For the first time in history, a majority of American Catholics voted this year against one of their own for President. President Bush and Senator Kerry both campaigned for the support of Catholics. In the end, 52 percent, including 56 percent of weekly church-goers, supported the Protestant Republican rather than the Catholic Democrat. In 2000, only 45 percent of Catholics supported Bush against a Southern Baptist. If Kerry had won the same Catholic vote share won by John Kennedy in 1960estimated at 78 percentKerry would have turned his 3.3 million vote deficit into an astounding 14 million victory margin.
The role of the Catholic Church within American democracy has been controversial in each of the three presidential elections involving Catholic candidates. But the "theological-political problem" has changed since the days of Al Smith (1928) and Kennedy (1960). Kennedy and Smith were forced to defend themselves against anti-Catholic groups who feared that they would be more loyal to the Pope than to America. Kerry had to defend himself against Catholics because he was more loyal to his liberal ideologyon issues like abortion, embryonic stem-cell research, and same-sex "marriage"than to his faith. Kerry was the first Catholic dissenter to run for President.
George Marlin's new book comes at an opportune time. It is an enlightening and insightful history of presidential campaigns from the founding to the spring of 2004; he focuses on the issues important to immigrant and native-born Catholics and makes the case that the Catholic impact on these elections has often been decisive. A native New Yorker who ran as the Conservative Party's mayoral candidate in 1993, Marlin pays particular attention to Catholic voting patterns in New York.
He reports some surprising and intriguing facts: Until 1784 New York law forbade priests to reside in the state; nonetheless, New Yorker Alexander Hamilton wanted Charles Carroll, the only Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence, to stand for President in 1792 if Washington decided to refuse a second term; the Catholic preference for the Democratic Party stretches back to Jefferson's campaign of 1800 against John Adams, who was thought to be anti-Catholic; despite the Catholic Church's longstanding opposition to slavery, the American Catholic hierarchy maintained a studied neutrality about the issue in the critical antebellum and Civil War years. Archbishop Kendrick of Baltimore even wrote a textbook for American seminarians that denied that slavery violated natural law and refused to say whether it was a social evil. Marlin quotes Archbishop Kendrick's 1858 pastoral letter issued as president of the Ninth Provincial Council:
Our clergy have wisely abstained from all interference with the judgment of the faithful, which should be free on all questions of polity and social order, within the limits of the doctrine and law of Christ. The peaceful and conservative character of our principles…has been tested and made manifest in the great political struggles that have agitated the country on the subject of domestic slavery…. Among us there has been no agitation on the subject.
American Catholics were involved in fierce struggles during the 19th century over public and private education. Protestants, mistrusting Catholic immigrants' commitment to democracy, saw the public schools as a way of "Americanizing" Catholic children, enforcing the use of the King James Bible, the Protestant version of the Lord's Prayer, and anti-Catholic history texts. Catholics considered it a victory in 1873 when Ohio's Supreme Court banned the Bible from public schools. The bishops undertook the project of developing an extensive parochial school system, urging parents to follow the Church's traditional preference for Church-run schools, yet asking for government aid. One accommodation worked out in some cities was the Poughkeepsie Plan under which local municipalities leased public school buildings to Catholic parishes while the school board appointed qualified nuns or Catholic laymen as teachers. Protestant reaction to these developments was fierce and led in the latter half of the century to an upsurge of anti-Catholic groups, many of which found a reception in Republican circles.
Marlin provides a concise 20th-century history of Catholic support for Democratic presidents and presidential candidates. FDR's early flirtations with anti-Catholic forces notwithstanding, low income urban Catholic families looked on him as their rescuer from the Great Depression. The Church's firm anti-Communism persuaded American Catholics to support Harry Truman's resistance to Soviet expansionism.
The Catholic vote divided almost evenly in the Eisenhower-Stevenson contests. Marlin points out that progressive "social engineers" who once preferred the party of Theodore Roosevelt and Herbert Hoover began to migrate into the Democratic Party in the 1940s and 1950s. Adlai Stevenson appealed to these administrative statists but they discomfited Catholics, who also liked Ike as a military hero. In 1960 Democratic leaders favored John Kennedy to restore his fellow Catholics to the fold, and return they did. In fact Kennedy's opponent Richard Nixon won a majority of Protestant votes and would have been elected except for large Catholic turnouts for Kennedy in northeastern and midwestern urban states.
Kennedy's efforts to assuage voters' concerns about his Catholicism were successful enough to get him elected, but his rhetoric opened the door to the religious-political problem of today. His well-known statement to Protestant ministers in Houston spoke of the
absolute…separation of church and state [in America] where no Catholic prelate would tell the President…how to act…. [w]here no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the Pope…where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials.
This pronouncement no doubt relieved some Protestants, but it disturbed serious Catholics. Father John Courtney Murray, a political liberal, wrote that "To make religion merely a private matter was idiocy." America's best-known prelate, Cardinal Spellman of New York, believed Kennedy had painted himself into a corner and that Nixon would be more open to Catholic views on parochial school funding, anti-communism, and sexual morality. In short, Kennedy drew so sharp a line between religious belief and public policy that some wondered whether the Catholic Church, or religion in general, would have any place in the public square.
