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Pope Francis and the State of the Catholic Politician


WASHINGTON — Imagine this scene: When Pope Francis gives his address to Congress tomorrow, he will be flanked by two notable politicians.

On one side, the president of the Senate: Vice President Joe Biden, a Democrat and a Catholic.

And on the other, the Speaker of the House: Rep. John Boehner, a Republican and also a Catholic.

There are two important lessons we can take from this image.

The first is the mind-boggling ascendancy of Catholics in U.S. politics over the last half century. If you would’ve told someone more than 50 years ago that both the speaker of the house and the vice president would be Catholic they would have scoffed. And if you would’ve told them that the pope would be the first religious leader to give an address to a joint session of Congress, they would have been downright indignant.

Catholics at the time were a marginalized group, on the fringes of public life, due not only to suspicions over their “papist loyalties,” but also Catholics’ own wariness of participation in a pluralistic democracy.

Fast-forward to 2015, past the Second Vatican Council and the presidency of John F. Kennedy, and Catholics now play a decidedly pivotal role in national politics. They make up nearly 31% of the Congress; six of the nine Supreme Court justices have been baptized and confirmed in the Church. And no small number of contenders for the presidency, from Democrats Martin O’Malley and Biden to Republicans Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush and Chris Christie, also claim Catholicism as their faith.

All of these figures represent Catholics making up a bigger part of the political process than they do the national population (22% of Americans identify as Catholic).

But if this is cause for optimism, the other truth revealed by three Catholics taking center stage in Congress tomorrow should make us concerned.

For the juxtaposition of Francis alongside Boehner and Biden will illustrate the disconcerting disconnect between most Catholic American politicians and their Church. Indeed, for all the teeth-gnashing over partisanship in this country, it can seem like there is more distance between Pope Francis and these two figures than there is between Boehner and Biden themselves.

Both Biden and Boehner speak eloquently about the impact of the faith on their personal lives, but they are either silent or inconsistent when it comes to describing how the Church’s social teaching informs their policy decisions. In fact, you could replace Biden and Boehner with almost any other non-Catholic member of their respective parties and see little to no change in the positions held.


More Catholics, but Less Catholic

Similar to the voting behavior of Catholic citizens, simply identifying as a Catholic now has no predictive power on how a politician will operate. In this case, party affiliation is a much better indicator than Catholicism.

It’s a far cry from the relative uniformity of the first half of the 20th century, when “Catholic political identity” was a meaningful term, and the positions of Catholic politicians tended to line up with the moral teachings of their bishops.

Now, there is a chasm that artificially separates core components of Catholic social teaching in American politics. Issues of social justice — itself a dubious term, given that all social matters should inherently be characterized by justice — are in the domain of the Democrats, while Republicans champion causes labeled pro-life and pro-family. There is little to no overlap, an indication that there are next to no Catholic politicians who embrace the entirety of the Church’s social teaching and use it as a starting point for all policy considerations. As evidence of this, consider that in the 2014 election Democrats for Life was only able to find five Democrat candidates pro-life enough to endorse.

There are a number of factors that may have contributed to the declining Catholicism of Catholic politicians, even as there are more and more of them in the halls of power.

In fact, both the increase in Catholic elected officials and these same politicians’ relatively less Catholic approach to politics may be in some part influenced by the same factor: cultural assimilation.

“The Catholic politician has become indistinguishable,” explained Stephen White, a fellow in the Catholic Studies Program at the Ethics in Public Policy Center. “As Catholics have come into their own in American public life, they’ve become very much like everyone else.”

Patrick Deneen, a political theorist at the University of Notre Dame, says our elected officials merely reflect the “deep pathologies of Americanized Catholicism.”

“We can’t expect our representatives — who ‘re-present’ us — to be vast improvements upon our own selectivity and willful rejection of the fullness of Catholic faith and teaching.”


Social and Economic Libertarianism

Beyond simple assimilation, changes in culture and politics themselves also help explain why Catholic politicians are guided more by their parties than their faith.

White says people typically point to the Second Vatican Council as a watershed moment, but suggests the truth is a little more nuanced. He says the sexual revolution played an instrumental role in separating Catholics from the social teachings of their faith.

“When we rewrite the most fundamental human relationships, a lot of things start to unravel,” explained White.

In this view, Roe v. Wade, the 1973 controversial Supreme Court case that ruled there was a constitutional right to abortion, was the straw that broke the political camel’s back. The Democratic Party, which up to that point had typically been a more welcoming home to positions consistent with Catholic social teaching, embraced abortion, helping create the split we see today.

But White and Deneen say Catholic Republicans also have their share of inconsistencies with the Church’s teachings. Most notably, their usage of “libertarian lingo” — if not policy — detaches economics from considerations of the common good.

White says this approach, which he calls the “lingua franca” of the modern Republican Party, starts with a different conception of the human person and society than does Catholic social teaching, making it unlikely that many Catholic politicians who use it “think about economics the same way as Pope Francis, or Pope Benedict XVI for that matter.”

The dominance of libertarian strands on both sides of the aisle — social libertarianism for Democrats and the fiscal variety for Republicans — has created a political landscape where there’s little room for an authentically Catholic politician to operate. And the problem is compounded by the influence of wealthy individuals and lobbies who support such agendas with their pocketbooks.

“To the extent that the parties are largely in the thrall of major funders, and major funders support libertarian policies, it is exceedingly difficult and politically suicidal for individual members to stand up to their puppeteers,” explained Deneen.

Of course, it’s also legitimate to wonder how many politicians concerned with being authentically Catholic are even in office.

“Most people who get into politics are not there because of Catholic social teaching,” noted White.


Necessary Engagement

Which itself may be a big contribution to the problem.

Part of this absence can be explained by the non-ideological characteristic of Catholic social teaching. In a political realm where the only two solutions seem to be “bigger market” or “bigger government,” Catholic social teaching offers an alternative approach: big civil society. In White’s words, civil society — the parish, the family, the neighborhood — is “where America happens.” Politics is not the most important dimension.

Even so, Catholics can’t shirk the sometimes unpleasant practice of engaging in politics.

On April 30, Pope Francis said that Catholics needed to “embroil” themselves in political matters, even if it may be a form of “martyrdom.” In fact, the Pope said that politics “is one of the highest forms of charity, because it serves the common good in humility and love.” Consistent with the writings of St. Augustine and the example of St. Thomas More, practicing politics may be a form of Christian duty that capable Catholics need to more willingly embrace.

Expect Pope Francis to make this point when he speaks to Congress tomorrow. But reaching a point where the Catholic politicians who are flanking him, Biden and Boehner, consistently think with the Church when drafting and implementing policy is an enormously long way off.

And Deneen says any sort of transformation along these lines will begin with Catholics in the pews, not Catholics in politics.

“If the roughly 23% of the American population that self-identifies as Catholic were to embrace the fullness of Catholic teaching, it would in turn translate into support for political figures who represent those positions.”



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