US Catholic Faith in Real Life

Let your guilty conscience be your guide

| Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare
Catholics have picked the winner of the popular vote for nine presidential elections in a row. Will they do it again in 2008?

A few years ago, when Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne addressed the annual Catholic Social Ministry Gathering in Washington together with conservative commentator William Bennett, the panel’s moderator noted that both belonged to the same parish. He quipped that their pastor had to be either very good or very vague. When Dionne told his pastor the story, the monsignor smiled and said, “Sometimes I like to believe I’m both.”

Dionne, who lives and breathes politics, enjoys the Beltway culture of the nation’s capital, especially at church.

“I like the fact that in our parish you can run into Bill Bennett over here, Ted Kennedy over there, Henry Cisneros here, and it also was Pat Buchanan’s parish. We are all together in this one place, and that shows me that the word catholic has meaning.”

His newest book, Souled Out (Princeton), examines the currently changing dynamic of religion and politics in the United States, with particular attention to the role of the Catholic Church in public life. The book is a model for the thoughtful, passionate, and productive dialogue that is so urgently needed in the religion-in-politics debate.

While Dionne approaches issues from a self-described liberal Catholic perspective, his analysis and his arguments for a synthesis of social and personal responsibility build bridges across the partisan divides both in Washington and in the church.

Once again in this election year there has been much speculation about the “Catholic vote.” But is there really such a thing as the Catholic vote anymore?
I like to say that there is no Catholic vote, and it’s important. What I mean is that there is no uniform Catholic vote. To some degree there’s always been diversity within the Catholic vote, partly because Catholics of different ethnic backgrounds voted differently.

In our history Catholics were generally more Democratic than Protestants, but less uniformly so than we often think.People often point to the 1960 presidential election, when John F. Kennedy got 80 percent of the Catholic vote, but forget that just four years earlier Republican Dwight Eisenhower received 50 percent of the Catholic vote.

Today Catholics are a 40-40-20 group. It is very hard for the Democrats to get less than 40 percent and hard for Republicans to get less than 40 percent, but there is a large swing vote of around 20 percent, and that’s why Catholics are important. Twenty percent of a group that comprises about a quarter of the electorate is a lot of people.

Are there any specific characteristics of the Catholic voter?
One way you can tell I’m Catholic is that I believe that the church’s job is to make you feel guilty about something in politics. Catholics, in some sense, are the ultimate cross-pressured voters. Liberal Catholics might vote for a pro-choice candidate, but often they still have qualms about abortion.

Similarly many Catholic conservatives know somewhere in their hearts that there is a problem with a totally unregulated market. They acknowledge at least some role for a social safety net. And I know some conservative right-to-life Catholics who have changed their view and have come to oppose the death penalty because of the church’s stance or their own reflections on church teaching on capital punishment.

There is a certain friction that being Catholic creates with the world. It’s disconcerting for some, but it is in many ways healthy. For Catholics there’s no perfect fit within the dominant political ideologies. There’s always a little bit of discomfort, and that’s part of what makes Catholics a swing group.

Another characteristic is our immigrant tradition. Even though Catholics now are very mainstream—and rather affluent on the whole—there remains this sense of some marginalization from the past. As a result, Catholics, even if they’re wealthy, have been more Democratic than other people with comparable income. It’s not that wealthy Catholics on the whole don’t vote Republican, but there’s more resistance to converting to Republicanism simply because of wealth.

And one can’t talk about Catholics without talking about Latinos. Latinos are the fastest-growing demographic group. Catholic Latinos are more inclined to be Democratic than Protestant Latinos. The church’s leadership role in the immigration debate has the potential to be hugely important to the future of American politics because the church is uniquely well-suited to build bridges between Latinos and a vast chunk of the Anglo population.

How have you seen the Catholic vote play out in this election year thus far?
First of all, I’m not sure to what extent either candidate is competing for Catholic voters as Catholics and to what extent the two are appealing to them on other grounds and issues.

I think during the primaries there was an exaggerated sense of Barack Obama’s weakness among Catholic voters. Hillary Clinton’s edge among Catholic voters may have been partly the result of who votes in Democratic primaries. Still, there was clearly a Hillary Clinton appeal to working class voters, older voters, older women, all of which helped her with Catholic voters.

What you’re seeing in the polling since then is that in the states with heavy concentrations of Catholics that Obama lost in the primaries—such as Massachusetts, New Jersey, or New York—he is now doing quite well. He seems to have won back a significant chunk of the Hillary-voting Catholics. At this point he seems to be doing a little bit better than John Kerry did among Catholics.

The Catholic vote started to shift back somewhat to the Democrats with the 2006 election. There was more religious organizing by Democrats that year than in previous elections. But in my mind those gains, as in the general population, were primarily due to the core issues of Iraq and the economy. That trend has continued this year, with most of it a result of dissatisfaction with the last eight years.

Overall I don’t think that either Obama or McCain will carry the Catholic vote overwhelmingly. I don’t think a Catholic landslide for any presidential candidate is possible anymore.

