As the token Catholic in the group, I had promised a brief reflection on whether anything is left of the “Catholic Vote” in our modern political landscape. Here is the promised reflection, though I cannot come through on the promise for brevity.
My basic supposition is that there is no distinctly Catholic vote in any measurable sense anymore. That conclusion is based less on the political climate of our day and more on internal deficiencies I see among individual Catholics.
There was, once upon a time, a need for politicians to play to a distinct Catholic vote. After all, we have been consistently about 25% of the population. The number of Catholics hovers somewhere around 70 million right now–enough to win any election if you were able to get them all on your side (Obama had just under 67 million votes to his name this past year). With the election of JFK, Catholics had become mainstream–which ended up being both our crown and our curse.
Becoming mainstream meant coming of age amidst the tides of change of the 1960s. Prominent Catholics sought a way to sustain their positions of power. One fateful meeting made the first crack in what proved to be a fissiparous structure.
Once Catholics like the Kennedys embraced a liberal social agenda, the “Catholic” voice became less one of principle and more one of inclusiveness and compromise. Those latter attributes are not bad in themselves, but they are deadly when one includes and compromises on the wrong issues.
It began, perhaps, with Catholics being “pro-life Democrats,” a sort of via media between a purported lack of Republican concern for the poor and a need to uphold basic Catholic teachings on life. The pro-life Democrat is largely a thing of the past, given the recent treatment of such folks, and recent statements of the Democratic party on life issues.
The Catholic voter does not take his cues from Church Magisterium–if he ever did. At times, bishops seem to muddy the waters rather than express Catholic teaching. (A prominent example is the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ document on Faithful Citizenship.) Even if Catholics pay attention to what priests and bishops are saying, they are unlikely to hear a strong argument in favor of voting according to Catholic principles in the public square. (Some bishops have been very clear in expressing the Catholic position in relation to voting, as in Archbishop Chaput’s book, Render Unto Caesar.)
When a Catholic goes to vote, he has many teachings to consider before making his decision. The Church has a special concern for the poor, being the largest provider of social services in the world. Catholic religious orders, hospitals, charitable organizations, and individual parishes have consistently given of their time and resources to provide the poor with basic assistance and healthcare. On the other hand, Catholic teaching seems to favor a robust free market economy (with certain limitations) and a focus on individual responsibility. The Church does not think that people should live off the largesse of the State, but neither should we blindly accept an unjust system of wealth accumulation and distribution.
These issues are important, and the Church can speak to many more–care for the environment, international relations, war, the primacy of federal or state control, and others. Yet among all these, the Church has spoken clearly on five “non-negotiables.” Abortion, Euthanasia, Embryonic Stem Cell Research, Human Cloning, and Same-Sex Marriage. These five actions are considered “intrinsically evil”–i.e., directly contrary to the moral law–and therefore never justifiable. These five activities do not further the common good in any way and as a result of their immoral content, to vote in favor of them would be a sin.
The lack of belief among Catholics is more of a systemic problem among Christians in general. Many people who are publicly religious fail to understand how faith and public life should interact. Catholic friends told me prior to the election that abortion was a “non-issue” for them, that the economy and Iraq were far more pressing concerns. There is a disconnect between Church teaching and the everyday Catholic that I do not quite fully understand. (If you are reading this and you understand, please comment below.)
So, the result of that disconnect is that there is no single Catholic voting block. Catholics are all over the map. I’d like to say that younger Catholics are forming themselves better to make more informed decisions in the past, but every Catholic undergraduate and law school student I met in the fall leading up to the election was voting against the non-negotiables.
Perhaps this year was just a matter of people getting caught up in a tide of hope and change. If it was something else–the deep penetration of secularism into Catholicism in America–then that is an issue more for the Church and less for politicians. In the meantime, we can invite “Catholic” politicians to explain themselves and their positions in light of their faith to shed light on the wisdom of Church teaching and its benefits in society.