Church of two halves
American Catholics and politicsMichael Sean Winters
- 13 November 2010
The old and new speakers of the American House of Representatives are both Catholic, but there the resemblance ends. What happened to these two politicians in the midterm elections shows the gulf that divides liberal and conservative Catholics, and by extension the US Church itself
As a result of last week’s midterm elections, when the new Congress convenes next January, Democrat Nancy Pelosi, who is Catholic, will hand the gavel and title of Speaker of the House of Representatives to Republican John Boehner, who is also Catholic.
Both Pelosi and Boehner have been shaped profoundly by Catholic Social Teaching but in starkly different ways. Both of their careers provide evidence of the triumph of political orthodoxy over religious orthodoxy, and it is perhaps most remarkable that the exchange of power results from an election in which religion played a very minor role.
Nancy Pelosi’s father was mayor of Baltimore, a large, ethnic, Catholic city in Maryland. She attended Catholic schools and graduated from Trinity College in Washington DC: a small, Catholic, liberal-arts college for women. In 1969, she moved to San Francisco with her husband, a wealthy real-estate investor and businessman, and there she began a political career.
The San Francisco Bay Area in the late 1960s was a bastion of political liberalism and a far cry from the tribal Catholic politics of her youth. Pelosi worked as a party functionary and fund-raiser and, in 1987, was elected to Congress. She advanced through the leadership ranks and, in 2007, became the first female Speaker of the House. As Pelosi ascended the ranks, she became a vocal spokesperson for liberal concerns. She frequently cites her faith as the source of her commitment to social justice. During the debate over health care, she invoked the twenty-fifth chapter of the Gospel of Matthew as her motivation for making health care a universal right. She attends Mass daily.
But, in the 1970s, one part of the liberal political canon put her at odds with Catholic teaching: the Democrats embraced a woman’s right to choose abortion, and Pelosi has been a consistent pro-choice advocate ever since. Her attempts to explain her position have sometimes been tortured. She has referred to the medieval controversy over when the soul enters the body of an unborn child to justify legal abortion, although the debate then was about whether abortion should be considered murder or manslaughter. More to the point, theological liberals believe firmly in the development of doctrine and it is difficult to see how the Church’s growing concern for the sanctity of life is anything but coherent with liberalism’s insistence that people are never means but ends.
John Boehner grew up in modest circumstances in Cincinnati, Ohio. One of 12 children, he began working at his family’s bar when he was eight years old. He also attended Catholic schools before graduating from Xavier University. He worked for a small packaging company before entering politics.
In 1984, Boehner was elected to the Ohio state legislature, the same year Ronald Reagan won 49 of 50 states in his re-election bid. Boehner was elected to Congress in 1990. By then, many ethnic Catholics had fled the inner city, and Boehner’s district consists of the more affluent, conservative Republican suburbs and rural towns north of Cincinnati.
Boehner’s constituents included many so-called “Reagan Democrats”, mostly blue-collar Catholics who felt the Democratic Party had abandoned them. They were opposed to abortion, feminism, gay rights and the anti-war movement that dominated liberal Democratic politics in the 1970s. They also accused the Democrats of favouring ever-higher tax rates to support a welfare state that they felt disproportionately favoured blacks and other minorities. Boehner became a vehicle for their concerns after Reagan left office, reliably opposing tax increases, supporting pro-life causes and favouring pro-business policies.
Pelosi and Boehner are, then, perfect exemplars of the two dominant ways of being a politically active Catholic in America today. Conservative Catholics tend to ignore the Church’s teachings regarding the poor, the rights of workers, torture and social justice, but do follow the Church’s teachings on abortion and traditional marriage. Liberal Catholics drink deeply from the wellspring of Catholic Social Teaching, support the poor and disenfranchised, but exhibit little concern about the rights of the unborn. The blogosphere, independent political action committees and non-profit advocacy groups break down along similar lines. It turns out that President John F. Kennedy may have been the last, as well as the first, Catholic politician to command the nearly unanimous support of his co-religionists.
What neither Pelosi nor Boehner will even acknowledge is that both political parties fall short of the vision of Catholic public action presented by Pope Benedict XVI in his encyclical Caritas in Veritate. There, the Pope demonstrated how Catholic concern for the dignity of the human person was the ground of both the Church’s commitment to life issues and its teachings on social justice. Catholic ethics, be they sexual or social, are rooted in Catholic anthropology and cannot be divided without doing violence to the entire approach Catholics take to the realm of politics. Applied to American Catholic political leaders, Caritas in Veritate issues a plague on both parties.
In the recently concluded midterm elections, however, Catholic anthropology did not figure prominently. More than anything, the election was a vote of no confidence in current economic conditions and Washington’s inability to do anything about it. The Republicans ran on promises of smaller government, not on opposition to abortion or gay marriage. Democrats, with few exceptions, did not invoke their concern for women’s reproductive rights.
In fact, one of the groups to be most punished by the electorate last week was that of those few pro-life Democrats who were also committed to social justice. Almost by definition, a pro-life Democrat is likely to come from a more conservative district, and this year those districts all swung back to their conservative, Republican base. Catholics today may be as divided politically as the rest of the American electorate, but while some religious groups identify almost exclusively with one party or the other, many Catholics are “swing voters”, with no long-term political loyalty.
In the last midterm election in 2006, Democrats got 55 per cent of the Catholic vote. Last week, 44 per cent of Catholics voted for Republicans. Democrats also suffered losses among other religious groups, but the differences do not straddle the magic 50 per cent needed to win an election.
So Catholics may be a decisive part of the electorate, but there is no conceivable way that the Church’s integral teachings will cease to be divided by America’s polarised electorate. Indeed, the dominant fact that emerges from the midterm elections is that both parties were driven to their ideological extremes.
In a widely circulated election analysis, Catholic University of America professor Steve Schneck wrote that “moderate pro-life and pro-Catholic Social Teaching candidates were defeated by currents in contemporary American political life that are pushing both the GOP [the “Grand Old Party” as the Republicans are sometimes known] and the Democrats toward their respective right and left wings. Not only do both of those wings stand in tension with the Church’s traditional teachings, but their polarisation undercuts the possibility for any real advance on the issues that are priorities for the Church.”
Schneck suggested that when the United States bishops hold their annual plenary later this month, they should consider what they can do to heal the polarisation and divisiveness that has afflicted the body politic, a polarisation that is sadly as evident among Catholics.
Nowhere will that polarisation be more apparent than on the issue that is probably of greatest concern to the Catholic bishops in the next two years: immigration reform. The Tea Party activists that energised the Republican Party have adopted a fiercely anti-immigrant posture. One of their most prominent candidates ran a racist television commercial that showed swarthy Latino men climbing over a fence while ominous music played in the background and a voice-over warned about “illegal aliens” threatening America. The Tea Party lost as many races as it won, but it proved itself capable of winning GOP primaries, defeating several long-serving moderates in favour of Tea Party candidates.
So, any moderate Republican who might be willing to work with President Obama and the Democrats to achieve immigration reform would risk being challenged in two years from the Right. Incoming Speaker Boehner is unlikely to even permit a vote on the issue.
In Caritas in Veritate, the Pope called for moral, even anthropological, consistency. Last week, the American people voted for change. But, so long as Pelosi and Boehner are running the congressional show, neither the Pontiff nor the people are likely to get their wish. Forecasters predict increased polarisation and gridlock in Washington because the political orthodoxies of both parties have made compromise impossible and the common good a distant, unattainable goal.