What are Obama’s chances of winning over a majority of those Catholic swing voters?
Much in the way Obama talks about public issues seems very Catholic to me. Doug Kmiec, a conservative law professor who worked in Ronald Reagan’s Justice Department, came out for Obama and wrote about his Catholic resonances. Obama uses a communitarian, “common good” language that seems very much in keeping with Catholic social teaching.

And even on abortion it’s almost as if he has a troubled conscience. Not that he doesn’t take a pro-choice position, but he has shown a real concern about the moral stakes in the abortion debate and has spoken to pro-life people in a more open way than has been the case in the past for other Democrats. Kristen Day of the Democrats for Life group said her organization felt far more welcome in the party’s platform deliberations this year than in the past.

There are three things that Obama has done recently that seemed to me to be aimed, in part, at the Catholic vote. One was his very strong speech on fatherhood and the importance of family. That speech was straight out of the tradition of the late New York Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, and that will appeal to a lot of middle-of-the-road Catholics.

Second, he endorsed continuing the faith-based initiatives but doing it a bit differently from how the Bush administration did it. He highlighted the work of Catholic Charities USA in discussing faith-based social action.

And third, he has been talking about the need to reduce abortions and his unease with late-term abortions.

He recently said it was appropriate for states to prohibit or restrict late-term abortion if there were an exception for the health of the mother, and he expressed unease with the “mental distress” exception.

One of the biggest changes you’re seeing this year is that Democrats are no longer hiding their own right-to-lifers, they’re bringing them out. Pro-life Pennsylvania Gov. Bob Casey Sr. did not get to speak at the 1992 convention, but his equally outspoken pro-life son, Sen. Bob Casey Jr. was a featured speaker this year at the convention in Denver.

I’m not sure how many votes that will move, but for Catholics who are moderate or liberal right-to-lifers and who want some steps taken to reduce the number of abortions, the tone is different this year. That is not just coming from Obama, it is partywide.

What about McCain’s appeal to Catholics?
It is interesting that of all of the Republican candidates in this year’s primary, McCain was the one who seemed to talk about his faith publicly the least. The transition from Bush to McCain in this respect is very large, and yet I do think there are aspects of McCain that have more potential appeal to Catholics than Bush had, even though Bush did very well among Catholics.

Particularly, his sense of service and his focus on virtues like honor, selflessness, and patriotism appeal broadly but may have a particular resonance with Catholic voters, and McCain has taken a very strong anti-abortion stand, which he highlighted at the forum at Rick Warren’s church in August.

What would McCain need to do to hold on to the Catholic majority that President Bush won in 2004?
First of all, it’s worth noting that Bush’s Catholic majority was very narrow.

One of the singular political achievements of Bush’s top adviser Karl Rove was to recognize early on that Catholics were an important swing vote and to identify and organize the part of the Catholic electorate that would be most open to Republican persuasion.

My sense is that McCain will try to do with patriotic conservatism what Bush did initially with compassionate conservatism. The concept of “compassionate conservatism” appealed to those moderate-to-conservative Catholics who understood the obligation to the poor but didn’t necessarily favor a large role by the state in carrying out this obligation.

Has McCain been able to capitalize on his “patriotic conservatism” appeal?
McCain has spent a lot of the summer attacking Obama rather than building up his own image, which will either turn out to be a brilliant or a terrible decision, and we won’t know which until November 4. It seems to me that he has highlighted these themes somewhat less since he won the nomination.

You do have the sense that, if Bush had a huge edge over the Democrats in organizing religious voters in 2000, this time the Democrats are spending far more time organizing among faith groups. And one of the favors Hillary Clinton did Obama was to show him that he had a lot of work to do among Catholics.

You’ve mentioned Obama using common good language. And President Bush has often referred to Pope John Paul II’s call to build a culture of life. How much of an influence does Catholic teaching have on the political conversation in this country?
Catholic influence goes a long way back in our history. I would point to Father John A. Ryan’s work in the early 1900s and the U.S. Catholic bishops’ 1919 Program of Social Reconstruction, both of which helped to inspire and pave the way for President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal.

In the 1980s the two pastoral letters by the U.S. bishops on peace and the economy had a very powerful effect on the political conversation. Now, more than 20 years later, we’ve forgotten how powerful these statements were, not only in influencing people’s views but in creating a serious public moral conversation and argument within the church. I don’t know if we’ll ever see that kind of pastoral intervention again, but boy, I’d love to see it happen.

So yes, Catholics can and have had strong influence on the public debate, at least since the beginning of the 20th century. And more recently, you’re absolutely right, no one has used John Paul quotes better than George W. Bush.

What are the parallels and differences between John F. Kennedy’s campaign and eventual election as the first Catholic president and Obama’s issues now as he is campaigning to become the first African American president?
I think that in our history the racial divide is far deeper than the religious divide. Because of the legacy of slavery, racism is, as many have said, our nation’s original sin.

Of course, on one level, certain forms of bigotry are similar, and in 1960 there was some real anti-Catholic prejudice, both from certain kinds of Protestants and from certain kinds of secular liberals.

