverty and the environment.

Along Party Lines

With Americans looking to the church to confirm rather than shape their views, it is not surprising to see differences of opinion along party lines within America’s survey of Catholic women.

Indeed, more Democrats (47 percent) than Republicans (41 percent) say that church teaching on care for the environment is both personally important to them and influences their voting decisions. The reverse is true for abortion: 51 percent of Republican Catholic women say church teaching on abortion is personally important to them and influences their vote versus 38 percent of Democratic Catholic women.

At the same time, Catholic women’s opinions on these issues are not as polarized as one might expect, Sister Johnson pointed out. About 40 percent of both Democratic and Republican Catholic women value church teachings on issues where the teaching contradicts their party’s positions.

Though Ms. Troilo is a Republican from Texas, her involvement in her college pro-life movement convinced her to oppose the death penalty. She took a class in “Christianity and Capitalism” and said she feels “more confident” in being Catholic and fiscally conservative. But Pope Francis’ encyclical on the environment particularly challenges her conservative views. “Catholic social teaching is a little problematic but in a good way, as it provides me with questions,” Ms. Troilo said.

Ms. Crosby admits that her pro-life stance contradicts her support of pro-choice candidates. “I look at the whole basket of issues and I have to go with what I think is the most appropriate course,” she said.

“There is rarely, if ever, going to be a candidate with whom you agree on everything,” Ms. Clark said. Nevertheless, she added, Catholic social teaching upholds voting as a moral responsibility that requires serious discernment.

From a sociological point of view, “the emphasis on faith and reason” in Catholicism means that individuals often develop one’s identity as a Catholic by choosing the strand of teaching that they want to identify with, Ms. Dillon said.

At its heart, Catholic social teaching is not about following rules but about being disciples, Ms. Clark said, quoting Matthew 25—whatever you did for the least of these, you did for Christ. “It tries to help give us ways to discern and think through living out Matthew 25 in an industrialized, globalized, interdependent world.”

And on issues of caring for the poor, vulnerable and unborn, Sister Johnson said, women are leading the church rather than the other way around.

Corrine Hanley, 77, is unconcerned with whether her political decisions neatly align with bishops’ pronouncements. Like many women interviewed for this article, she roots her political decisions in compassion. “On the last analysis, we all have to speak for ourselves,” she said. “When the day comes when we meet the great Lord, we have to be able to be honest with him and say, ‘I did this because this is what I believe and this is what I thought was the right thing to do,’ not because somebody told me to do it.”

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Anne Chapman
10 months ago

Matthew 25:31-46 New International Version (NIV), referenced by Ms Rice

Ms. Burns - Regarding whom shall be saved

The Sheep and the Goats
31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.

34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’

44 “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’

45 “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’

46 “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”

Anne Chapman
10 months ago

Ms. Burns - regarding being open-minded about what Jesus says in the gospels. He emphasized love, forgiveness, and caring for the "least of these", including the "stranger". I have copied the discourse in Matthew 25 that Ms. Rice mentioned, as a reminder to all of us.
As far as the gospels being all about "salvation" or "being saved", someone at bibleforum_org has counted up the references in the gospels where Jesus uses the words "save" and "salvation"
How many times does Jesus mention salvation?

Matthew 0 times
Mark 0 times
Luke 1 time (19:9)
John 1 time (4:22)

How many times did Jesus mention "saved"

Matthew 3 times (24:22, 10:22 ,24:13 )

Mark 3 times (13:13,13:20,16:16)

Luke 3 times (7:50, 8:12, 18:42)
John 2 times (5:34, 10:9)

In all the gospels Jesus mentions "salvation" or "saved" 13 times.

The word "love" appears more than 200 times in the New Testament, "forgive" appears 32 times, "grace" appears 132 times, and there are many others that appear far more frequently than do the words "save" or "salvation". Jesus' direct command to "love one another" appears 11 times.

It seems that accepting God's grace, along with loving and forgiving people are among the most important things we can for "salvation". Jesus is pretty direct about it in the parable of the Sheep and the Goats - those who do not clothe the naked, feed the hungry, give water to those who thirst, care for the sick, visit the prisoner, AND welcome the stranger will not be with Him in heaven. He tells those who do NOT do these things, to " ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels."

If this is what "leftist" NGOs are doing, then it is they who may end up on the "right side", and those who denigrate what they do on the "left" side. Apparently Jesus thinks that concerning oneself with "worldly secular" issues such as social justice is exactly what we need to do to "save" our souls.

Ellen B
9 months 4 weeks ago

Beautifully expressed.

Lisa Weber
10 months ago

I appreciate Catholic teaching on social justice, and read a fair amount about it. Whether I use it to determine who and what I vote for is doubtful. I am glad it is there for reference.

Joseph M Gaffney
10 months ago

Catholic social teaching should certainly influence how we Catholics live our lives, but it should not influence us to vote to bring about the imposition of Catholic social teaching on others, specifically vis-à-vis birth control and abortion.
Aside from my determining to my own satisfaction that the Biblical authority on which rests so much anti-birth control and pro-life politics is shallow and flimsy, I nonetheless believe that both are immoral and I try to live my life accordingly; however, my belief should not prevail over the beliefs of others, particularly if we accord others the same relationship with God that we claim for ourselves.
Ultimately, beyond the objective right and wrong known only to God, but taught by the Church, it’s down to what we individually think is right or wrong and to whether we act freely to follow our belief. Those elements are necessary to condemn or to save us. The same rule applies to divorce, which, supposedly, is no different in God’s eyes than birth control or abortion.
God doesn’t need our help getting things done. If he did, he wouldn’t be God. Catholic social teaching does not lose its validity, even when it’s mouthed by hypocrites, for those hypocrites always get their comeuppance.
Our best bet is to be as well informed as possible spiritually, theologically, and emotionally, to ignore those who preach one thing and act another way, and to accord others the same free will we exercise in our daily give-and-take with God. No one embraces God because of a religiously based law masquerading as national morality.

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