This weekend’s opinion piece in the New York Times titled, “Catholics and the Power of Political Communion,” by Molly Worthen, a professor of history at UNC Chapel Hill, is sure to encourage a lot of discussion among Catholics (and non-Catholics, for that matter) of all stripes. Then again, that seems to be the point of her opinion piece. At the core of her essay stands the pressing question of late: Why do people think Republicans are now ‘the Catholic party’ and why don’t the democrats, the traditional party of American Catholicism, do anything about that? This question, likely on many of the minds of women and men from all backgrounds in this country, is treated with the writing skill of someone who has a background in journalism (Professor Worthen once interned at TIME magazine) and the discipline of a scholar. While some of her characterizations do not exactly hit the mark, the overarching presentation seems reasonably grounded in the conditions of our political age and the present cultural climate.

The Questions of “The Catholic Party” and “Being a Good Catholic”

Citing American-Catholic luminaries the likes of Dorothy Day (who is currently on the official road to canonical sainthood in the Roman Catholic Church) and Thomas Merton (who should be on that same road!), Worthen makes the observation that Catholicism is not a singular party-line tradition. Quite the contrary. She writes:

Allowing Republicans to claim the mantle of Catholicism might cost the Democrats the election. As commentators have noted, Catholics may be the nation’s most numerous swing voters. Over the past few decades, Democratic leaders have alienated voters in one of the party’s historically strong constituencies. Through a series of ideological moves and cultural misjudgments, they have also cut themselves off from a rich tradition of liberal Catholic thought at a time when American culture requires politicians to articulate a mission that inspires religious and secular voters alike.

The Catholicism of Sister Campbell and Mr. Biden is a natural fit for Democrats. It is the faith of social justice activists like Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton, the church whose pope pleaded for relief of the “misery and wretchedness pressing so unjustly on the majority of the working class” in an 1891 encyclical.

And she is correct.

You can “be a good Catholic” as a member of the Republican party and you can “be a good Catholic” as a member of the Democratic party. The contention arises, however, when the discourse shifts from a party affiliation for general political and cultural ideals toward an insistence that if you are a registered member of a given party, then you must espouse every item on that party’s platform.

The truth is that if you “espouse every item” on either party’s platform, then you cannot “be a good Catholic” from an objective standpoint. That goes for Democrats and Republicans.

Abortion is frequently seen as the “litmus test” of political Catholicism, but it is not the only “intrinsically evil” and morally problematic position found in either party’s platform. As the public discussion has made clear in recent months, issues like the national budget, tax systems, care for the most vulnerable in society, war, torture, gun control, capital punishment, and the like, are all important issue in Catholic moral teaching. The Republican party platform bears comparatively grievous moral deficiencies to that of the Democratic party. And to suggest, as some do in the public square and (shamefully) from the pulpit, that you can vote for one candidate or another as a Catholic, while not for the opponent, is a lie of the highest degree in this country’s political system.

All major candidates are imperfect Catholic candidates. Which is why JFK, Mario Cuomo, and others have been remembered in the American History books for their reiteration of the Church’s teaching on the role of government and the United States’s constitution concerning the relationship between a politician’s personal religious beliefs and his or her exercise of political office. As one professor of constitutional law reminded me not long ago, the only time that religion appears in the US Constitution (not the amendments/Bill of Rights, but the body of the Constitution proper) appears in Article 6:

The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States (emphasis added).

This is not to suggest that voters are to disregard their religious beliefs and moral convictions in the voting booth, as if such a compartmentalization is even possible. Instead, as the United States Bishops have continually taught (although many bishops and their brother priests would be well-served to re-read this text), the Church holds that the “well-formed conscience” is the ultimate arbiter of moral decision-making (see USCCB, “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship“). As Roman Catholics and “Faithful Citizens,” we are form our consciences in the rich tradition of our faith and use our experience, reason, and moral resources to guide our political actions.

But in order to do so legitimately, we must be “cafeteria politicos.” Aspects of each party’s platform inherently contradict what we, as Catholics, recognize as central to our faith. In many cases the foundational principle is the same: the dignity and value of human life. On the Democratic side, as has been repeatedly been made known, abortion is one such issue. More recently, I would argue along with many excellent moral theologians (here as well), that the Obama Administration’s position on drone strikes overseas poses a serious moral threat.

On the flip side, the Republican national platform bears a number of positions that, likewise, fly in the face of central Catholic moral teaching. Among the several issues to be shirked are those related to the economy and budget (which favors the wealthy and corporations over the marginalized and poor, in contrast to the Church’s teaching), the party’s position on firearms (“Gun ownership is responsible citizenship,” whereas the Church teaches “no firearms for citizens“), among others.

There is, however, such a thing as morality-informed voting, and this is something that Catholics — as well as people of all religious traditions — should take seriously. There may very well be a “right” and “wrong” choice for one’s local or national civil leadership, but this is not something prescribed (or, as was made horribly clear in the 2004 presidential race, proscribed) from above. While some might seek to interpret the differences in Cardinal Dolan’s prayers at the respective political conventions this year (see Rick Hertzberg’s ‘Talk of the Town’ brief in this week’s The New Yorker), and perhaps with good reason, the symbolism of the USCCB’s President present at both conventions can serve to illustrate the possibility of “faithful citizenship” on all sides.