Kennedy's election marked Catholicism's greatest political triumph in America. As Marlin shows, however, even before his assassination Catholics began to divide, a trend that has accelerated in the decades since. Today we should recognize not a solid "Catholic vote" but two opposed Catholic voting blocs. Practicing members tend to vote Republican and conservative; nominal, "cafeteria" Catholics vote liberal and Democratic, untroubled about choosing which Church teachings to obey or disregard, especially as respects contraception, abortion, and homosexuality. America's Catholic bishops stand by the Church's traditional teaching on the sinfulness of these practices, but they are far from united about what this should mean at the ballot box. Many retreat to their wonted stance, avoiding direct political involvement in controversial issues even though the very meaning of their faith is at stake. Marlin's book concludes by mentioning Catholic lay organizations that "may fill the void and lead a Catholic counter-revolution."
Marlin's book would have been even more enlightening than it is if he had inquired whether opposition to Catholicism in America might have any explanation beyond bigotry. He reports, after all, that "many of the Founding Fathers openly expressed objections to the Roman Catholic Church," including John Adams, first Chief Justice John Jay, Benjamin Franklin, Philip Livingston, Richard Henry Lee, and later patriots such as John Quincy Adams and Ulysses S. Grant. He even quotes unquestioningly Tocqueville's cool observation that
Catholics are in the minority, and they need all rights to be respected to be assured of the free exercise of theirs. These two causes drive them even without their knowing it toward political doctrines that they would perhaps adopt with less eagerness if they were wealthy and predominant.
Without disregarding prejudice, let us consider the problem of Catholicism for America as many concerned citizens might reasonably have seen it over the years. Until 1965 Catholic doctrine held that the best political order was a confessional state recognizing the Kingship of Christ, which meant in practice official preference for the Catholic Church. As Pope Leo XIII wrote to the US bishops in his 1895 encyclical, Longinqua:
[T]he Church amongst you, unopposed by the Constitution and government of your nation, fettered by no hostile legislation, protected against violence by the common laws and the impartiality of the tribunals, is free to live and act without hindrance. Yet, though all this is true, it would be very erroneous to draw the conclusion that in America is to be sought the type of the most desirable status of the Church, or that it would be universally lawful or expedient for State and Church to be, as in America, dissevered and divorced…. [The Church]…would bring forth more abundant fruits if, in addition to liberty, she enjoyed the favor of the laws and the patronage of the public authority.
The constitutional principle that no religion can be "established" was insufficient in the eyes of the Church. For a century and a half after the French revolutionaries executed Catholic clergy, the Church wrestled with the question of freedom of religion and conscience, believing that true and false religion, i.e., Catholicism and other beliefs, cannot have equal rights.
Non-Catholic Americans therefore had cause to suspect that their fellow Catholic citizens would seek to establish their Church once they had the power. The Catholic Tocqueville apparently shared that suspicion.
Between the 1790s and the 1960s, the Church was learning not merely to reconcile herself to religious freedom but that religious liberty is a firm basis for the Christian apostolic mission. Catholic doctrine ultimately embraced religious freedom in the Council's 1965 statement, Dignitatis Humanae. The bishops expressly repudiated the "confessional state."
The Council's documents did not suggest that Catholics have some newly-discovered autonomy over the natural law or Church doctrine, or that the polity is free to disregard natural justice or the "objective moral order." To the contrary, the Council's very purpose was to emphasize the apostolic duty of every baptized lay Christian to bring the natural law to the political order and carry the light of the Gospel to a darkened world.
While the Council's "updating" of Church teaching has helped to reconcile non-Catholics to the presence of the Catholic faithful in liberal democracies, its work also occasioned sharp internal division. "Progressive" Catholics often promote social justice to the point of abandoning its foundations in Church authority. Some "traditionalists" reject the Council fathers' authority to define doctrine concerning the Church's relationship to the political order and the laity's enhanced role. Marlin's book ends with the pathetic spectacle of traditionalist Catholics buying newspaper ads to attack, not Kerry and other dissenting politicians, but their own bishops who use pastoral discretion to refrain from denying the Eucharistic sacrament to the dissenters! Traditionalists have not yet understood the political implications of lay action. Catholic citizens of the democratic age should look to their bishops to proclaim the Magisterium but to themselves to lead in judging dissident Catholic political figures.
In the past, the Catholic Church has condemned political parties and movements whose very purpose was to undermine the faith. Catholics have been forbidden to join the Freemasons or to vote for Communist and Socialist candidates. These groups sometimes advocated policies which the Church approvedworkers' rights to organize labor unions, for instance. But the Church has distinguished between fundamental principlesfor example, Marxian atheismwhich ground these groups, and prudential policies which cannot weigh against the basic threat they pose to Catholicism.
In 1992 the late pro-life Democratic governor of Pennsylvania, Robert Casey, was denied permission to address his party's national convention. Since then the Party's platforms and candidates have ever more stridently advocated policies that undermine the traditional family structure, such as unrestricted abortion, embryonic stem-cell research, and homosexual "marriage." The Democrats' extreme platforms recognize no right of conscientious dissent: in other words, these policies have become the very basis on which the Party rests, and their candidates willy-nilly must accept them.
The Catholic Church, which has labored for decades to preserve and promote the dignity of the person and the family, is threatened by these policies. Indeed, the founding principle of our countrythat all men are created equal in their natural rights to life, liberty, and pursuit of happinessis equally contradicted by the Democratic Party's dedication to policies that weaken families, kill unborn human beings, and manipulate human nature in the name of science.
Until the Democratic Party reforms itself, most Catholicseducated by their bishops to recognize these policies as sinfulwill no longer vote for Democratic presidential nominees. But Catholic Americans should take the next step to meet the Vatican Council's challenge. Recognize that the charism of bishops does not include political prudence. But the "priesthood of the laity" implies a right and an obligation in faith to say, through lay organizations as well as the ballot, that it is no longer possible to be a loyal Democrat and a loyal Catholic American.