Jan 10, 2012

No good Catholics

There's been a lot of talk about Mormons in American politics, in the last year, and it seems there's always talk about evangelicals.

Catholics, not so much.

One would have been forgiven for thinking the question or questions of Catholics in American politics had been settled. Dealt with. Evangelicals' anti-Catholic bias ended with the coalition formed in opposition to abortion. Concerns that a Catholic politician would be a papal puppet were famously put to rest with John F. Kennedy's speech on the issue in 1960. Neither Democrats nor Republicans have problems supporting Catholics, and no one in recent memory has opposed a Catholic candidate on the grounds the candidate is Catholic.

No one seems to have a problem with Catholics in American politics.

Except other Catholics.

There is an on-going, low level, rumbling against Catholic candidates. A rumbling -- specifically -- against their Catholicism. Arguments and biases against these candidates on the grounds of their religion alone. But it's coming from other Catholics.

It's the argument that Catholic candidates should not be supported because they're not Catholic enough.

That they're not, in the parlance, good Catholics.

There have been questions about the Catholicism of Newt Gingrich, specifically about how he became Catholic, and how he's used his new-found faith, politically. There've been questions, too, from Catholic critics, about how his own life reflects on the Catholic ideals he's promoting politically.

The question being, as the Washington Post put it: What kind of Catholic is Newt? Which is another way of asking if he's really a good Catholic.

One can find such arguments being made more explicitly against Rick Santorum, i.e., that he's not a good Catholic, and there are specifically Catholic reasons not to vote for the Pennsylvania Catholic. Here it's more than just "questions." It's "The Catholic case against Rick Santorum."

That case, when you get into it, is that the Catholic Church has taken quite a few official positions on political issues that are significantly to the left of American conservatives. On torture, treatment of illegal aliens, income equality and poverty, workers' rights, the environment, etc., etc., Catholic Church hierarchy have taken official stances in stark contrast to Santorum's own positions.

Obviously this raises the question of what counts as an "official Catholic position," and how official it has to be before it's the only position allowed for orthodox Catholic in good standing with the church. Some seem to be under the impression that where the Church's statements about abortion and homosexuality are dogma, maybe even infallible, statements about economics or the death penalty are something more like opinions, about which Catholics of good conscience can disagree.

This is, of course, exactly reversed with Catholics on the other side of the American political divide. With the "bad" Catholics, the "cafeteria" Catholics of the left.

Kathleen Sebelius is the bête noire or some Catholic circles, and two American archbishops have said they would deny her communion because she opposed criminalizing abortion. Other prominent Catholics of the left -- Nancy Pelosi, John Kerry, etc. -- have faced similar condemnations, and warnings about being barred from the Eucharist.

Sebelius, that is to say, has been opposed specifically because she's Catholic,the but only by other Catholics, because she's not the right kind of Catholic.

Every major Catholic figure in American politics right now seems to be divisive, but only to Catholics. Andrew Cuomo, for example, who fought for same-sex marriage in New York state, had a canon lawyer make the case he should be disciplined by the Church, but at the same time, he had the support of New York's Catholics, 62 percent to 22 percent. That seems pretty representative.

I take this to mean there's deep disagreement among American Catholics about what being Catholic means. Even when and where there's broad agreement, the agreement seems to be riven with disagreement: agreement on the Catholic commitment to life, for example, is division, on another level, about whether or not that means state-provided health care for poor children, or the state execution of convicted murderers.

There's disagreement, too, on the role the Catholic faith should play in political engagements. One could imagine Catholic politicians of the left or the right harking back to JFK's speech, when faced with this not-Catholic-enough critique, except JFK has been dragged into this now too, as Archbishop Charles Chaput, now of Philadelphia, has argued that Kennedy was wrong. And argued, more, that that speech was destructive, and hurt Catholics and hurt America.

Chaput said Kennedy "profoundly undermined the place not just of Catholics, but of all religious believers, in America’s public life and political conversation. Today, half a century later, we’re paying for the damage."

This would mean Kennedy -- once hailed as a Catholic hero -- wasn't a good Catholic either.

Or maybe we just have to say there's no agreement among American Catholics about what a good Catholic looks like, what a good Catholic does, what a good Catholic is committed to.

It might even be that there isn't such a thing, anymore, in America today. It's not clear to me that one can be a "good" Catholic in American politics now.

On the one hand, Catholicism, more than most religious organizations, has a hierarchy and a procedure that can explicitly spell-out what orthodoxy is. It can, in principle, declare things dogma. On the other hand, there's this deep, deep split, this on-going internal fight over the claim to being a good Catholic, and over what official positions are really official, and who speaks for the Church, and if who speaks for the Church always speaks for the Church, or only sometimes, and when is when. The Vatican has a portfolio of positions it has taken on public policies, but it's apparently impossible for any major American Catholic political figure to embrace all of them. So there's picking and choosing, cafeteria style.

It also doesn't seem possible, though -- though one would think it would be -- for there be a broad Catholic agreement that Catholics can disagree in good conscience, working out for themselves the best they can what their faith calls them to do in public life. Wherever one stands in politics as a Catholic, there's an argument against other Catholics on the grounds of their not being good Catholics, not really adhering to the teachings of the Church, and those same arguments are turned against you too.

Santorum and Sebelius. Gingrich and Cuomo. Marco Rubio and Joe Biden. There are good people who are Catholics, Catholics who are good politicians, but, it seems, no good Catholics.

The national conversation has been about Mormons and American politics, evangelicals and their vote, even atheists and Muslims and their relation to the American res publica. In this election, however, there's also a struggle going on about the role of Catholics. That debate, though, seems to be happening mostly just among Catholics themselves.