One has to look at the big picture in making an informed and well-grounded electoral decision, because to look at any one issue on either side is to distort the principle of acting in line with one’s well-formed conscience.

The Shift in Catholic Political Association

Returning to Worthen’s essay, how do we understand this popular association between the Republican party and Catholicism? Worthen suggests that this is due, in part, to the “marginalization” that the broader Democratic party has forced upon portions of the Catholic electorate in recent decades. Worthen offers some theses on this question:

The Democratic Party has marginalized progressive Catholic intellectuals for the same reason that Rome has: because they habitually challenge sacred doctrines. In the days of John F. Kennedy, American Catholics voted Democrat by default. But things got rocky as Richard M. Nixon capitalized on the resentments of many “white ethnic” (often Catholic) voters in the wake of the civil rights movement. At the same time, Democrats began to take a harder line on abortion. By the late 1980s, they had transformed Roe v. Wade into a non-negotiable symbol of gender equality and lost interest in dialogue with abortion opponents…

Republicans have learned to borrow insights and rhetorical tools from the Christian tradition, yet Democrats have not turned to liberal Catholicism in the same spirit. To do so would not be cynical or devious, but a recognition that politicians need to communicate in language that resonates with their constituents — and that human nature does not change. For centuries, theologians have wrestled with the same fundamental problems that face us today. Even the most zealous atheists have something to learn from St. Augustine (an Augustinian might see legalized abortion less as a bulwark against the “war on women” than as an imperfect measure that grapples with the reality of suffering in a fallen world)

I do not necessarily agree with Worthen’s description of “liberal Catholics.” This sort of rhetoric, a tool found commonly used among the cable-news punditry, is entirely misleading. “Liberal” and “Conservative” are demarcators that are wholly relative. Take me for instance. In some circles I’m frequently accused of being a “liberal,” because I embrace the tenets of Catholic Social Teaching as constitutive of public discourse and civil-decision-making, I raise questions of a theological and frequently ecclesiological nature, and I, as one striving to be a good Franciscan in the tradition of Francis of Assisi, identify with “the people” more than I do with a “clerically privileged elite,” among other reasons.  Yet, I am also frequently accused of being a “conservative,” because I hold true to certain tenets of sacramental theology and liturgy, I do strongly maintain confessional beliefs from within a tradition, I have given my life as a member of a religious order, and I have likewise devoted my gifts to the study of theology, among other reasons.

And, for the record, neither Dorothy Day nor Thomas Merton would recognize the label “liberal” that Worthen associates with their identity and memory.

Nevertheless, the point that Worthen is making is an important one. The modus operandi of many Catholic Democrats is not one that lends itself to black-and-white thinking, but instead, as Worthen puts it, is more nuanced.

Reconciling religious tradition with modernity is a more nuanced endeavor than defending orthodoxy from any murmur of compromise, and allying with the poor is not a recipe for easy fund-raising. But if liberal Catholic ideas are not great fodder for culture-war sloganeering, they do offer a path to secular Democrats who, at the moment, are failing to address the basic questions of the human predicament.

What is needed, it seems, is a shift in the manner of public and civil discourse. We must all engage in the serious questions of how to work together for “the common good” and guarantee the condition for the possibility of “human flourishing” in all parts of our communities: local, national, and global.

Where to Go From Here: Knowledge, Prayer, Reflection, and Action

There is no clear-cut path and easy answers are exactly what they should appear to be: too good to be true! If you hear television pundits, newspaper columnists, local church ministers, or your neighbor across the street attempt to offer you a seemingly “black and white” answer to a question of faith and politics, be respectfully critical of such a view (do not criticize, but be critical in your assessment, reflection, and thinking).

The Christian tradition is clear on some very important moral norms and universal dispositions one should have if he or she claims to be a follower of Christ. The inherent dignity and value of all life (born, unborn, human, and the rest of creation alike!) is one such tenet. However, how that tenet is actualized in practice and legislation is another story. We have to ask with confidence whether or not something is a manipulative campaign promise to elicit support from a particular demographic, or if the action reflects the words. What actions have actually been done, can be done, and should be done to make our society and world a better place for all of God’s creation? It is this sort of reflection that we must keep in the forefront of our minds as we discern our positions in a given time and place.

Photo: Stock


  1. Wonderful column. For years now we have been told that abortion was the number one issue and all other take a back place to it. But as I look at social policy and the unsettled peace in the world, I don’t think so. Neither the Republican or Democratic parties have a handle on the issues. I believe that life is sacred, always everyplace. I also believe that the wars we are involved in and the killing of people are also terrible wrong, especially these drone attack where so many people die. So what is right, and what is wrong, surely there are many life issues that demand out attention if we are to be called Catholic. We need to struggle with these issues. Deacon Bill Coffey

  2. Thank you for posting this…full of lots of references etc. I really appreciate it. But how do you respond to people who say that, while Obama may be the better candidate for Catholic social justice, we should be putting first the issue of overturning Roe V Wade? I do not post this to be controverisal, but I seriously would like to know what to tell them.

