The Power of Political Communion
AS the 2012 presidential race enters the homestretch, both parties vow that this election is not just a choice between different policies. It is a cosmic decision between “two different visions, two different value sets,” as Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. told delegates at the Democratic National Convention. Behind the competing catchphrases lurks another contest, one that illuminates this war of worldviews. It is a tale of two Catholicisms.
In Charlotte, N.C., the Democrats challenged the altar-boy-cum-vice-presidential-nominee Paul D. Ryan’s bid for the office of Catholic in chief. They invited Sister Simone Campbell, a social activist and one of the “nuns on the bus” who toured the country protesting Mr. Ryan’s budget, to assure voters that Republican fiscal proposals violate Catholic teachings as well as “our nation’s values.” The crowd roared — who doesn’t love a feisty nun? Yet her appearance seemed largely symbolic. Mr. Biden, the most prominent Catholic on the convention roster, made no mention of his faith. While Republicans have celebrated Mr. Ryan’s religion ever since Mitt Romney chose his “faithful Catholic” running mate last month, the Democrats weren’t sure that they wanted God in the campaign at all, let alone the Church of Rome.
Allowing Republicans to claim the mantle of Catholicism might cost the Democrats the election. As commentators have noted, Catholics may be the nation’s most numerous swing voters. Over the past few decades, Democratic leaders have alienated voters in one of the party’s historically strong constituencies. Through a series of ideological moves and cultural misjudgments, they have also cut themselves off from a rich tradition of liberal Catholic thought at a time when American culture requires politicians to articulate a mission that inspires religious and secular voters alike.
The Catholicism of Sister Campbell and Mr. Biden is a natural fit for Democrats. It is the faith of social justice activists like Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton, the church whose pope pleaded for relief of the “misery and wretchedness pressing so unjustly on the majority of the working class” in an 1891 encyclical.
As the Democrats scramble for a message to counter the Republican trope of godly individualism while somehow dodging those dreaded slurs — “atheist” and “socialist” — a powerful resource is staring them in the face. It reconciles freedom of conscience with multicultural modern life and declares the individual inseparable from his community through two big ideas: an approach to politics that Mario M. Cuomo once called the “American-Catholic tradition of political realism,” and a moral standard called the “consistent life ethic.”
The Democratic Party has marginalized progressive Catholic intellectuals for the same reason that Rome has: because they habitually challenge sacred doctrines. In the days of John F. Kennedy, American Catholics voted Democrat by default. But things got rocky as Richard M. Nixon capitalized on the resentments of many “white ethnic” (often Catholic) voters in the wake of the civil rights movement. At the same time, Democrats began to take a harder line on abortion. By the late 1980s, they had transformed Roe v. Wade into a non-negotiable symbol of gender equality and lost interest in dialogue with abortion opponents.
Plenty of Catholic politicians still make their home in the Democratic Party, but most have learned not to rock the Roe boat or speak too loudly in the name of their religion: Mr. Biden has said that he is opposed to abortion but supports the Supreme Court decision as the product of consensus.
Mr. Biden is not a “cafeteria Catholic” who chooses his beliefs according to convenience. He stands in the tradition of the Rev. John Courtney Murray, the Jesuit theologian who asserted that the foundation of modern pluralist society is not perfect agreement but continuing “public argument” based on shared values. The laws that frame this evolving conversation cannot always align with religious teachings. “It is not the function of civil law to prescribe everything that is morally right and to forbid everything that is morally wrong,” he wrote in a 1965 memo advising the church to support the decriminalization of artificial contraception. [More]