By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
My weekly Internet column, “All Things Catholic,” is blessed with a thoughtful readership, and my electronic in-box each week is proof of the point. This week’s installment, devoted to the 2008 elections in the United States, has drawn an especially high volume of responses – which I take to be evidence of hunger to think through the issues in a Catholic, as opposed to partisan, key.
In the column, I observed that most polling assumes Catholics fall into three camps: pro-McCain, pro-Obama, and undecided. In fact, that taxonomy obscures another constituency: disenfranchised Catholics, who are convinced that neither party does justice to Catholic social concerns. These folk are largely ignored during election season, but they’re an important feature of the landscape.
Below, I offer a sampling of the most provocative responses I received. in essence, I decided this is far too interesting a conversation to keep to myself.
Before getting to that, however, I want to flag one important tension I noted. At least based on my mail, there seem to be two kinds of disenfranchised Catholics: those frustrated by it, and those largely content with it. The former regard it as important to try to shape a social order better informed by Catholic concerns, and regret that neither major party in America seems open to that project in important respects; the latter insist that Catholicism is not a political action committee, and some degree of “political homelessness” is therefore a healthy thing. It reminds Catholics, in effect, that their kingdom is not of this world.
I’m not sure these two instincts are ultimately incompatible, though it would seem that the latter could suck some of the wind out of the sails of the former. In any event, it’s a tension that has to be acknowledged, and pondered, as part of any effort to bring politically homeless Catholics in out of the cold.
I've withheld the names that go with the responses quoted below, because in some cases the writers didn't intend to go public. Some comments come from high-profile Catholics, others from the typical “person in the pew.” I offer them here not to draw any particular conclusion, but rather to encourage the conversation to go on – especially after Nov. 4, when longer-term and more fundamental questions can perhaps once again come into focus.
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“I am a priest in the Society of Jesus … I have not voted for a mainline candidate for president since Jimmy Carter ran the second time. I have voted Libertarian during these last years as my protest vote against both parties.
“In his book, God’s Politics, Jim Wallis explained me to myself. He suggested that the great dividing line between the parties was not the conservative liberal split. Rather it was the schizophrenia between individualist and communitarian purposes in both parties. Roughly, the Democrats are highly individualist in their notions of civil rights, including the cultural norms relating to sexuality, while generally being communitarian with regard to the economy, although failing, I believe to adhere to the older Democratic populist economic beliefs. The Republicans are generally communitarian with regard to the cultural norms relating to sexuality, although failing to really strongly support such beliefs, while they are highly individualist with regard to economic norms.
“I have voted Libertarian as a protest against the schizophrenia in both parties. It is not that I agree with the Libertarian party principles, although it is intriguing that that party has adhered to a consistent philosophical position of individualistic thought. It is simply that I know they will not win, and I want to put my vote somewhere else than the major parties so that my vote might be a hint that there voters around who disagree with the major parties …I am, as you say, politically homeless, alienated from the major political parties.”
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“I am extremely grateful for your column today. Personally, I felt understood for the first time … I am a stay at home, ‘soccer mom’ of six children. I want to be a faithful Catholic. Most importantly, I want to do God’s will, but I have searched in vain for direction that isn’t coming from people already obviously committed politically one way or the other.”
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“Your piece reflects more or less the conventional wisdom. The problem is that we are not in any kind of conventional situation. … As to dealing with an Obama presidency, there really is not much reason for bishops to come hat in hand. He will spend money on social programs and be far more favorable to [immigrants] than the conservatives. The likelihood that tax dollars will be spent on abortions is high, and every other Catholic issue will be shot down. The bishops should hold the line, as proposed by the few courageous members have proclaimed it, and deal effectively with unfaithful Catholics who continue to present themselves for Communion Anything less, and the bishops should hand in their miters and go home.”
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tI’m involved in the Catholic Worker movement. Thanks for noting the existence of a large bloc of disenfranchised Catholics, and for suggesting a plan of action post-election.”
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“I think it is not all bad that serious Catholics are politically homeless. That is a very healthy thing.”
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“My family, Catholic for the most part, is having a very interesting discussion about the issues of this campaign and how they relate to our faith. Some of us see abortion as a no-compromise issue, while others see that as shortsighted and misguided compared to looking at other issues. As you rightly say, the two parties have seemingly conspired to make it so that no politician can take a ‘pro-Catholic’ stance across the board.”