One difference is that for Obama there is no need to explain doctrines related to race in the way that Kennedy had to parry questions about Catholic teachings in his Houston ministers’ speech. There is no doctrine of being African American in the way there is Catholic doctrine. There are no encyclicals to answer for.

There is this story of Al Smith, who in 1928 was the first Catholic to be nominated for president by a major party. His aides were trying to prep him when he was being attacked for some things popes had said in various encyclicals. And Al Smith looked up and said, “Will someone please tell me what the hell is an encyclical?”

Kennedy’s famous speech to the Houston ministers really was an attempt to completely disassociate his potential presidency from his Catholicism—though Kennedy was obviously eager to win Catholic votes, and he did. Obama, of course, cannot disassociate himself from the community that he is part of, nor does he want to, but he is trying to show what is obvious: that his race is by no means the only important thing that defines him.

I don’t think Kennedy could give the Houston speech today without coming under a lot of attack from his fellow Catholics. If John Kerry had given the Houston speech in 2004, he would have been assailed for ignoring church doctrine, for not taking it seriously. It’s ironic that Kennedy was attacked for being Catholic and Kerry was attacked for not being Catholic enough, sometimes by Protestants.

Many Catholics, including bishops, argue that for Catholics the abortion issue should trump all other considerations in the voting booth. You’ve called such narrowing of the political agenda a “sin.” But is there an argument to be made that abortion is “nonnegotiable,” while Catholics could agree to disagree on the war in Iraq?
My position is consistent with what the vast majority of American bishops have said. They haven’t said that you should ignore social injustice, that you should ignore war and peace, that you should ignore the death penalty.

There is an argument about the relative weight you give these issues in casting your ballot, but only a minority of bishops would say that abortion and stem cell research are the be-all and end-all of how people should vote. There is a broad range of viewpoints on this among Catholics, including the bishops.

The bishops’ document Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship is very clear that as long as you’re not voting for a candidate because he or she is pro-choice, there can be other “morally grave reasons” that allow Catholics to vote for such a candidate. The bishops acknowledge that in the end this decision is up to each Catholic’s conscience.

And I also believe that as a church we need to revisit how we deal with Catholic politicians who may agree with the church on everything else but believe that making abortion illegal would create more problems than it would solve. Denying Communion to politicians because they are not 100 percent pro-life, I think, is a terrible mistake—and that’s what most bishops believe, too.

How then should Catholic voters look at the issue of abortion?
I just don’t see how abortion will ever become broadly illegal in the United States, even if Roe v. Wade fell, and if that’s highly unlikely, shouldn’t our primary strategy be to radically reduce the number of abortions? Our abortion rate is higher than that of many other countries where abortion is legal.

I’m running into more and more right-to-lifers who are open to this argument. To me such a stance is not inconsistent with a broadly pro-life position, and as a church we need to wrestle with that argument.

Reducing the number of abortions at the front end means preventing unintended pregnancies, and at the back end, helping poor women who want to choose life. The abortion rate is more than four times higher among poor women than it is among affluent women. We still don’t do nearly enough to help a woman who wants to bring her child into the world, whether it’s by giving her access to health care, by helping her provide for this child, or by supporting adoptions.

I am convinced that if you really care about saving fetal life, you’re going to do more by working together with others to reduce abortions than by waiting for them to become illegal.

But by giving up on making abortion illegal, wouldn’t we be “materially cooperating in evil”?
I don’t expect the bishops to endorse the position I am taking. Yet I would expect the bishops to be able to endorse the idea that it is not only morally acceptable but actually part of the church’s mission to reduce abortion in every other way possible.

In the past some of the reaction against pro-choicers arose from their refusal to engage in a discussion about the moral status of the fetus and the possibility that not only does potential life exist at conception but perhaps human life itself. In the past they didn’t want to acknowledge that abortion is a deep moral problem. Today I see more liberals and pro-choicers willing to engage in this conversation.

Apart from abortion, what are some of the other moral issues that voters should pay attention to, if “values voting” were to be understood in a broader Catholic sense?
I do believe that it is highly problematic that the fairly recently coined term of the “values voter” is so narrowly defined. In the prevailing public discourse economic and foreign policy issues are seen as involving something other than moral concerns.

We have a really valuable asset in our rich tradition of Catholic social teaching that speaks to how we organize ourselves as a society, how government policies can strengthen families, how economic policies can help the poor. Reflection on the church’s just war tradition led the pope and a large number of bishops to oppose the Iraq War from the beginning.

How would you like to see the church engage in the political arena in a way that is effective and true to its calling?
Liberal Catholics are sometimes frustrated with the church because its loudest voices speak out in favor of candidates who don’t seem at all in line with Catholic values except on abortion.

The church needs to speak out especially for those least able to speak for themselves. For example, I believe that the church has played a highly constructive role on immigration. It was one of the most powerful voices during the welfare reform debate in the 1990s.

We don’t want a timid church; we don’t want a partisan church. We want a church that speaks on behalf of the common good with discernment and courage.