A professor from the University of Wisconsin once
told me, “If you want a random sample of American public opinion, just go
talk to Catholics.”
A quarter of the American population, Catholics
are bound to be incredibly diverse. The best description of the Catholic
Church in America is “here comes everyone.”
What is the political consequence of this
diversity? If Catholics are just a representative subset of the American
population as a whole, there should be no particular political consequences
of identifying oneself as Catholic.
In fact, David Leege, a Notre Dame colleague,
claims that Catholics don’t vote any differently from other people of the
same racial, ethnic, class, or gender background. But if you want that line,
he’ll be happy to give it to you.
In terms of the Catholic Church as an institution,
both by law and by its own self-understanding, the church has no proper role
to play in electoral politics. A 501c3 tax-exemption places strict limits on
what the church can do in funding political campaigns and endorsing
candidates for elected office, and this isn’t a problem because the church
itself believes that the church is called to be, in the words of its
political responsibility statement, “political but not partisan.”
In their 2000 Statement on Faithful Citizenship,
the National Conference of Catholic Bishops reiterated this understanding:
“We do not seek the formation of a religious voting bloc, nor do we wish to
instruct persons on how they should vote by endorsing or opposing
Thus, we have, on the one hand, a Catholic
population that may be indistinct from the rest of the American population
in terms of voting and, on the other hand, a church organization that is
unwilling and unable to be directly involved in electoral politics.
I begin by disagreeing with David Leege’s
assessment of Catholics and individual voters.
From 1988 through the 2000 election, I came to
feel what I think many Catholics feel when they approach voting in a
presidential election: political homelessness. Neither party’s political
tent is big enough to encompass all the issues that matter to Catholics, and
so we make prudential and contingent judgments about whom to vote for,
depending on the time and place and at what level the voting takes place.
There is some evidence for the fact that Catholics
don’t feel very much at home in either political family. The recent book by
Peter Steinfels, called A People Adrift, reports on surveys that ask
people not just what party they favor, but also how strongly they favor that
party. They found that about 19 percent of Catholics consider themselves
strong Democrats and 15 percent consider themselves strong Republicans. The
other two-thirds of the Catholic population sits in the middle, uneasy in
one or the other party.
When I hear people talk about the Catholic
strategy of Bush, I can’t help but think that it has a negative connotation,
that the Bush administration is pursuing support of Catholics in an
insincere or manipulative way. To me, the administration is simply
highlighting the affinities between certain positions it favors and certain
It’s much smarter than what sometimes appears to
be the willful alienation of Catholics by the Democratic Party. We see this
in the Democrat Catholic strategy on abortion, from the exclusion of
Governor Casey from the 1992 convention to the inclusion of a link to
Catholics for a Free Choice on the Democratic National Committee Website.
Until recently, the only link on the DNC Website to a Catholic group
was Catholics for a Free Choice.
We also see it on social justice issues. The
moderation of the Democratic Party seems mostly to mean adopting those
aspects of the Republican Party platform that are most objectionable from
the perspective of Catholic teaching. I think back to Bill Clinton’s
betrayal on welfare and on the death penalty.
About the church as an organization and how it
might be politically involved in the coming year, I think the two big story
lines have to do with same-sex marriage and threats to the church’s
The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court is now
considering a case—Goodridge v. Department of Public Health—that many
people believe will result in a redefinition of legal marriage in the
Commonwealth of Massachusetts to include same-sex unions. The bishops of
Massachusetts are assuming that the court will rule in such a way as to
legalize these unions. The bishops are supporting a constitutional amendment
to define marriage as between one man and one woman.
Obviously, this issue isn’t restricted to
Massachusetts, and, especially in light of developments in Canada, this is
going to be an issue that the bishops have to address in the coming election
I’m particularly interested to see how they
address it in the 2004 statements the bishops will release on political
responsibility. In their 2000 statement, they wrote: “Marriage as God
intended it provides the basic foundation for family life and needs to be
protected in the face of the many pressures working to undermine it.”
When they talk about the pressures threatening to
undermine the family, they mention taxes, the workplace, and divorce and
welfare policies. They argue that these things must be designed to help
families stay together and to reward responsibility and sacrifice for
children. There is no explicit mention of same-sex marriage. In 2004,
they’re not going to be able to avoid the issue.
The question is, how do the bishops articulate
their opposition to same-sex marriage without demonizing homosexuals? The
church teaches the inherent dignity of the human person and
nondiscrimination against homosexual persons. The assertion that, on the one
hand, you can’t discriminate against people on the basis of their sexual
orientation but, on the other hand, gays don’t have any right to marry is
very difficult to sell at this particular moment in history and in this
particular culture. So it will be interesting to see how the bishops attempt
to negotiate a position that obviously even faithful Catholics have a hard
time dealing with.
The headline on page 1 of the August 1 Chicago
Sun-Times, “Pope launches
gays,” doesn’t exactly inspire
confidence that that message is going to be conveyed in a way that gets out
of the dual nature of the argument.
The second issue facing the church leadership
concerns the question of institutional autonomy.
The most immediate threat comes from efforts, led
by the Planned Parenthood Federation, to require all employers to pay for
contraceptive coverage in their health care plans.
Currently, 21 states have “contraceptive equity”
clauses. Of those, 10 have a “religious exception.” In fact, the religious
exceptions are often drawn so narrowly that they exclude Catholic
institutions that provide health care, education, and social services. They
would include churches, but that’s about it.
The political question is, how does the church
protect its institutional autonomy under these conditions? A lot of church
leaders say they’re feeling drawn toward involvement in electoral politics
as a result of issues like this.
School vouchers are also a very important issue.
One of the challenges that the state conferences have as lobbying
organizations is that they represent the bishops, but they often reference
the Catholic population of the state as a reason that legislators should
support the positions they’re advocating, even though they often can’t
deliver those votes. But vouchers are one area where you have a built-in
group of individual voters with a vested interest in the outcome. I think
some of the most advanced grassroots organizing that’s coordinated by the
Catholic conferences is in the area of vouchers.
Partial birth abortions also mobilized a lot of
people. This is an area where the Democratic Party could have made a lot of
inroads. With some moderation on this particularly visceral issue, the party
could have opened its tent a little bit more widely to some of those people
who are in that very small margin in supporting the Republican Party,
How do journalists get
to this story? You may know that state-level Conferences of Catholic Bishops
exist in 33 states and the District of Columbia, but they often operate
under the radar of media attention and scholarly attention. But if you want
to understand what’s going on in terms of the Church’s political activity in
your state, you would do very well to contact the staff of the Catholic