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“Recognizing the seriousness of abortion, the more the bishops focus on this topic it’s like McCain talking about earmarks. There are other topics far, far more on the minds of Americans in general, including Catholics – jobs, debt, keeping one’s home, etc….. speak to that! … Overturning Roe v. Wade will not end abortion. It will mean that the [question of] legality returns to the 38 states that have not outlawed abortion. Democrats have appointed only one justice to the Supreme Court in the last 28+ years, and Roe v. Wade remains with us. The real place for change is men’s (and women’s) hearts and minds. Don’t put all one’s hopes on the court.”
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“I have done the math about how many people die annually from hunger and from abortion. I have also considered how many people have been killed, murdered, maimed and lives altered irreparably, and I know which issues speak loudest to me. Why is the church hierarchy in America so fixated on abortion? I can only see the Church's ‘whispering’ that the war is not right, but not making it nearly as important as abortion.”
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“[Your column] seems to imply that it is as much a matter of ‘Catholic social concerns’ that one be ‘anti-war’ as that one should be ‘pro-life.’ Do you really think there is an equivalency there?
The Church’s social teaching clearly says that there are just wars, and, while the Vatican and various bishops have indicated disagreement with the Iraq war, they have just as clearly refrained from making any authoritative judgment on the war. I don’t think that there is any real doubt that a serious Catholic can respectfully disagree with the prudential judgments Church leaders have made on the Iraq war. On the other hand, the Church has spoken quite clearly on abortion and euthanasia. Those are not only intrinsically immoral, but the Church very definitely teaches that society has a moral obligation to protect human life and therefore to prohibit these practices. Nor can one seriously claim to be ‘pro-life’, as the Church has described our obligations, simply by supporting social welfare programs that “might” reduce the number of abortions. The Church has made it clear that there is an obligation for people involved in politics to support legal prohibitions of abortion and euthanasia. …
“The inclusion of being ‘anti-war’ in the list of serious Catholic social concerns is, I think, an attempt unfairly to coerce the consciences of lay Catholics in a matter on which serious Catholics can legitimately have different prudential judgments, while the same thing cannot be said of being ‘pro-life.’”
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“During this pre-election debate, the topic you have raised about the church was certainly very fresh in the circles that I travel. I’ve been a little surprised at the road some of the bishops traveled. It made one feel that voting for Obama was tantamount to having an abortion!
“[A deacon] recently pointed out that the abortion issue will be decided not by the president, but by the judicial branch of government. The Republicans have been in power for much of the past 35 years, giving them the capacity to select justices and chief justices on the Supreme Court. At this point, however, nothing has been done to overturn Roe v. Wade.”
“My concern, as indicated in your article, looks to the time after the election. I hope the [American bishops] will find a way, as the Vatican has over the years, to draw the new administration into a relationship with their theological concerns, even if it does not appreciate some of its particular acts or policies.”
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“Your main point – that serious Catholics are politically homeless – is dead center on target. Regrettably, from that point on your aim kind of wandered away. Please permit me to try to come back to the target.
“No serious Catholic can ever find a home in any political party. The Holy Father has stated the reason many times: the secular culture is the ‘culture of death’ – and politics is inherently secular. Indeed, the ante-Nicene Fathers already realized this and counseled appropriately: Quid est imperatori cum ecclesia? (I know this aphorism is attributed to more than one of the Fathers, but since Tertullian was the earliest, let us credit it to him.) In other words, politics and the church do not mix.
“Of course, today’s ‘imperatori’ [are] no longer simply emperors – that function has been taken over by an oligarchy. The oligarchy presents the voters with the charade of two supposedly opposing parties, when in fact they are presenting a Morton’s Fork. No matter which candidate the voters select, the oligarchy will continue to run ‘business as usual’, concentrating the wealth of the world into the hands of its members. The voters will continue to be underpaid and overcharged, lose their homes and other property to sub-prime loans or similar maneuvers, etc. Oh, and no matter who is chosen, abortions will continue, legally or illegally (anyone old enough to remember before 1972?) – You cannot legislate morality.
“The serious Catholic could choose to abstain, to pray, and to evangelize. But few parishioners and bishops seem willing to accept that choice.”