LMU conference focuses on Catholics and politics, both sacred and profane


Los Angeles

tI was in Los Angeles yesterday for a conference at Loyola Marymount University on “Catholics and Politics.” The morning panel dealt with the politics of the Vatican, and featured myself, Jesuit Fr. Tom Reese, and Eric Hanson of Santa Clara University; the afternoon session, devoted to the Church and American secular politics, included Kristin E. Heyer of LMU, Matthew Streb of Northern Illinois University, and Mark Rozell of George Mason University.

tAs is often the case with such panels, the presentations included a mix of the descriptive and the prescriptive, with some panelists trying simply to describe realities, and others making arguments about where things ought to go.

tReese, for example, argued that modern political “best practices” should be applied to the reform of the Roman Curia. He suggested six points:
•tThe Vatican should be a bureaucracy rather than a court, meaning that no Vatican official should be a bishop, archbishop or cardinal, to make it more clear that they serve the pope and bishops;
•tLegislative bodies in the church, including the Synod of Bishops, should be strengthened;
•tCongregations in the Curia should become synodal committees;
•tThe church should have an independent judiciary;
•tBishops should be elected at the local level;
•tBishops’ conferences should become local councils, with real deliberative authority.

In the end, Reese conceded that, as a political scientist, he sees “close to zero” chance that any of this might happen in the short term.

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I told him I agreed, on the basis of three considerations: 1) a powerful Catholic Identity movement in the West means that we are in a period of reaffirming, not reforming, existing structures, doctrines, and practices; 2) the increasingly important churches of the South generally they do not see ad intra reform as a priority; 3) the distinction Reese implied between matters of “universal” and “local” concern flirts with being an anachronism in an age of 24/7, instantaneous global communication, in which anything that happens anywhere on the planet can immediately become “universal.”

Hanson argued that the Vatican has a unique role to play in the emergence of a multi-lateral and multi-layered system of international relations, beginning with the revitalization of the UN and the promotion of regional alliances. Among the latter, he cited as a “great success story” the post-war emergence of the European Union. He also cited the Community of Sant’Egidio as one example of a Catholic body with such a consciousness, including a commitment to inter-faith dialogue as one cornerstone of international relations.

Time did not allow me to ask Hanson about the future of Vatican/EU interactions, given recent tensions over the EU’s draft constitutional document, and broader concerns about the strongly secularist course associated with the Union’s leadership. My own experience suggests there are growing concerns within the Holy See about whether the EU, at least as presently constituted, is really capable of functioning as a partner and interlocutor for the Catholic Church in global affairs.

I was asked to address the “Politics of Papal Elections,” and I took a descriptive tack, based on my experience of covering the conclave of April 2005 -- most notably, interviewing eight of the 115 electors after the fact for my book The Rise of Benedict XVI.

In a nutshell, I argued that journalists and armchair handicappers alike tended to misdiagnose the conclave by treating it as a referendum on issues in the church, such as papal primacy, Islam, women, the sexual abuse crisis, and so on. In fact, I suggested, cardinals generally understood themselves to be voting for a person, not a “candidate” in the secular political sense, and thus individual evaluations were far more important – how smart a person is this? How trustworthy is he? Will he listen? Is he holy?

I suggested that one useful parallel to a conclave may be the election of a department chair in a university. With a few exceptions, faculty members do not generally look to set the ideological direction of the department when they pick a chair. They’re looking for someone they know, someone they trust, who they feel will be a competent manager, and who will give them a fair shake in divvying up office space, making teaching assignments, approving sabbaticals, and so on. They may ferociously disagree with a colleague on philosophical matters, but still see him or her as a good administrator. They’re looking to elect a friend, in other words, or at least a non-enemy, more than to make a statement.

In the afternoon session, Heyer took up the vexed question of the intersection between Catholic doctrine and political life, paying special attention to the “Communion controversy” from the 2004 presidential elections. She suggested that widespread illiteracy about Catholic social teaching, disagreements on the prudential question of how best to enshrine Catholic values in civil law, and the shortcomings of the two-party system all played a role, a should be the object of deeper dialogue among bishops, theologians and politicians.

Apropos of illiteracy about church teaching, Reese volunteered that U.S. Senator John Kerry told him after the election that he had never even heard of the U.S. bishops’ “Faithful Citizenship” statement, intended to form Catholic consciences about voting.

There was also general agreement that media coverage of the Communion controversy tended to suggest that “the bishops” were collectively in favor of denying Communion, when in reality it was a small minority of the conference.

Streb offered an analysis of Catholic voting behavior in recent American elections, making the argument that the much-ballyhooed Catholic “swing vote” doesn’t really exist. There was a distinct Catholic vote at one time in American history, he argued, but no more. Today, the difference between Catholics and non-Catholics in terms of who they vote for and what party they favor is statistically insignificant.

It’s true, he said, that Catholics are fairly evenly divided, like the rest of the country. But that’s not enough to make them a “swing vote.” It’s a bit like suggesting, he said, that left-handers are a swing vote because 40 percent vote Democratic, 40 percent Republican, and the rest are up for grabs. The point is that they don’t vote that way because they’re left-handed; they vote that way because they’re liberal, conservative, or somewhere in between. The same thing, he argued, is true of most Catholics. Most Catholics, he said, vote on the basis of their ideological outlook, not their religious affiliation.

I noted that most political scientists and sociologists today say that how often one goes to religious services is probably the best predictor of which side of the “red state/blue state” divide they’re on. In terms of Catholics, I posed a chicken-and-egg question: Do Catholics who go to Mass more often tend to vote Republican because of something that happens at Mass, or do the same values that make them likely to vote Republican also lead them to go to church more often?

Both Streb and Rozell seemed convinced that it’s the latter.

Rozell, who has studied political alliances between conservative Catholics and Evangelicals, concluded that these two groups are to some extent “odd bedfellows.” They can collaborate to support candidates who embody common values, with Ronald Reagan looming as one obvious example. Yet, Rozell said, conservative Catholics tend to be more lukewarm about leaders of the Evangelical movement, and show very little interesting in explicitly joining organizations associated with the “religious right.”

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June 16-29, 2017