Catholic Church Aborts
American Catholics have a historical relationship with the Democratic Party, as the Church and the party were the two principal institutions that protected successive waves of immigrants from Europe. This relationship reached its zenith in the early 1960s when 83 percent of Catholic voters backed John Kennedy and nearly 80 percent backed Lyndon Johnson four years later.
This strong bond was a reflection of the Catholic Church’s and Democratic Party’s shared emphasis on social justice which was rooted in Old and New Testament invocations to “(d)efend the rights of the poor and needy.” This was evident in passages from President Kennedy’s inaugural address stressing that “if a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich” and that “here on earth God’s work must truly be our own.” Sen. Kerry’s loss of the Catholic vote, however, confirms that this shared emphasis no longer exists.
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ (USCCB) 2004 voter guide compared the major candidates on 50 separate issues in the categories of protecting human life, promoting family life, pursuing social justice and practicing global solidarity, and stressed that Catholics should “appreciate the depth and breadth of church teaching, and not let a political issue … exhaust our responsibility to the common good.” Of the 50 issues, Sen. Kerry was more in line with the USCCB’s positions by an overwhelming margin and beat Bush in every issue category, including protecting human life and promoting family life.
Despite Kerry’s substantial advantage on matters of concern to the Church, we never heard statements from the Church praising Kerry’s and the Democrats’ commitment to promoting family life or seeking the common good. Instead, we heard the “Swift Boat” cardinals and bishops who launched an unprecedented assault on Kerry and other Democrats by threatening to withhold communion based solely on their positions on abortion and gay marriage — not whether they promoted “the common good.” In contrast, no threat was made to sanction Republicans who ignored the Church’s position on the death penalty or other issues.
The “Swift Boat” cardinals and bishops are the by-product of Pope John Paul II’s efforts to create a more conservative church. While the Church still pays lip service to issues of social justice, it has shifted its political muscle almost entirely to the issues of abortion and, recently, gay marriage. Kerry’s failure to win the Catholic vote is a clear measure of the success of this effort. But what has the Church won?
The Church encouraged Catholics to embrace President Bush despite the Church’s opposition to the Iraq war and the fact that the president’s positions were contrary to the Church’s on issues such as the death penalty, fair wages, health care, the environment and many others. While the Church may believe that its faithful considered all of these issues but made abortion and gay marriage a priority, it appears that by almost exclusively emphasizing abortion over the past 26 years the Church has undercut support among Catholics for pursuing social justice and seeking the common good.
Kerry’s defeat among Catholics should be viewed as the result of both the Church’s emphasis on these two narrow issues and its failure to emphasize the importance of “defend(ing) the rights of the poor and needy” and other aspects of Church teaching. As a result, Democrats’ hopes of regaining the Catholic vote rests on reminding voters of the underlying moral principles for its agenda since this is a role the Church has largely abandoned in its myopia.
Two generations after Catholic voters almost unanimously supported the Great Society over Goldwater conservatism, the Church was now leading Catholics to embrace Goldwater’s heirs. Kerry’s loss of the Catholic vote may be a political win for the Church as an institution, but it is a clear defeat for the greater mission entrusted to them.