    1. Many thanks for your comment! It is a good question that I’m sure many others have as well. My response is to reiterate that our tradition holds that we are not a “one-issue community” and that there are various factors that must be considered and weighed in a given election cycle. One question I might suggest considering is whether or not “overturning Roe v. Wade,” something that is in fact outside the functional purview of a president, is really the only (or even) best way to protect life? Perhaps there are other sociological, economic, and cultural concerns that would better decrease the number of abortions (eliminating abortion is impossible, there were so-called ‘illegal’ abortions in the US prior to Roe v. Wade and, if the Court decision were overturned, there would be more afterward. Brazil is a great case study for this, where abortion is still illegal, yet deaths due to illicit abortions or incredibly unsafe ‘do-it-yourself’ attempts are quite high).

      These are all important questions and important moral issues, which is why we cannot simply presume that because a political candidate on any level claims to be “pro-life” means that she or he will (a) have the capacity or (b) actually seek to do anything about that medical practice’s legality. If we are “for life,” then we must seek to protect and support life.

      As for President Obama as “the better candidate for Catholic social justice,” as you suggest, I will be the first to say that abortion as a party platform point isn’t the only issue, but the continued use of drone strikes is another concern for Catholic moral teaching. That said, Gov. Romney is in an equally precarious place, as I note above, with his own party’s platform, the positions he has espoused, and very likely his own business-practice history.

      Neither is a “good Catholic candidate” by all standards, because these folks are not running for “Pope,” they are running for President of the United States — and important distinction to always keep in mind.

      Peace and good!

  3. Fr. Dan, for what it is worth, you have done an excellent job in presenting both sides equally, and without too undue bias. (For once I might add — wink, nudge) Neither party, as we have discussed (sometimes rather “passionately”), pass the Catholic test.

    I would however suggest on minor critique or thought. At least in the U.S. there is a HUGE difference between the plight of worker of the late 1800s and that of the 21st Century, so perhaps the author refering to an encyclical from Pope Leo XII that was focused on the European Industrial Revolution was a little out of date; especially since there have been more recent Holy Fathers’ encyclicals from which to choose.

    Second, would possibly be the use of American Catholics v. Catholic Americans. Even is one’s own postings, American’s writ large have been criticized for our sense of nationalism as a form of false religion. So, should be not be more concerned with our Faith? Should we not identify ourselves as Catholic’s who then happen to be Armericans? I do understand the Catholic Church in the U.S. is unique and I too have been forced to read Murray, SJ., but it should not define us so exclusively.

    Third, I would seriously like to meet the person who would remotely consider you “conservative” and take their crackpipe away. Anyone who would use the terms “hold true certain tenents” to describe themselves may not necessiarly be “conservative”. (wink/nudge)

    Lastly, and food for thought. If one actually takes a moment to reflect on both platforms, in all seriousness, which one seems to the one mentioning or promoting “morality” issues the most, instead of offering real solutions (both are weak at this point, but…) Additionally, we must also consider certain base, philo-ecomonical differences as well.

    This is not a morality debate and should not be one. Unfortunately as you mentioned, abortion is an evil of society. And, while we may pray for the Roe v. Wade to be over-turned, is not a practical reality (as harsh and pragmatic as that sounds). We should care for the truly forgotten amongst us, but that should not necessarily include the woman who spends $200mo or more actually on hair/nails, drives a brand new car, shopping a higher-end food stores, paying with FOODSTAMPS!!! Just saying. It also should not mean that a Catholic institution should materially (directly or indirectly) pay for or participate in ELECTIVE reproductive procedures, etc. that go against the teachings of the Holy Mother Church. It should not also mean that just because it is a fossil fuel it should not be drilled, pipelined (safely) or mined to create much needed jobs, generating revenue which would help fund other programs, at least until more alternative energy sources are more readily available.

    Just some random ranting from a another “work in progress.”

    1. Hi Matthew,

      Thanks, as always, for your comment! I would just say that, while I appreciate nearly everything you offer for us to consider, I almost didn’t approve your comment because of the unfounded rant in your last paragraph — please avoid making generalizations (especially caustic ones) such as the one you offer.

      I, of course, appreciate your ever honest “[Christian] work in progress” description — how true that is for all members of the Body of Christ!

      Peace and good.

      1. Respectfully, I do not believe there were any “caustic” over-generalizations. It is a matter of priorities. These are realities, as ugly and “unjust” as they may be. And, if just as an example, Catholic institutions and others are obliged to “follow” the rules if they receive federal funding, then why cannot rules be applied or dare I say enforced in other applications.

        I will attempt to tone down my comments, as well as possible; especially since one is making the effort to be less biased (wink/nudge).

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