The Humanae Vitae Schism
Now that the election is over, the post-game analysis and forecasts for the coming sessions will occupy the media for at least the next week or so. It’s also a good time to consider whether it makes sense for faithful Catholics to remain tied to the Democrat Party.
Catholicism is the largest single religious communion in the United States; we number between one-fifth and one-quarter of the population. Being so large a bloc, if we voted as consistently as do black Protestants, we would have a tremendous influence on public policy: we would not necessarily be able to impose what laws we wish, but we would be in a far better position to persuade the rest of the nation to go along.
However, the political amity that my colleague, Dr. Denise Hunnell, so well described in “Elections and Eternity” probably could be best described as the remnants of a temporary unity, brought on by the shared experiences of our political leaders in the Great Depression and World War II. The tension of subtly shifting values was manifesting itself even in the 1950s, and it finally erupted in the riots, protests, and violence that scarred the “Vietnam era”. Today, the “conservative Democrat” and the “liberal Republican” are mere memories, even oxymorons.
The explosion, when it came, functionally split the Church in America in half. The split was further polarized when Ven. Paul VI issued the encyclical Humanae Vitae; so certain had so many people been that the teaching on contraception would be changed that, when the pope forcefully restated it, the shocked and disillusioned abandoned the pews; weekly Mass attendance fell below 50% almost overnight. Even today, the “cultural” or “Christmas and Easter” Catholics are more likely to be liberal in their politics, while those who are highly active in their parishes are more likely to be conservative.
The Democrat Party Isn’t Dead Yet
At one time, if you were a Catholic, you were most likely a Democrat, especially if you were Irish. One old joke has a little old Irish lady, upon being informed that her congressman has “become a Raypublican”, exclaim, “Sure, he never has! Wasn’t I after seeing him in church last Sunday?”
The recent election shows that the demographic hammerlock the Democrat Party has had on Catholic votes for a century and a half is finally spent: voting was pretty much evenly split, with a majority of men voting Republican but a majority of women voting Democrat. If nothing else, the midterms demonstrated clearly that the Dems can no longer count on the Catholic bloc to pull them through for Congressional dominance.
But to say that the Dems have lost control of the Catholic bloc is not to say that the GOP has gained it. Rather, Catholics are now more of a true “swing vote” than ever, unlike black Protestants, who still vote overwhelmingly Democrat.
More to the point, as Brandon McGinley argues in First Things, the midterms were a slap in the Democrats’ face — but only a slap; while the American people may have become disenchanted with the outgoing crop of Democrat politicians, it doesn’t follow that they’ve fallen out of love with the Democrat ethos. One thing I note is that those who voted Democrat were more likely than those who voted Republican to self-identify as “moderate”. Indeed, the Democrats’ emphasis on concern for the needy, on social justice, and on workers’ rights still appeal to orthodox Catholics.
The Party of Death
The first horn of the dilemma, as I see it, is that when the Democrats shifted their base to include the various civil rights movements during the Vietnam era, they couldn’t help but take on campus radicals and the academic left — largely secular materialists who were heavily influenced by “progressive” and Marxist/socialist thought — as part of the bundle. This bloc has not only grown to become the party leadership and intellectual base but has become more and more openly hostile to the Catholic Church, only willing to suffer those whom they hope can “reform” the Church in America into a virtual party organ.
It’s common to say the party’s adoption of the pro-abortion plank in its platform during the 1972 convention allowed the “culture of death” to take over. On the contrary, that door had already been opened by the Supreme Court, when the justices transformed artificial birth control from an option into a “right” in Griswold v. Connecticut (1967) and Eisenstadt v. Baird (1971). Acceptance of abortion can find no traction where acceptance of contraception hasn’t already paved the ground.
Certainly Catholics are more likely to vote for a Democratic candidate if s/he is pro-life; after the elections, the Coalition of Pro-Life Democrats pushed an open letter to the DNC arguing that the party would continue to lose 21 million or more votes every cycle so long as the platform insists on a right to abort. However, the DNA of the party has changed since ’72, and the “right to choose” is no longer a pragmatic concession but a dogma of liberal faith.
The Party of the Wealthy
This leaves the other horn of the dilemma: The Republicans are generally “pro-life” to the extent that they are against abortion, euthanasia, and assisted suicide; and “pro-family” to the extent that they are against gay marriage. Moreover, their core constituency demands that they defend religious rights. Beyond that, there’s not much to attract an orthodox Catholic who “adheres with religious assent” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 892; cf. Lumen Gentium 25) to the full social doctrine of the Church.
If the Democrat Party embraces a theory of Homo sexualis in which reproduction is deemed irrelevant, if not abhorrent, the GOP embraces a theory of Homo oeconomicus in which, as has been pithily said, “the real world is often a special case.”
It’s true that the left has occasionally depended on exploiting envy of the rich to incite class warfare. It’s equally true, however, that the right places too much trust in the integrity — or at least the self-interest — of the rich; and invests faith in blind, impersonal market forces as a substitute for communal action on behalf of the poor, the sick and the dispossessed. You don’t have to study the economic data for very long before the “rising tide” cliché proves to be empty and misleading.
Becoming Moderate Republicans
Nevertheless, of the two options, the Republican Party offers the best prospects for faithful Catholics to make their presence felt. Catholic Republicans such as Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana and former Sen. Rick Santorum are beginning to point the way to a “blue-collar conservativism” that seeks to rebuild the middle class and stop “obsessing over zeroes on the budget spreadsheet”. Moreover, there’s a crying need for a moderate Republicanism, to rebuild a communitarian ethic that offsets the shrill, stingy individualism of the Tea Party and the naked, self-congratulatory wealth-worship of the objectivists, to reach across the aisles to work with moderate Democrats on issues of shared concern.
I submit that orthodox Catholics, applying intelligently and respectfully the social doctrine of the Church, can recreate that moderate Republicanism. I submit that orthodox Catholics can create and support an attractive vision of the future from the reunion of traditional Christian values with traditional American values — a real future, not simply an iteration of an idealized past.
Moreover, I submit that we must create that moderate Republicanism to maintain our presence in the public square. For we are no longer welcome inside the Democrat big tent; and no other party tent is congenial.